No one has a right to rewrite Jewish history, to whitewash the crimes of the Polish people before, during and after the Holocaust. Not even the prime minister of Israel. Especially not the prime minister of Israel.
But that’s exactly what Binyamin Netanyahu did last week when he signed a scandalous joint declaration with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Netanyahu, who signed the declaration in an attempt to patch up differences with the Polish government over its passage of a law making it a crime to assert that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust, tried to portray the joint statement as a victory for truth. “The goal of the contacts with the Polish government was to abrogate the criminal clauses in the Polish law that cast a pall of fear over research and free discourse regarding the Holocaust,” Netanyahu said. “This goal has been achieved.”
Nothing of the sort has been achieved. As Yad Vashem historians noted last Thursday, in a rare statement directly challenging the government of Israel, those who accuse Poland of complicity are still liable for civil prosecution. “The statute remains unchanged… including the possibility of real harm to researchers, unimpeded research, and the historical memory of the Holocaust,” the statement read.
And even had it removed a threat from researchers, nothing justifies signing a document that endorses the lie that Poles were victims of the Nazis who tried to assist the Jews.
In an insult to the intelligence, and in blatant disregard for the facts, the declaration that Netanyahu signed on to in the name of Israel condemned “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during… World War II” while noting “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people.”
This outrageous statement commits two egregious sins. It asserts that while there may have been Poles who were cruel to the Jews, these were counterbalanced by the “numerous Poles” who acted heroically to save them. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Decades of historical research reveal a totally different picture,” Yad Vashem said. “Poles’ assistance to Jews during the Holocaust was relatively rare, and attacks against and even the murder of Jews were widespread phenomena.”
The declaration also minimizes the courage of the few Poles who did risk their lives to help Jews, making it seem as if it were commonplace, something “numerous” Poles did.
Netanyahu, the son of a noted historian who himself is thoroughly versed in Jewish history, signed off on the Polish “narrative” that those who betrayed and murdered and stole from Jews were the minority.
Moreover, he endorsed a declaration that equates anti-Semitism with “anti-Polonism and other negative national stereotypes,” obscenely lumping together victims and perpetrators, and another that claimed that the Polish Government-in-Exile “strove indefatigably — in occupied Poland and elsewhere — to thwart the extermination of Polish Jewry.”
To the contrary, the record shows that the Polish government-in-exile, based in London, and its representatives in Nazi-occupied Poland “did not act resolutely on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens at any point during the war,” Yad Vashem said in a statement. “Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help Jews, but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them.”
While Netanyahu has been a Teflon prime minister when it comes to criminal investigations and political criticism of one sort or another, his signature on such an offensive declaration has brought unprecedented criticism, not just from the media and the political opposition, but even from members of his coalition.
“The declaration is void of any historical value, and nothing that it represents will be taught in our school system,” said Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the Jewish Home party. “… It is a disgrace, full of lies and untruths, and a violation of the memories of the many Jews who were murdered by Poles.”
A chastened Netanyahu told the Cabinet on Sunday that he had “listened closely” to what distinguished historians had to say. “It [his respect for their comments] will be expressed,” he said, without elaborating.
But that doesn’t go far enough. Netanyahu gave a clean bill of health to Poland, a country that was chosen by the Nazis to house all of their death camps, in the knowledge that the locals wouldn’t object.
He endorsed the false narrative of a country that played a significant role in the murder of 3.25 million of its Jews. As Yad Vashem’s scholars said, “Poles’ … attacks against and even the murder of Jews were widespread phenomena.”
And he unforgivably forgave a country that murdered survivors who returned after the war to try and claim some of their possessions, that committed pogroms, like the Kielce Pogrom of 1946, that continued to make its Jews feel unwelcome for many decades after the Holocaust.
It is no surprise that the Poles rushed to take out advertisements in prominent newspapers around the world, including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, featuring the declaration signed by Netanyahu, proof that Poland had been forgiven.
But Netanyahu is not authorized to forgive or forget. And he must make that clear to the world and to the Poles, by retracting his signature from a document that betrays the memory of the Six Million Kedoshim, Hy”d.