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January 20, 2020 8:55 am

Is Israel Snubbing Poland to Placate Putin?

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

Opinion

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 4, 2019. Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO.

Forty-five heads of state are expected to gather at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem this week for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It is a solemn and historic commemoration, and the eyes of the world will be upon the Jewish state as it pays homage to the martyred six million.

Amazingly, President Andrzej Duda of Poland will not be attending. This is despite the fact that, considering Auschwitz is located on his soil, he would be one of the most relevant world leaders in the room.

“How is it possible that the ones who speak are the presidents of Germany, Russia, and France — whose government back then sent people, Jews, to concentration camps — whereas the President of Poland is not allowed to speak?” President Duda asked at a belated Hanukkah event last week in Warsaw.

Although his government opposed the Nazis all throughout the war and never once collaborated, Duda wasn’t offered the podium.

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His sense of bewilderment is justified.

Consider some of the other heads of state invited to speak. The French president represents a country that collaborated with the Nazis and sent some 80,000 Jews to their deaths. When I visited Vichy last summer to write about the wartime French capital for my upcoming book, Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell, I was dumbstruck by the near total absence of historical monuments to the atrocities that the Vichy regime participated in against the Jews.

The Russian leader represents a country responsible for outrages during and after the war. And nothing needs to be said about Germany.

Poland, by contrast, at all times resisted the Nazis and Warsaw was flattened utterly by Hitler.  While there can be no doubt that a not insignificant number of Poles were complicit in the Holocaust, the death camps were created and operated by the German Nazis while occupying Poland.

Is there anyone that seriously believes that the President of Poland should be punished, embarrassed, and marginalized during a commemoration of the Holocaust and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz? Let’s remember that Poland could have chosen to erase the evidence and destroy Auschwitz. They could have paved it over to put up a parking lot and a shopping mall, especially during Communist rule when the government would not have cared about the international reaction. Instead, the Polish government has done a remarkable job of preserving the sites of the German extermination camps of the Jews, and Polish schoolchildren are taken to visit the camp and the museum to educate them.

US Vice President Mike Pence and Prince Charles of England are appropriate speakers. And I understand that Putin should speak as well, given that it was the Russians who actually liberated Auschwitz and 20 million Russians died fighting Hitler. Still, Putin has become wildly unpopular in Israel ever since his regime took a young Israeli woman prisoner in a brazen act of political hostage-taking (Putin was allegedly trying to prevent Israel’s extradition of a Russian Hacker to the United States when he slapped seven years on an offense for which others received only a fine).

Considering the history, it’s difficult to even imagine how the President of Poland could not be brought to the stage to commemorate the liberation of a camp his government has preserved. The Polish people, moreover, suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis, whom they actively resisted with their Home Army and government-in-exile.

That’s not to say that many Poles weren’t complicit in the Holocaust. Centuries of poisonous rhetoric from the Catholic Church led tens of thousands of Poles to abet the Nazi slaughter of their nation’s three million Jews, with Holocaust researchers having collected significant evidence of large swaths of Polish villagers who murdered Jews fleeing the Nazis or exploited their situation for financial gain. The Poles’ very own Underground State’s wartime Special Courts investigated 17,000 Poles who collaborated with the Germans, sentencing about 3,500 to death.

At the same time, the Holocaust was orchestrated by the Germans along with their multi-national collaborators — not by Poles; and camps like Auschwitz, while located within Poland, can only be accurately referred to as “German.” More importantly, the Poles never established a collaborative government with the Nazis in the way that France, Hungary, Norway, and even Belgium did. The Soviets, who actually liberated Auschwitz, willingly cooperated with Hitler far more than Poland did, the invasion of Poland being the best example.

So what could have caused the snub?

Some trace it back to a dispute that erupted between Poland and Israel in early 2018, when the Polish parliament passed legislation criminalizing allegations of Polish collaboration with the Nazis, a move many Jews saw as a whitewashing of even undisputed Polish crimes. I personally flew to Warsaw with another Jewish leader at the height of the controversy to meet with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, whom we adjured to repeal the law and to whom I remain grateful for his warm and dignified engagement, even as there remained areas of disagreement.

Months of diplomacy and dialogue would bring Poland to defang the holocaust law, and the dispute seemed ripe to subside by mid-2018. Poland would go on to host a global summit in Warsaw to advance the Trump administration’s policies on countering Iran in early 2019, which I attended, and made plans for a summit of Israel’s key Eastern European powers allies in Jerusalem, known as the Visegrad group. It would be harsh comments by Israel’s acting foreign minister Israel Katz that exposed the rift again in early 2019, which led Poland to cancel the Visegrad summit it had planned.

Since then, ties between the two natural allies do not seem to have improved, and Duda’s cancellation due to the unfortunate snub will not help matters.

What makes this whole episode especially unfortunate is the fact that Holocaust commemoration has a pragmatic element, in the form of genocide prevention.

Today, the Jews face another genocidal threat in the form of Iran, which is unapologetic about its plans to annihilate Israel. England, France, Germany, and Russia have been Iran’s greatest international advocates, and together served as the diplomatic bulwark of the JCPOA agreement that enriched and legitimized its leadership in Tehran. At every turn, these countries have tossed the Ayatollah diplomatic lifelines and obstructed President Trump’s sanctions regime.

Poland, in stark contrast, stood by Israel’s side by hosting a summit to advance President Trump’s Iran policies.

Just one week before the conference, Iranian generals threatened to flatten Tel Aviv and Haifa — each of which contain more Jews than pre-war Warsaw. This time around, the world — gathered in the very city where the wholesale slaughter of Jews had already occurred — seemed poised to stop them.

President Trump’s elimination of terror mastermind Qassem Suleimani, along with popular unrest and the reimposition of key sanctions have brought the popularity of the Iranian regime to a record low. As this occurs, the UK, France, and Germany continue to support normalization with Iran and a return to a deal which threatens millions of Jewish lives. Europe’s promised “snap-back” mechanisms seem to have collected rust.

As we commemorate a genocide actually carried out, Israel should not make the mistake of honoring Iran’s defenders while snubbing its opponents.

Some, like former Israeli ambassador to Poland Shevach Weiss, have reportedly expressed that Duda was not permitted to speak over objections from a Putin ally who helped organized the event. There seems to be some merit to this claim. Recently, Putin has launched public tirades trashing Poland’s wartime reputation, with his government accusing the Polish resistance army of “destroying Jews.” Needless to say, his outbursts have elicited a fierce public response from Poland’s leaders, considering that the Nazi-Soviet partition of their country initiated World War II and decades of oppressive Communist rule.

Given a choice between having Putin or Duda speak — and the possibility of a fallout with a minor superpower — Israel seems to have chosen Putin over his Polish counterpart.

If this is true, it is terribly ironic. On the theme of Genocide Prevention, Putin has not only supported Iran’s nuclear ambitions and distorted Holocaust memory, he’s actually abetted a genocide on Israel’s northern doorstep in Syria.

I understand the need for realpolitik as well as the fact that Israel can little afford a public rift with Moscow. But given a choice between an amoral dictator who assisted in the slaughter of 500,000 Syrians and an allied democracy helping rein in the genocidal mullahs of Iran, Israel can still tell Putin that he and Duda will indeed share the same stage.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 33 books, including the upcoming Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.

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