(JTA) — Israeli leaders rarely criticize a law passed by an ally government as outright “antisemitic.”
But that’s what Foreign Minister Yair Lapid did on Aug. 14 in response to a newly passed law in Poland that indirectly makes it impossible for Jews and others to sue for property stolen from their families in World War II.
“Poland today approved — not for the first time — an immoral, antisemitic law,” he said in a statement.
Poland, which faces continual criticism throughout the European Union for its restrictive abortion and media policies, has drawn rebuke from around the world over the law. But Lapid, who also took the opportunity in his statement to call Poland “an anti-democratic, non-liberal country that does not honor the greatest tragedy in human history,” went a step further with his rhetoric.
Experts in Israel-Poland relations have taken notice.
Monitoring Lapid’s reaction to the law “felt like watching a child smash an intricate structure that took years to construct,” said Ami Mehl, an Israeli diplomat who helped establish ties with Poland as it broke away from the communist bloc in the 1980s. “I can’t understand it, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It’s not the first time Lapid has used such charged rhetoric in bringing up the Holocaust to critique an ally country’s past on the international stage. The foreign minister, who is slotted to take over as prime minister in 2023, is deeply influenced by his family’s Holocaust past. His father survived the genocide in Hungary, where pro-Nazi puppet governments helped exterminate Jews, and he has made it a personal cause to attempt righting the wrongs of the Holocaust.
“The Holocaust defined my father, and through him, it defined who I am,” Lapid said at a 2014 commemoration ceremony in Israel.
A year earlier, during an official visit to Hungary for an event on fighting antisemitism when he was finance minister, he said this in a speech to the parliament: “Guests are not supposed to embarrass their hosts, but we’d be defeating the purpose of this whole event if we ignore the fact that the Holocaust could not have happened without the active help of tens of thousands of Hungarians and the silence of millions more.”
He added: “There is a stain on the honor of this house which we’ve spent years trying to ignore, but history has taught us that ignoring it is never the right policy.”
The Israel-Poland partnership is a strategic one that has been built painstakingly over decades. In addition to its long Holocaust shadow, Poland was among the first Eastern bloc countries to break free of Russia’s embrace and needed to tread carefully in befriending Israel. It once was a rock-solid friendship: Poland was one of Israel’s staunchest advocates in the oft-critical European Union.
In the wake of Israel’s fury over the new law, Poland recalled its ambassador to Israel. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said it has been decided to “safely bring back home the children of Poland’s ambassador to Israel” amid concerns about “growing hatred towards Poland and Polish citizens in Israel.” And the Polish deputy foreign minister appeared to threaten the future of the annual school trips taken by tens of thousands of Israeli students to former death camps in Poland, saying they are not being done in “the right way.”
A similar diplomatic crisis erupted in 2018 following the passage of a law that outlaws rhetoric blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes. Israel’s prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, sharply condemned the law, but he brokered a diplomatic compromise: A joint statement by both countries acknowledged collaboration by some Poles during the Holocaust and the rescue of Jews by others.
The document came under fire in both countries and split Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, but it “at least allowed things to move forward in a cordial manner,” Mehl said.
Lapid, then leader of the opposition, made a series of assertions that were squarely rejected by prominent Holocaust scholars from across the globe. Among his claims: “There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that”; Poland “was a partner in the Holocaust”; and “Hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German.” The Auschwitz Museum compared his wording to Holocaust denial.
(The Nazis killed 3 million non-Jewish Poles in addition to 3 million Polish Jews — about half of all Jewish Holocaust victims were Polish.)
This time Lapid — the former journalist who assembled the variegated coalition of parties that unseated Netanyahu in June — is in power, and his rhetoric is so harsh that it could be “undoing decades of partnership,” Mehl said.
Other Israeli diplomats agree and have been vocal in accusing Lapid of overreacting. Unnamed diplomatic sources told the Israel Hayom newspaper that “Lapid is needlessly damaging relations with the EU.”
But his verbiage is also garnering support from some who have long urged the Israeli government to take a firmer line on the politicization of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. They include the prominent Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff and Moshe Feiglin, a former conservative Israeli lawmaker and frequent critic of Lapid. Feiglin praised Lapid’s “principled, instinctive stance” on Poland.
For years, right-wing Polish lawmakers have stoked a wave of nationalism that has put debates over Holocaust memory front and center in the political realm. The subject featured prominently in the 2020 presidential elections: The campaign of incumbent Andrzej Duda of the ruling Law and Justice party accused a liberal rival, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, of seeking “to satisfy Jewish claims.” Duda would go on to win a second term.
Zvi Mazel, an Israeli former senior diplomat, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he can “understand Lapid’s desire to fight for the memory and rights of victims of the Holocaust in Poland and in East Europe, where there was unspeakable antisemitism and where there are attempts to cover up that reality.”
But, Mazel added, “there is a lot at stake. Poland was a key ally of Israel in the European Union, and Hungary, where many of the same trends occur, still is. Israel needs those friends to break up the critical approach of the Western states and prevent it from becoming consensus and policy.”
Jewish community leaders in Poland, who have tended to be critical of the Law and Justice party’s policies involving World War II history, have not exactly backed Lapid publicly.
Edward Odoner, vice president of TSKZ, a major Jewish communal group, told Israel’s Channel 12 that the fight seems strange and contrived to him because the law on property claims affects mostly Polish non-Jews who lost property during communism.
“For me it is a mystery,” he told Channel 12. “Why there is so much noise around this?”
Last week, the Board of the Jewish Religious Community in Warsaw published a statement in which it refrained from laying blame on either Israel or Poland, merely stating they expect from both governments “that they will soon return to dialogue, resolve contentious issues and stabilize” relations.
Piotr Kadlcik, a former president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, told JTA that “Lapid used words that he should not have used. But it is a duty of Jewish state to defend Jews against injustice.”
Queried for a reaction to the criticism of Lapid, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to JTA that his stance “is principled, and was the result of consideration and consultation.”
The decline in relations with Poland “began when Poland began in 2018 to pass laws whose purpose is to harm the memory of the Holocaust and the Jewish People,” the ministry said. “The State of Israel will not tolerate disrespect for the memory of the victims. The foreign ministry and minister acted to prevent further deterioration. Unfortunately, the authorities in Poland chose not to listen.”