Relations between Poland and Israel are in their deepest crisis in memory in the wake of Poland’s move to criminalize criticism of Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
To understand why this state of affairs is dangerous, regrettable and difficult to resolve, it is important to consider it against the backdrop of wider European-Israel and European-Jewish relations.
Poland is a very antisemitic country. According to a 2008 Pew survey of European sentiments towards Jews, Poland is the second most anti-Jewish country in Europe (Spain is first). 36 percent of Poles express hostility towards Jews.
Poland’s anti-Semitism is a problem. But even with its extensive bigotry against Jews, Poland isn’t the worst country in Europe from a Jewish or an Israeli perspective, which just goes to show how hostile Europe is to Israel and to Jews.
Iceland’s parliament has initiated legislation to ban, effectively, the practice of Judaism within its borders. A law proposed by Progressive Party MP Silja Dogg Gunnarsdottir seeks to criminalize the circumcision of newborn males. In accordance with the biblical imperative, all Jewish boys must be circumcised at eight days. Muslim male children also undergo ritual circumcision.
Under the bill now under consideration, anyone caught circumcising a baby boy in Iceland will face up to six years in jail.
Gunnarsdottir’s bill enjoys wide support in Iceland’s parliament. According to a report in the Times of Israel, “lawmakers from four parties, with 46 percent of the seats in parliament, including the ruling party, co-authored her bill.”
There are only 100-250 Jews in Iceland, which has an overall population of some 300,000 people. But as the Jewish Communities in Nordic Countries wrote in an open letter, if the bill passes into law, “Iceland would be the only country to ban one of the most central, if not the most central rite in the Jewish tradition in modern times.”
Iceland is not the only country that supports banning this ritual, which is so basic to Jewish life. In Germany in June 2012, the Cologne district court criminalized ritual circumcisions. Two months later, the Cologne district attorney filed criminal charges against two rabbis for performing ritual circumcisions on Jewish newborn males.
The Cologne ruling marked the first time ritual circumcision was banned in Germany since the Nazis outlawed the practice in the 1930s. A major crisis was averted when in October 2012, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government approved a bill permitting ritual circumcision throughout Germany. The Bundestag passed the bill several days later.
Then there are Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark. In 2013, the children’s ombudsmen in those countries called for the banning of infant male circumcision. The following year, medical associations in Denmark and Sweden called for the practice to be banned. So far, these campaigns have not stimulated legislative action.
If the bids to ban circumcision weren’t enough, there is the European war on kosher meat to consider. Jewish ritual slaughter is currently under assault in Britain. In parts of Belgium, in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark it is prohibited.
To some degree, the campaigns against Jewish ritual slaughter of animals are a byproduct of larger campaigns to discourage Muslim immigration. Lawmakers ban kosher slaughter along with Islamic halal slaughter of animals to avoid claims of racism by Islamic groups.
But antisemitism is also a motivating factor. In Sweden, for instance, the law criminalizing Jewish ritual slaughter was passed in 1937, inspired by Germany’s Nazi laws criminalizing Judaism, which preceded the Holocaust. Until 1988, the Swedish law included only beef. It was extended in 1988 to include poultry.
As bad as the campaign to criminalize Jewish religious practices is, it is but one component of the growing threat to Jewish life in Europe. The most pressing threats imperiling Jewish communities in western and northern Europe are anti-Jewish violence and discrimination. Both scourges are rooted predominantly, and indeed, almost entirely, in Muslim communities in those countries.
Rather than contend with the threat, European governments are criminalizing discussion of the phenomenon. European media outlets ban voices warning of the growing menace to Jews emanating from Muslim communities. The identity of anti-Jewish Muslim assailants, and even the fact that Jews are victimized because they are Jews, are routinely obfuscated and denied.
The final major threat to Jewish life in Europe stems from European governments. By viciously criticizing Israel, European governments encourage an atmosphere of antisemitism and give moral license to antisemites. European governments provide financial and political support for groups and individuals who criminalize the Jewish state and intimidate its Jewish supporters.
