Israel Should Work With Poland Despite Holocaust Controversy
Jews with any connection to the Holocaust tend to harbor prejudice against Poles. Despite their 1,000-year sojourn in Poland, Jews were often discriminated against. In the Middle Ages, they were prohibited from engaging in agriculture or industry and were restricted to basing their livelihoods on money lending or working as merchants, tax collectors, or innkeepers. They were often perceived as alien extortionists and subjected to pogroms instigated by the ruling classes to divert attention from the prevailing poverty and abysmal social conditions.
In the 19th century, the majority of Jews lived in abject poverty, but some Jews emerged as leaders of trade and industry. Nevertheless, prejudice against Jews remained intense and by the 20th century, antisemitism was rampant throughout Europe.
The Polish people were considered racially inferior by the Nazis, whose occupation was brutal and who murdered millions of Poles. Unlike the French Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis, the London-based Polish government in exile encouraged resistance. And unlike local non-Jews in the Baltic countries, Poles did not serve as guards in the concentration camps.
The extermination of the three million Jews concentrated in Poland was the prime Nazi objective. Jews were herded into ghettoes and then dispatched to death camps to be gassed. Auschwitz, the largest industrial complex for mass murder, was deliberately located in Poland so that Germans would not be directly exposed to the horrors perpetrated.
Even while suffering from the brutal Nazi oppression, many Poles continued to harbor prejudice against Jews. Tens of thousands collaborated by acting as informants and others were rewarded by being permitted to take possession of homes and goods left by deported Jews.
But there were also heroic Poles who risked a mandatory death sentence for their help in hiding and saving Jews. We must also pay tribute to Poles such as Karol Wojtyła (who would become Pope John Paul II), who protected many individual Jews; and Jan Karski, who tried, without success, to convince Western leaders to act and prevent the mass murders.
Unfortunately, those righteous gentiles who sought to save Jews and were executed rarely made headlines, but the media excelled in highlighting the collaborators. A particular case was the exposure of murderous behavior of many Poles in Jedwabme, who instigated a pogrom against Jews in 1941, burning over 300 alive in a barn. Unfortunately, most of the Polish authorities remained in denial over this mass atrocity until Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski bravely called this action not a pogrom, but a genocide.
Antisemitism prevailed in Poland, as evidenced by the 1946 Kielce pogrom, in which 42 Holocaust survivors returning to their homes were massacred. But when the communists took over Poland in 1945, they suppressed exposure of the genocide. In 1968, the Polish government conducted an antisemitic purge, and 30,000 Jews, the bulk of whom were Holocaust survivors, were expelled from the country.
After the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, the newly independent Polish government sought to create a fresh Polish image based upon nationalism and democracy. It sought to cleanse the record and set aside the ugly past episodes in its history. In this context, the Polish government passed a law last year that effectively criminalized anyone “besmirching” the Polish people by associating them with the Nazi genocidal industry applied against the Jews.
This led to confrontational exchanges with Israel; in June 2018, a compromise law was finally passed by the Polish government, which many Jews and Poles still resented. It effectively emphasized the fact that the Holocaust was a Nazi objective in which some Poles collaborated and others endangered their lives by trying to save Jews. The highlight was that Polish people as such were not collaborators.
This law was regrettable, but had to be viewed in the perspective of a right-wing nationalist government that condemned antisemitism and sought to create a new image by expunging or at least downplaying the role of Poles who collaborated. The government even invested in an impressive museum in the heart of Warsaw focusing on the Jewish contribution to Poland. In addition, together with Hungary and Slovakia, Poland has emerged as one of the most influential European supporters of Israel, and has acted as a restraint against anti-Israel forces within the EU.
But sensitivities and emotions remained fragile, and when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in response to a question in Poland, was misquoted as saying “the Poles” engaged in anti-Jewish activity during the Nazi era, even though in the same response he stated that many Poles saved Jews, there was an uproar. This was laid to rest when he clarified that he had referred to Poles but not “the Poles” or “the Polish people” or Poland. Nevertheless, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was distressed.
