JERUSALEM (JTA) — Poland canceled a scheduled visit by Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett after he said he would use the opportunity to tell the Polish people the “truth” about their country and the Holocaust.
Hours after Bennett announced the visit on Monday for later in the week, Poland canceled it, citing Bennett’s remarks.
“The government of Poland canceled my visit, because I mentioned the crimes of its people. I am honored,” Bennett said in a statement, which also was published on his Facebook page along with a photo of a past visit to Auschwitz.
The incident comes amid a standoff between Poland and Israel over legislation passed in both houses of the Polish Parliament that would criminalize rhetoric blaming Poland for Nazi crimes, including calling death camps set up on Polish soil by the Nazis “Polish death camps.” Poland’s president must still sign the legislation into law.
In the announcement of the visit, Bennett said that while in Poland, he was “determined to say explicitly what history has already proved — the Polish nation had a proven involvement in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. I am going to speak truth, where the truth took place. The message is loud and clear: The past cannot be rewritten and the future we’ll write together.”
Bennett had been scheduled to speak to Polish students and meet with the deputy prime minister, Jarosław Gowin, who is the and minister of science and higher education, Ynet reported. He was also to meet with Holocaust survivors and Righteous Among the Nations living in Poland. The visit was not coordinated with the Foreign Ministry, Haaretz reported.
Historians of the era, Jewish groups, the U.S. State Department and the Israeli government are all critical of the rhetoric law, which they said could inhibit academic freedom and distort the historical record of World War II.
In his statement about the cancellation, Bennett said: “Now the next generation has an important lesson to learn on the Holocaust of our people, and I will make sure that they learn it. This decision of the Polish government will have a large role in handing down the lessons of the Holocaust, even if they intended on achieving a something else.
“True, the extermination camps in Poland were built and operated by the Germans, and we must not allow them to avoid this responsibility. But many Poles all over their country informed, handed over or participated themselves in the murder of some 200,000 Jews during the Holocaust and even afterward,” the statement also said, adding: “Only a few thousand ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ risked their lives to save them. That’s the truth. I agreed to a dialogue based on the truth. The Polish government chose to avoid the truth. No legislation will change the past.”