A joint statement by the governments of Poland and Israel that appeared in newspapers around the world Thursday was intended to draw a line under the controversy over Poland’s Holocaust law. Instead, the statement has reignited the bitter dispute over the Eastern European country’s role in the genocide.
The joint declaration by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki — which the Polish government paid for to be published in full-page newspaper ads across the globe — has sparked outrage from Israeli politicians and historians, who said the statement contained historical inaccuracies and overstated the efforts made by Polish groups to save Jews during World War II.
Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based World Holocaust Remembrance Center, said the joint statement contained “grave errors and deceptions.”
In particular, it rejected the assertion that the wartime Polish government-in-exile and its representatives in occupied Poland tried to stop the murder of Polish Jews and “created a mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people.”
It said that the Polish government-in-exile “did not act resolutely on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens at any point during the war.”
“Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help the Jews but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them.”
Senior members of Netanyahu’s own government were also incensed.
“The historical reality is that Poles assisting Jews was a relatively rare phenomenon, while Poles hurting Jews was widespread,” said Education Minister Naftali Bennett. He called the joint statement “a disgrace rife with lies” and said its account of history would not be taught in Israeli schools.
Asked to respond to the criticism, Poland’s government stood by the joint statement.
“For us, the position expressed by the prime minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu is binding,” Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki said.
"Not an issue for politicians"
The flare-up is the latest turn in the long-running diplomatic feud between the countries, sparked in March when Poland’s nationalist government approved a law that made it a criminal offense — punishable by up to three years in jail — for anyone who alleged the Polish nation or state was complicit in Nazi Germany’s crimes.
Last week, the spat seemed to have been partially defused when Poland’s government watered down the legislation, making it a civil rather than criminal offense and removing the threat of jail time. But the circulation of the joint statement, issued in the wake of that move, has reignited the disagreement.
Yossi Mekelberg, senior consulting research fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank, said Netanyahu’s controversial endorsement of the statement was a reflection of his “shallowness when it comes to history.”
“Whenever there’s a complex issue, he simplifies it to a level where it avoids any meaning,” he said.
He said Netanyahu used the Holocaust as a political tool — accusing Iran, his main enemy, last month of wanting a second Holocaust, while exonerating Poles, in a bid to preserve relations with their government.
“He’s a politician, and when politicians get into this, they do what politicians try to do: try to score cheap points,” he said. “It should never have been an issue for politicians.”
Poland’s population — ethnic Poles and Jews alike — suffered immensely under Nazi occupation. About 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population of 3.2 million were killed during the genocide, accounting for about half of all the Jews killed in the Holocaust. Millions of non-Jewish Poles were also killed.
While most Jews living in Poland were murdered by the Nazis, historians say many were also killed with the complicity of the Poles, who denounced Jews or directly participated in violence against them. Thousands of Poles also risked their lives to protect Jewish neighbors.
Mekelberg, whose ancestors were Polish Jews, said his father had been saved by a Polish farmer, while many other relatives were killed.
“There were Polish people who saved Jews, including my father, but there were also a lot of Poles that collaborated,” he said. “There’s no point in blaming modern Poland, but there’s no sweeping facts under the carpet when it comes to history.”
Cover image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to meet British Prime Minister Theresa May on Downing Street ahead of a meeting at Number 10 on June 6, 2018 in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)