A crisis is brewing between Warsaw and Tel Aviv over a new Polish law criminalizing mention of the role some Poles played in the German genocide of Jews during World War II.
The law passed in the lower house and is expected to pass in the senate and be signed by the president before it takes effect.
From Israel’s perspective, the problem is how to appear sufficiently upset in order to maintain the self-declared Jewish state’s self-appointed role as the guardian of the memory of the millions murdered.
It’s an awkward balancing act since in the 21st century, anti-Semites and even some Holocaust deniers are among Israel’s closest and most fervent allies.
Over the last year, Israel has kept a low profile whenever its anti-Semitic friends have shown their true colors.
A year ago, when the Trump White’s House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day message omitted any mention of Jews, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained silent even as American Jewish organizations and – implicitly – the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum voiced sharp criticism.
Months into the new administration, the Anne Frank Center warned of “alarming parallels” between history and the present day United States.
Just days later, on 11 and 12 August, torch-bearing Nazis marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” before one of their number allegedly carried out a vehicular attack killing anti-racism activist Heather Heyer.
Trump received blistering criticism for his lacklustre response that seemed to give a wink to the far-right extremists. But on that occasion too, Israeli leaders maintained a conspicuous silence.
Netanyahu also tightened his embrace of Viktor Orban, the far-right pro-Israel prime minister of Hungary who lionizes Hitler ally Miklos Horthy, the man who sent hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to their deaths.
And lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud Party have given a warm embrace to neo-Nazis who surged in elections in Germany and Austria – because those far-right extremists now offer solid support to Israel.
Nazi genocide in Poland
Now comes the situation with Poland – another country whose far-right nationalist government is closely allied with Israel.
The official Polish view enshrined in the new law is that Poland and its people – Jewish and non-Jewish – should be viewed entirely and only as victims of the Nazi occupation regime.
And there is no doubt that they were victims. In a statement criticizing the Polish law, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum recalls that from 1939-45, “approximately three million Jews – 90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population – had been murdered in mass shootings and at stationary killing centers in occupied Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau being the most well known.”
It also notes that “many Poles risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors.”
At the same time as the extermination of the country’s Jewish population was going on, the museum explains, some “two million non-Jewish Polish civilians – including tens of thousands of Catholic priests, intellectuals, teachers and political leaders – were killed by the Germans and millions more were imprisoned and subjected to forced labor. Over 1.5 million Poles were deported as forced laborers.”
Yet a full accounting of history, according to the museum, requires discussion and research into the fact that as “German forces implemented the mass murder of Jews, they drew upon some Polish agencies, such as Polish police forces and railroad personnel, in the guarding of ghettos and the deportation of Jews to the killing centers.”
Moreover, individual Poles “often helped in the identification, denunciation and hunting down of Jews in hiding, often profiting from associated blackmail, and actively participated in the plunder of Jewish property.” And notoriously, the museum recalls, in July 1941, Polish residents of the town of Jedwabne “participated in the murder of hundreds of their Jewish neighbors.”
The Polish law’s attempt to criminalize even discussion of these facts is simply too embarrassing for Israel to remain silent. So Israel’s ambassador went to meet with a top Polish official to express her government’s displeasure.
According to The Times of Israel, the ambassador “reiterated Israel’s concern that the legislation violates freedom of speech and would limit the discourse surrounding the Holocaust in Poland and its victims.”
It takes considerable chutzpah for Israel to give lectures on “freedom of speech” when it has been busy cracking down on human rights defenders who criticize its crimes against Palestinians.
And, Israel – like Poland – also builds its modern national myth on the denial of history.
As Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who sits in Israel’s parliament, writes for +972 Magazine, Israel has for several years had legislation restricting commemoration of the Nakba, the well-planned ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 and afterwards by Zionist militias and the Israeli state.
“Isn’t the Nakba Law also an attempt to rewrite history? To hide and deny certain parts of it?” Zoabi asks. “It is true that the Nakba Law does not – yet – criminalize individuals. But in its essence, it is a law that seeks to silence, just as the Polish law does, and allows the effective denial of the Palestinian catastrophe.”
“As a Palestinian, I feel a kinship with the victims of the Holocaust,” Zoabi says, “I am angry at all those who continue to murder and remain silent, those who force others to remain silent.”
Another person expressing anger – albeit from a different direction – is Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, who was reportedly “flabbergasted” by Israel’s “violent and very unfavorable reaction” to the new law that he supports.
Duda’s surprise is perhaps understandable, since Israel and its lobby groups cannot claim they didn’t know about the Polish leadership’s Holocaust revisionist tendencies even as they cozied up to them.
In a leaked briefing paper obtained by The Electronic Intifada in December, the European Leadership Network, a pro-Israel lobby group, reported that assurances were recently given by Polish officials that Israel “can count” on Poland during Warsaw’s two-year term on the UN Security Council that began on 1 January.
“Israel looks to Poland as one of the friendliest countries in the European Union,” the briefing paper states.
The lobby group went so far as to allege that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is “in denial” over how Polish citizens were involved in murders of Jews during the Holocaust, something it is prepared to overlook because of the party’s pro-Israel stance.
But Israeli leaders don’t have to rely on their Brussels lobbyists to tell them this. In recent months, Israeli officials themselves spoke at a conference hosted by an anti-Semitic and Islamophobic Polish group aimed at whitewashing Poles’ role in the murder of Jews.
In the Israeli publication Ynet, commentator Sever Plocker expressed his consternation and outrage at the “participation of a minister and a Knesset member from Israel in a conference aimed at distorting the memory of the Holocaust and legitimizing Poland’s racist-nationalist (and anti-Semitic, despite all its denials) right.”
Old alliance renewed
The alliance of Zionism with anti-Semites, first with anti-Semitic Protestant Christian Zionists and later with the Nazis, was foundational to the movement – despite Israel’s claim that it represents the very antithesis of anti-Semitism.
That old alliance has found new life as Israel’s most extreme supporters embrace white supremacists and anti-Semites tied to the Trump administration and regressive nationalists in Europe.
It is an alliance reinvigorated by a shared hatred of Muslims, who have superficially replaced Jews as an acceptable target for the kind of scapegoating and vilification that was supposed, in the wake of the Holocaust, to have ended in Europe.
Understanding this is essential to understanding why Israel today is at the vanguard of the global far-right, the model for authoritarian states and the guiding light and alibi for ethno-nationalists and racists.
That is why in the struggle against all forms of racism and bigotry, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, Jews and Palestinians committed to equality and human rights stand together on one side, while Israel, Zionists and their bigoted cheerleaders are on the other side.