A joint declaration signed last week by the governments of Poland and Israel approving Poland’s amended “Holocaust law,” reignited a firestorm in Israel over a controversial law that criminalizes any mention of Polish complicity with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Aimed at resolving a months-long diplomatic standoff between the two countries, the declaration drew stinging criticism from across the Israeli political spectrum, including from members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Bayit Yehudi party called the joint statement “rife with lies, an affront to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.”
He demanded that Netanyahu either withdraw his statement or bring it to the cabinet for its approval. “It is devoid of historic or factual accuracy, and it will not be taught in the educational system,” Bennet said.
Yad Vashem Slams Agreement
Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center, in a rare rebuke to the government, said the joint declaration issued by Warsaw and Jerusalem contains “grave mistakes and deceptions. It includes highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field.”
The Holocaust Museum in Washington and the Israeli Historical Society supported Yad Vashem’s position in calling out historical distortions in the joint declaration.
Leading Holocaust scholar Prof. Yehuda Bauer said that by signing the declaration, Israel had betrayed Polish historians who had been persecuted by the Polish government who courageously “tell the truth.”
He was referring to scholars such as Professors Jan Tomasz Gross (Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Town of Jedwabne) and Jan Grabowski (Jew-Hunting in Poland) who researched the role of Poles’ involvement in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
Bauer said that even after the threat of criminal sanctions was deleted from the Holocaust law, Poland would still use civil law to persecute Polish scholars who defy mainstream attitudes in their efforts to document the facts.
“They will penalize them financially, impoverish them. And we are legitimizing this. [Their government] will say: ‘The Israelis agreed to this, how can you complain?’”
Responding to the backlash, Netanyahu offered conciliatory remarks, saying he would “listen to what historians have to say on the subject, and give voice to their concerns. I have heard various comments made after the declaration was signed…and will respect [these views].”
Efforts at damage control may be too late as far as the amended law is concerned. A senior member of the Polish government team that negotiated the agreement with Israeli officials announced that the position espoused by Netanyahu (who read out the full declaration in a televised appearance) is “final and binding.”
Hailed in Poland, Denounced in Israel
The declaration, which denounced “anti-Polonism” alongside anti-Semitism, was seen as a diplomatic coup for Poland.
For decades, Polish society avoided discussing Polish persecution of Jews under the Nazi occupation. Blaming all atrocities on the Germans, Poland cast itself as a nation of victims, denying that anti-Semitism and/or greed drove thousands of Polish civilians to murder and betray their Jewish neighbors.
Raised on this narrative, many Poles are outraged when confronted with the growing body of scholarship about Polish involvement in the killing of Jews. Poland’s far-right Law and Order [PiS] government came to power largely on a nationalistic platform that vowed to restore Polish honor in the international arena.
The so-called “Holocaust law,” passed in February, making it a crime, punishable by a 3-year jail sentence, to cast blame on the Polish nation for complicity in the Holocaust, was a part of this political agenda.
Hailed by a majority of Poles, the “Holocaust law” drew outrage in Israel and among Polish survivors and their descendants. The United States and leading historians worldwide joined Israel in denouncing the law as a falsification of history and an insidious form of Holocaust denial.
Ninety per cent of Polish Jewry – over three and a half million people—were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. The killing centers and industrialized slaughterhouses of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor, where millions of Jews were incinerated, were all built on Polish soil.
Survivor testimony as well as evidence from Polish archives overwhelmingly document savage Polish persecution, murder and betrayals of the Jews in their midst.
The Holocaust law, making it illegal to write or speak about Polish collusion with the Nazis, was aimed at burying this body of evidence, cementing a culture of denial in Poland and outside the country’s borders as well.
Passed in February, the law sparked a bitter rift between Jerusalem and Warsaw, until negotiating teams from both countries, under prodding from the Trump administration, worked out a compromise last week that would amend the law.
The prime ministers of both countries then signed a joint declaration spelling out the terms of agreement, and Netanyahu announced in Israel the dispute with Poland was over.
Netanyahu’s Hollow Victory
“The purpose of the outreach to the Polish government was to have the criminal clauses in the Polish law which posed a threat to research and free dialogue about the Holocaust, revoked,” the prime minister said in a statement. “That goal was achieved. I thank the team of advisers…who successfully had the criminal aspects the Polish law removed.”
