Poland and Israel: difficult relations between two friends – by Marek Górka

On January 26, 2018, the Polish Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish parliament) passed the law on the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), and that news provoked a strong protest from Israel. The diplomatic dispute between Poland and Israel attracted the attention of media from all around the world but the real nature of the problem was not fully reflected in much of the TV coverage.Every state has the right to defend the good name of its people. For many years Poland has been fighting against the so-called “Auschwitz lie”, which wrongly ascribes the participation in the Holocaust to Poles. Therefore, Poland has the right and obligation to take specific legal actions to protect the good reputation of the Polish nation. The Polish side also fights for memory, stressing that it was Poles who saved Jews during the Second World War and reminds that the most people among those honored by the Yad Vashem Institute are Poles.

Polish-Israeli relations are extremely complex, and if any of the politicians – from both countries – uses misunderstandings and makes them scandalous, launches an avalanche, which is then difficult to stop. The tension began after the words of Yair Lapid, a member of the Knesset, chairman of one of the political parties, who now has the ambition to become the future prime minister of Israel. Lapid publicly spread slanders that were not consistent with historical truth. Because he said it very strongly, his words were also partly picked up by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is his political rival and who, unfortunately, also excels in the populist rhetoric when fighting for the votes. And on this national wave he is trying to win support for himself in the upcoming elections.

World War II was a disaster in which  both Poles and Jews were victims. Today, however, we are dealing with the collision of two historical policies and both of them are based on strongly national ambitions. This is how polarization has led to the analysis of historical events in terms of zero-one. The memory of the Holocaust is the most important part of Jewish and Polish identities. Both nations are still slaves to their own historical policy.

Unfortunately, the burden left by Germans in the form of German concentration camps, built in occupied Poland, causes that in the Jewish environment it is more widespread than a thousand-year long history of Poles and Jews living together, the great contribution of Jews to Polish culture and the great contribution of Poles to building the country of Israel.

The Polish Parliament has been working on the amendment to the Act on the IPN for many months, the Bill went to the Sejm in mid-2016, so it is worth asking whether Israeli diplomats have overlooked that fact since they are raising the alarm today. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel criticizes, among others, the moment of passing tha law on the eve of the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Holocaust, i.e. on January 27. From this point of view, it was a very awkward moment. It seems that Polish politicians did not have a good idea of what the international reaction might be.

Israeli ambassador, Anna Azari, in Oświęcim reacted in accordance with the guidelines she received from prime minister Netanyahu. From the point of view of the Israeli diplomat, she did what had to be done. From what she told during an interview on Polish radio, she got instructions from her prime minister to meet Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, and give him indignation about it. However, in Oświęcim, state delegations had no opportunity to talk, which is why Anna Azari changed the previously prepared content and from the public podium, during the ceremony, presented the reservations that the Israeli government has about this law on the IPN.

It is worth noting, however, that in the Polish parliament in October 2016 the first reading of this bill was made, and a month later during a visit to Israel, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło issued an official Polish-Israeli statement saying that Poland and Israel are opposed to any attempts to distort history, including by using erroneous terms defaming the good name of Poland. Israeli critics do not refer to the basic problem of slanders against Poland, which Poland and Israel have been fighting for years. Both states, unanimously and in accordance with historical truth, point to Germany’s responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust.

In Israel, for denial of the Holocaust, you can go to prison for 5 years; in Poland, although the punishment is less, but the rule applies the same and it applies to the so-called “Auschwitz lie”. In 17 European countries, denial of the Holocaust is punished. The Polish authorities want to introduce a law in which accusing Poles of participating in the Holocaust would be also punished. The adoption of the act was supposed to be symbolic. It seemed it would be very well received. Meanwhile, it turned out to have backfired on the Polish government.

In the amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, the term “Polish nation” is used; it is quite a broad category, and here lies the problem. In this act a legislative error was made, the term “Polish nation” was unnecessarily included. Therefore, there is a need for refinement and precision, which may be a way out of this difficult situation. This is how the Israeli side interprets the question, which also indicates that the law is too broad and treats the act as limitation to freedom of speech.

Poland takes the view that one cannot pick out individual, incidental cases of the wickedness of Polish actions and treat them as accusations against the entire Polish nation. The President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, expressed his opinion in a similar tone, saying that in every nation there were people who were wicked, but these wicked people are not the whole nation. It is worth noting that people who committed shameful things towards Jews were punished by the Polish underground state during the Second World War by a death sentence for denouncing Jews.

The problem in Polish-Israeli relations also results from the long absence of Poland in Israel. In 1967, the People’s Republic of Poland, at the behest of the Soviet Union, broke off diplomatic relations with Tel-Aviv. Unfortunately, there was no Polish voice during this 22-year period. It was not until the Polish democratic authorities began to make up for these arrears since 1989. Poland also does not want to be associated as one large cemetery of Holocaust victims murdered during the Second World War. Poland is a country that has achieved much political and economic success in the period of political transformation.

Today, citizens of Poland and Israel are interested in building Polish-Israeli relations on the basis of contemporary relations between states and nations. Common history and cultural heritage are a bridge that connects Poland and Israel. Certainly, it is in the interest of both countries to continue friendly relations that will benefit both parties. It is even more important to clarify the misunderstanding that should not be a shadow over today’s security policy and common Polish-Israeli projects in the field of cybertechnology.