The following day, Israel’s newly appointed acting foreign minister, Yisrael Katz, on his first day in office, blundered into the debate, stating that “one cannot sugarcoat this history,” reiterating that “Poles collaborated with the Nazis, definitely” and quoting former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who allegedly said that Poles “suckled antisemitism with their mother’s milk.”
The diplomatic upheaval caused by Katz led to the Polish prime minister accusing him of engaging in racist defamation of the Polish people and promptly canceling Poland’s participation in the Visegrád group summit of Central European countries in Jerusalem. The summit would have presented a united front against Iran.
There is surely a lesson to be learned from this self-inflicted fiasco. Other states and countries can act as important allies to Israel though their antecedents also included Nazi collaborators. The Polish case stands out because of the extent of the genocide — three million Jews were murdered in one country. But every single country under Nazi occupation included citizens who collaborated with the Nazis or benefited materially from the deportation of their Jewish neighbors. The clear majority simply stood by. A smaller number heroically saved Jews, often at the expense of their own lives.
Unfortunately, we can assume that most European societies would not behave differently were they facing similar circumstances today.
We must neither forget nor forgive those who betrayed us. But politicians should never generalize. The details should be left for our historians to compile and for our children to learn and understand.
We are living in a dynamic environment and remain the only state that faces an existential threat from its neighbors. We benefit from building new alliances.
Populist and nationalist parties are emerging as powerful political forces. They are likely to profoundly influence domestic and foreign policies in virtually every European country.
The main source of support for these populists derives from those who consider the flood of Muslim migrants to be detrimental to the quality of their lives, due to a massive increase in crime and social chaos that threatens their entire social order. In addition, there is the increased threat of both imported and domestic terrorists, from which no European city is immune.
Many of the voters for these nationalist parties support Israel as a bastion of the free world.
Until recently, some of these parties and states included fascists and Holocaust revisionists. Any Jewish cooperation with such groups would have been an unthinkable desecration of the memory of Holocaust victims. However, over the past decade, most of them began purging their ranks of antisemites and publicly undertook to eradicate all anti-Jewish elements and thus today the situation is dramatically changed.
There are those who say that by accepting the support of and allying with countries like Poland and Hungary, Israel is providing a fig leaf to fascists. This is nonsense. The reason for this relationship is that these governments support Israel and have pledged to combat antisemitism and purge Jew-baiters from their midst. There is less anti-Jewish violence in Poland and Hungary than there is in France. Besides, other than these Central and Eastern European states, Israel has no allies in the EU, which is now notorious for its shameless bias and double standards against the Jewish state.
Needless to say, their support of Israel does not preclude some fascists voting for them. Likewise, the fact that racists and fascists may support Donald Trump does not mean that his administration is fascist. Nor have far-left antisemites or communists taken control of the US Democratic Party by voting for it.
We do not boycott left-wing governments that appease Muslim extremists, most of whom lead the antisemitic packs. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other countries have not disavowed and purged their ranks of antisemites, but nobody suggests that we cannot cooperate with them on mutual objectives and confront common enemies. Limited cooperation on specific common interests does not mean that Israel necessarily endorses the other policies of its allies.
Many cynically describe this as realpolitik. In truth, it is acting in our self-interest.
As long as leaders of the new generation publicly repudiate the crimes of their antecedents and practice what they preach, Israel would be making a major long-term blunder to spurn their support and continue accusing them collectively of being antisemitic. But that is what our foolish foreign minister did regarding Poland, with whom a strategic alliance would be of considerable benefit. Besides, if we continue to attack those seeking friendship and offering support, we shoot ourselves in the foot by deterring them from trying to make amends for the crimes and prejudices of their predecessors.
Isi Leibler is an Israeli writer and columnist. His website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.