But Netanyahu had spoken too soon. Full-page ads featuring the joint declaration appeared in the Israeli, American, Polish and German press, paid for by Poland. Far from winning praise in Israel, the declaration sparked blistering rebuke. Critics accused him of capitulating to a false Polish narrative in a pyrrhic victory that exacted huge losses.
In an interview, Yehuda Bauer called the declaration a document of “betrayal.” Speaking of Polish officials, he said, “They deceived us, they made fools of us, and the State of Israel prioritized diplomatic and trade relations with Poland over ‘trifles’ like the Holocaust.”
“This was the clear amoral victory of transient interests over truth that will remain with us as an eternal disgrace,” Bauer said.
‘Replete With Falsification’
Critics took issue with the joint statement for appearing to give equal prominence to Poles who helped Jews and those who persecuted and murdered them.
“The governments of Poland and Israel “are honored to remember heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people,” the joint statement said.
There were not “numerous” rescuers, Prof. Bauer said. “In terms of a population of 21 million Poles, rescuers were a tiny minority, exceedingly less than one percent.”
The joint statement maintains that “the Polish government-in-exile opposed the Nazis’ atrocities against the Jews and tried to alert the Allies to their systematic murder. The government-in-exile, it added, “created a mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people.”
Yad Vashem dismissed those claims, calling the joint statement “replete with falsification.” “Existing documentation and decades of historical research yield a totally different picture,” it asserted in a statement.
The Polish government-in-exile and its representatives in occupied Poland “did not act resolutely on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens at any point during the war,” the institution made clear. “Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help the Jews, but often actively persecuted them.”
Yad Vashem also objected to the ambiguous wording in the statement that ‘Certain people, whatever their origin, religion, or their worldview revealed their darkest side.’
“Who are the people being referred to here? They were not without an identity,” the institution protested. “They were Catholic and ethnic Poles, who collaborated with the German occupiers in the persecution of the Jews of Poland.”
Holocaust Law Essentially Unchanged
Yad Vashem noted that even after the Polish law was amended, its “essence” remained unchanged. Although the threat of incarceration for those implicating Poland in Holocaust crimes has been removed, it is still illegal to express such ideas openly in Poland. Anyone who does so has violated the law and is open to legal repercussions.
“[Under this amended law], nationalist and ultra-nationalist elements can still make life miserable for researchers and historians who tell the truth about Polish involvement,” commented Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Despite Netanyahu’s claim that he had safeguarded freedom of research about the Holocaust through the newly amended law, there is nothing preventing organizations or individuals from suing “offenders,” and Polish courts from imposing heavy penalties.
Why Did He Do It?
Many wondered why the politically savvy Netanyahu sought—or agreed to—a written joint declaration with Poland. Why would he compromise himself and his government by putting his signature on historical assertions he surely knew to be false? If political exigency dictated that he fudge the facts, couldn’t he have sufficed with something less binding than an official, signed document?
Long besieged by political rivals seeking to unseat him through corruption charges, Netanyahu may have felt that persuading Poland to amend the Holocaust law offered him an important diplomatic victory at a precarious hour. It’s possible he saw a joint declaration as a surefire vehicle for shoring up popular approval.
Poland is among a growing number of nationalist governments in eastern Europe that have become more supportive of Israel in recent years. Netanyahu has expressed pride in such deepening ties and has sought to enhance them. Some fear the newfound diplomatic backing has come at a cost, as right wing nationalistic governments tend to roll back democratic freedoms and create a fertile climate for the growth of anti-Semitism.
In Poland’s case, the passage of the Holocaust law triggered a spike in anti-Semitism as Polish society was reminded of its wartime conduct; of the efforts of Polish survivors to reclaim their assets and world censure for Poland’s continuous refusal to enact a restitution policy.
Netanyahu likely did not anticipate that the joint statement with Poland would be plastered in full-page ads, paid for by Poland, in leading newspapers around the world—leaving it virtually impossible for Israel to walk it back.
Israeli officials involved in the negotiations were taken aback at the massive publicity, sources say. They protested to the Polish government, calling the publication of the declaration in such a high-powered manner “a violation of the spirit of the understandings.”
But the damage was done. The prime minister’s signature, committing Israel to a form of Holocaust denial in exchange for a hollow concession from Poland, turned what was meant to be diplomatic victory into a public relations disaster that continues to boil over.