Bilateral efforts to manage the row over Poland’s Holocaust bill seemed to go awry on Wednesday, as the Polish senate said it would go ahead later in the day with a vote regardless of Israeli objections, while a Knesset majority backed a legislative proposal to brand the Polish law a form of Holocaust denial.
The senate in effect brushed aside a promise made by Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that voting would be delayed until Israel and Poland fully discussed the matter.
However, the country’s president, Andrzej Duda, indicated on Monday that the two countries were not on the same page. He told public broadcaster TVP that he was “flabbergasted” by Israel’s “violent and very unfavorable reaction” to the bill.
“We absolutely can’t back down, we have the right to defend the historical truth,” he said, referring to Warsaw’s argument that the Nazi occupiers built death camps on Polish soil but that Poland had no part in the genocide.
Passage of the controversial bill was expected to come on Wednesday. The law would make use of the phrase “Polish death camps” or saying the Polish people were in any way culpable for the Nazis’ crimes against humanity, an offense punishable by up to three years in prison.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, 61 members of Knesset sponsored an amendment to the Law for Defense Against Holocaust Denial that would make denying or minimizing the involvement of the Nazi’s collaborators a crime.
The bill has bipartisan support. Itzik Shmuly (Zionist Camp), Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), Nurit Koren (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home) signed on to it.
The amendment would also provide legal aid to any Holocaust survivor or educator taking students to death camps who face foreign lawsuits because they recounted what happened in the Holocaust. This, because of a concern that if the Polish law were passed, could lead to legal action of that kind.
Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich told Hamodia that he feels “political posturing” on both the Polish and Israeli side had obscured the issue.
“It’s very dangerous when history becomes political, so much more so with something as sensitive as the Holocaust,” he said, adding that within Poland as well support and opposition for the measure is largely divided between supporters and opponents of the ruling Law and Justice Party, which has backed the bill.
“Israelis and some of the Jewish world at large are painting this as an attempt to completely whitewash any Polish collaboration with the Nazis. Some Poles might want to hush anything bad that they did during the war, but the President and others have spoken openly about it, so It may not be the motivation for some of them,” said Rabbi Schudrich.
Far from supportive of the legislation, however, Rabbi Schudrich said that he had expressed his concerns over the proposal to members of the government over a year and half ago when the idea was first being discussed.
“We can all agree that the phrase ‘Polish death camp’ is historically wrong, but the vague language the bill has about discussing collaboration could be very dangerous for honest study of the Holocaust, I told them then that no vague law is a good law,” he said.
Regretfully confident that the bill as is would be signed into law in the near future, Rabbi Schudrich said he felt the real effects would ultimately be determined by how its language is interpreted by Polish courts. He was supportive of a recent suggestion made by Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, that a commission be formed by Poland to produce an official historical record on Poland’s role in the Holocaust as a means of establishing a common reference on the matter.
“Who’s going to decide what libel against Poland is and what are just uncomfortable facts?,” said Rabbi Schudrich. “If there’s a reputable record to go to, at least there will be a reference point.”
Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Dr. Efraim Zuroff said that “Holocaust distortion” has been a problem for over 25 years, and until now Israel has done little to combat it.
Eastern European countries, Zuroff said, “have invested in trying to convince the world the Holocaust was only the work of Germany and maybe a few degenerates.”
The issue of Holocaust distortion exists “in practically every country in post-communist Eastern Europe,” he stated. “Their new heroes are people who fought communists, some of whom killed Jews in the Shoa. They name streets and schools after them.”
However, Zuroff was not in favor of a legislative response. Rather, he said, Israel should use its influence in post-Soviet countries, many of which have defense ties with Israel, to convince the governments that “their behavior is unacceptable.”
“They love Israel, but hate the Jews,” Zuroff said.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry also said on Wednesday it was increasingly concerned about a surge of anti-Semitism in the Polish media since the Holocaust bill was approved by the lower house of parliament last week.
“The Foreign Ministry is monitoring with concern the rising anti-Semitic feelings expressed through the Polish media, and we are considering making an appeal via our embassy in Warsaw,” the ministry said.
Among the incidents which elicited the Israeli comment was the suggestion by the head of a state-run channel that Auschwitz be termed a “Jewish death camp,” instead of “Polish death camp,” which would be outlawed by the bill.
Polish state radio commentator Piotr Nisztor opined that Poles who take the Israeli position should consider relinquishing their citizenship. “If somebody acts as a spokesman for Israeli interests, maybe they should think about giving up their Polish citizenship and accepting Israeli citizenship,” Nisztor said in a comment carried on the radio’s official Twitter account.
Updated Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at 5:51 pm Rabbi Schudrich