The new Polish Holocaust law should never have become a fight between Jerusalem and Warsaw.
The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, announced on Tuesday in the Polish capital that he will sign the legislation, which could imprison people who discuss the Holocaust in ways that the Polish government doesn’t like. It’s an alarming law — and that’s exactly why it’s too important a battle for Israel to be at the front and center. (So front and center, in fact, that Poland canceled a scheduled visit by Education Minister Naftali Bennett after he said he would speak out against the new law.)
The dozens of articles written on the law that will punish people who suggest that Poland bore responsibility for the Holocaust report it as a row between two countries, Poland and Israel. But it’s a conflict over world history, and preserving the integrity of world history should be an issue for the broad international community.
I’m accustomed, reporting from an often-melodramatic Israel, to politicians yelling about a something that happens and scholars telling me it isn’t a big deal. But this Polish law is serious. When I talked to one of Israel’s top Holocaust scholars, Yehuda Bauer, he said that the law is actually more worrying than much of the political talk recognizes.
Bauer told me that the law isn’t just aimed against the use of terms like “Polish death camp,” which he said no serious academic would use. “What is happening in Poland is an authoritarian regime trying to rewrite the past to fit its nationalist agenda,” he said. In his view it is “quite clear that journalists and tour guides and teachers in schools could be accused of attacking the honor of the Polish nation.” All they would need to do, he said, suggesting that the law’s vague wording will allow strict interpretation, would be to suggest that Poles attacked Jews in such-and-such a place.
Indeed, in its wording the law empowers courts to imprison anyone who “grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes.” Simply put, anyone who blames Poles for acts against Jews when a court feels that only Nazis should be blamed, could be given a custodial sentence.
It’s a conflict over world history, and preserving the integrity of world history should be an issue for the broad international community.
In light of this, I wanted to see news pieces that led with European outrage, not Israeli outrage. The European Union has the time and energy to criticize many an alleged misdeed by Israel, but where is its loud and clear voice on this: one of its members jeopardizing exploration of European history? The U.N.’s cultural agency, UNESCO, has so much to say about how history should and shouldn’t be remembered here in Israel; where is its leading voice on this?
The same goes for many countries and international organizations that should have been making themselves heard. They were preparing to observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day when the law became a big story.
The whole point of this day — a parallel commemoration to Israel’s Yom HaShoah — is that preserving the Holocaust’s place in history is not an exclusively Jewish challenge, but a challenge for all who care about humanity. It’s an anathema that as this day was being observed, a law was being enacted to place limitations on how this history can be discussed. Internationally, especially in Europe, people should be reacting not only out of loyalty to Jews, but also because if the Polish government’s way of relating to the past spreads, it is bad news for all who cherish historical truth wherever they live.
The international players have been at fault. They haven’t raised their voices against the Polish law in enough cases, and when they have, it hasn’t been loud or resolute enough. But there have been some important responses, including from the U.S. State Department.
Spokeswoman Heather Nauert voiced concern that the legislation “could undermine free speech and academic discourse,” and said: “We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust. We believe open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering inaccurate and hurtful speech.” Commenting before the Polish senate approved the legislation, she suggested passage of the law could harm Poland’s alliances with Israel and the U.S. and urged Warsaw to reconsider.
Sometimes, for Israel, less is more.
But this was drowned out amid a din of often-uninformed Israeli outrage. If Washington is telling Poland that passing the law may impact “our ability to be effective partners,” this is surely a bigger headache for Warsaw than Israeli anger. Yet the stronger and more dramatic Israeli quotes won the day on journalists’ desktops, and the U.S. reaction hardly featured.
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Sometimes, for Israel, less is more. Jerusalem should have held back and had others take the lead on this issue. Washington should have had more prominence, and Israeli diplomats should have been busy persuading other countries to forcefully raise their opposition. Headlines should have been telling readers about a cacophony of Western opposition to the new Polish law — how politicians in many locations in many languages were decrying an assault on world history.
What happened instead was that the issue was framed as an Israeli concern, making many around the world — especially those whose eyes glaze at mention of Israel or who have a cool attitude towards the Jewish state — see it as a narrow issue that doesn’t matter beyond Israel.
International players shouldn’t have been so quiet, but Israel and Israeli politicians should have also done things differently. While they must not be the sole voice on Shoah history, they have a responsibility to see that Shoah history is protected, and get a low grade on this occasion.
Poland’s law did not just drop down from the sky late last month, fully formed. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told Israeli journalists this week that Jerusalem has known about the legislation for two years. Even if he was exaggerating, it’s clear that Israel had time to prepare a smart diplomatic strategy that galvanized allies, and it failed to do so.
And once it was on the agenda in Israel, there should have been coordinated messaging from the main government and opposition parties, who are united in opposition to the law, instead of the political circus that ensued. Politicians competed on whom could use the strongest language to condemn Poland, sometimes putting facts aside to come up with the most emotive quote.
Thanks to international silence and Israeli failure to change this, Poles can wrongly dismiss opposition to the law as an Israeli meshugas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have applied nuance and shown that he understands the frustration of Poles over the use of terms like “Polish death camps,” but asserted that this doesn’t justify limiting freedoms. Instead, he created a diplomatic crisis and said that the “Holocaust cannot be denied.”
Yair Lapid, a man who hopes to replace Netanyahu as prime minister, went even further. “There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that,” he claimed. He invoked the fact his father was a survivor to pull heart strings and support his claim — even though virtually all serious Holocaust scholars dismiss it.
It may have been a smart PR move on a domestic level, where Lapid is seen as standing up for Holocaust victims in the face of a nation that so many Israelis revile. But it was possibly the most unwise thing he could have said if he cares about the cause. Let’s think for a moment how Jewish people relate to Israel’s critics. We will give them a hearing if they stay sensible, but when they touch raw nerves by throwing discredited claims at us, people often shut down to the critic’s wider argument and dismiss it as the perspective of haters.
Reactions like Lapid’s have harmed chances of serious discussions against the law in Poland. They have left Poles more convinced that there is a real fight to be fought against the words “Polish death camp” when in reality they are rarely used, and convinced that the law is therefore justified. And they have left Poles more convinced that opposition to the law is based on false claims like Lapid’s rather than genuine and legitimate concerns.
Thanks to international silence and Israeli failure to change this, Poles can wrongly dismiss opposition to the law as an Israeli meshugas. And thanks to the words of Lapid, they can wrongly dismiss objections as being based on fake news.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month. Follow him on Facebook via @nathanonisrael.