It’s never wise to get into an argument about the Holocaust with Yad Vashem.
That’s the moral of the story of Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to resolve a quarrel with Poland’s government over its Holocaust law.
Netanyahu erred badly by agreeing to a joint declaration with the Poles that misrepresented both the Polish government-in-exile and Polish people during the war, earning a justified rebuke from Israel’s Holocaust Museum.
But as much he was wrong, those who treat this as a reason to continue an age-old conflict are missing the point. We should never agree to falsify history, but Netanyahu was right to try to put the issue to rest and forge a new and productive relationship with a nation that now wants to be friends with Israel and the Jewish people.
Netanyahu may have thought he had ended the problem when he announced an agreement with Poland on June 27 after Warsaw amended the law that made it a crime to claim Poles aided Nazi efforts to murder the Jews. The statement contained much good in that it acknowledged the magnitude of the Holocaust, condemned all forms of anti-Semitism and pledged that nothing in Polish law would interfere with Holocaust research or free speech about the subject.
Poland stirred up a storm of protest by passing a law last year that pleased nationalists infuriated by references to “Polish death camps.” They’re right that the camps were the work of Germany and not Poland, but the law, and a general revisionist campaign, didn’t stop there. Warsaw seems to want to cover up a long history of Polish anti-Semitism, including that of the pre-war independent republic. But its leaders also wish to deny the truth that many Poles either collaborated with Nazis or engaged in anti-Jewish violence on their own, both during and after the war.
Netanyahu correctly values good relations with the nations of Eastern Europe, most of whom seem more interested in close ties with Israel than do their Western European counterparts, who are focused on attacking the Jewish state for its measures of self-defense. He was right to see Poland’s Holocaust law as an issue that needed to be resolved in order to facilitate closer ties, including persuading Warsaw to move its embassy to Jerusalem.
But though he involved Yad Vashem historian Dina Porat in negotiations with the Poles, she wasn’t shown the final document. That was a mistake. The published statement claims the Polish government-in-exile in London tried to raise awareness of the murder of the Jews, and that the official resistance force to the Germans “created a mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people.”
Both claims are false. While Polish exiles were responsible for the mission of Jan Karski, the heroic non-Jewish officer who personally brought word of the Holocaust to the Allies, including President Franklin Roosevelt, such efforts were limited. And far from systematically helping the Jews, the Home Army was openly hostile.
Although, as the statement says, many Poles could be counted among as “righteous among the nations,” such heroes were quite rare. That’s especially the case when compared to the large numbers of Poles who collaborated or acted against the Jews on their own.
It was shocking for Israel to sign on to such a statement, putting the Jewish state’s seal of approval on a document that doesn’t tell the truth about the Holocaust. This opens up the government to difficult questions. Surely, Netanyahu — a man who is steeped in Jewish history — knew these sections were false. Did he not read them carefully, or was he just too interested in papering over differences?
But those crying foul over this exchange need to acknowledge something that’s just as important as the historical record.
As much as we must honor the truth, Poles deserve to have their suffering at the hands of the Nazis honored. Poland’s independence and safety were sacrificed in the18th and 19th centuries, and then again during the Second World War. They were not the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The Poles were not all marked for death by the Nazis as the Jews were, but nearly 2 million died in the war, and hundreds of thousands were put in the camps. Poles also fought bravely to resist the Germans.
None of this excuses the crimes of individuals or the indifference of officials, but 70 years later, it’s clear that the Polish people are trying to distance themselves from anti-Semitism.
At a moment when Poland is threatened by a resurgent Russia and Israel by its Islamist foes, surely the two should emphasize what they have in common. Those who wish to turn this issue into a cause célèbre are not doing Jews or Poles any favor. As much as the historical record must be defended, it would be wrong to condemn Netanyahu too harshly for trying to find a path towards friendship with Poland.
Yes, Poles need to be persuaded to back away from myths that make them feel better about their past. In the meantime, Jewish groups, including Yad Vashem, would do well to lower the temperature and work towards finding common ground with a people who want to turn the page on a sordid past.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.