U.S. Urges Poland to Drop Holocaust Bill Angering Israel

WARSAW, Poland (AP) -
Police patrolling a street near the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, after a local governor, citing security concerns, banned traffic in the area in order to prevent a planned protest by far-right groups. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The United States asked Poland to rethink plans to enact proposed legislation regulating Holocaust speech that has sparked a diplomatic dispute with Israel, arguing Wednesday that if it passes it could hurt freedom of speech as well as strategic relationships.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Neather Nauert voiced her government’s concerns as the Polish Senate was preparing to approve the bill, a step that would put it closer to becoming law. The measure would next need to be signed into law by the president, who supports it.

Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party authored the bill, which calls for up to three years in prison for any intentional attempt to falsely attribute the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or people.

Law and Justice says it is fighting against the use of phrases like “Polish death camps” to refer to death camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.

Israel, however, sees the move as an attempt to whitewash the role some Poles played in the killing of Jews during World War II.

Nauert said the U.S. understands that phrases like “Polish death camps” are “inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful” but voiced concern the legislation could “undermine free speech and academic discourse.”

“We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships — including with the United States and Israel. The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals,” Nauert said.

“We encourage Poland to reevaluate the legislation in light of its potential impact on the principle of free speech and on our ability to be effective partners.”

Nauert’s statement came only days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Warsaw, where he paid respects to Jewish and Polish victims of the war on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Earlier Wednesday, a U.S. congressional task force on combatting anti-Semitism said it was “alarmed” by the legislation and called on Polish President Andrzej Duda to veto it.

“We are deeply concerned that this legislation could have a chilling effect on dialogue, scholarship, and accountability in Poland about the Holocaust, should this legislation become law,” the bipartisan group said.

The Poland-Israel dispute, which erupted over the weekend, has elicited bitter recriminations on both sides. Some Israelis have accused the mostly Catholic Poles of being driven by anti-Semitism and of trying to deny the Holocaust. Poles believe they are being defamed by being linked to German crimes of which they were one of the largest group of victims.

The lower house of the Polish parliament approved the bill Friday, a day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, timing also criticized as insensitive.

Members of Poland’s Jewish community weighed in Wednesday, saying in an open letter that they strongly oppose usage of the phrase “Polish death camps,” but also oppose the law.

“As eyewitnesses as well as descendants of the Jewish men and women murdered in the Holocaust, we object to this mendacious expression,” they wrote. “What we cannot, however, agree to are provisions which impose prison sentences for the use of an expression.”