European lawmakers applaud Palestinian leaders who absurdly and maliciously accuse Israel of poisoning Palestinian wells as carrying out a genocide against Palestinians. European governments underwrite groups that slander the Israeli military as a terrorist group. They legislate discriminatory laws requiring labels to be affixed on Israeli products, encouraging consumer boycotts of Israeli exports.
European governments and political parties celebrate anti-Israel terrorism. Political groups – particularly leftist groups and parties – attack as evil Jewish communities who object to their glorification of anti-Israel terrorists and political groups. These state-sanctioned and politically-supported actions have engendered an atmosphere in northern and western Europe where Jewish life is increasingly dangerous, and Jews feel increasingly uncertain about their ability to continue to live in their homes. These official policies also cast in doubt the future of European-Israel relations as official Europe has effectively become the main engine of the global campaign to delegitimize the existence of the Jewish state.
This then brings us back to Poland.
Poland’s latest law, which rewrites the history of the Holocaust, is not its first dip in the antisemitic policy sewer.
In 2013, the Polish parliament banned kosher slaughter. Poland’s constitutional court struck down the law, which was passed with a wide majority. In the midst of the current crisis in relations between Poland and Israel, the Polish parliament’s lower house is expected to pass a new version of the law this week.
But again, for all of its anti-Jewish bigotry, unlike its northern and western European neighbors, Poland has not adopted a hostile posture towards Israel. Indeed, over the past two decades, relations between Israel and Poland have blossomed.
Moreover, Polish Jewry experienced little of the antisemitic violence and intimidation that Jews in northern and Western European countries have suffered. Most anti-Jewish violence and vandalism in Poland, as in other central and eastern European countries, comes from the political right.
Last December, Poland joined the Czech Republic and Hungary in rejecting the EU’s directive to vote in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned the U.S. for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And Israel and the U.S. both expressed their gratitude.
But then the Polish parliament passed the law saying that anyone who tells the truth about widespread Polish collaboration with the Nazis will be liable for up to three years imprisonment. Sunday Polish President Andrzej Duda pledged to sign the bill into law.
It is critical to understand that the Polish law is simply legally mandated historical revisionism. According to Holocaust historian Jan Grabowski, Poles were responsible for the murder of more than 200,000 Jews who managed to escape the Nazi death camps and ghettos. Polish Nazi sympathizers and collaborators either turned these Jews over to the Nazis or killed them themselves. Grabowski documented the Polish role in the Holocaust in his book Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland.
The Polish law is not the first of its kind. Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, whose nationals collaborated with the Nazis, have similar laws banning discussion of their collusion with the genocide of their Jewish neighbors. Like the Polish law, the Ukrainian, Latvian, and Lithuanian laws were all conceived as a means to rally populist support and spark nationalist enthusiasm from their highly antisemitic populations, who refuse to acknowledge or consider the implications of their collaboration with the Nazis.
In all these cases, the basic motivation behind the legislation appears to be the antisemitic belief that Jews unfairly “enjoy” Holocaust-related victimhood, and that Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians ought to be entitled to similarly “reap the benefits” of perceived victimhood.
Unlike the other laws, which were largely overlooked, Poland’s law ran into a political buzz-saw in Israel, which made it impossible for the Poles to quietly table the bill or redraft it in a less obnoxious way.
Israelis naturally oppose any move that minimizes or excuses the systematic genocide of a third of the Jewish people in the Holocaust. Had the Israeli government had the opportunity to discuss the law in a serious way with the Polish government before issue hit the headlines, a way might have been found to avert the crisis. But once the public was made aware of the Polish bill, a quiet resolution became impossible.
In Israel, word spread about the Polish law on January 27 shortly after the Polish lower house passed the bill. Opposition lawmaker Yair Lapid reacted to the passage of the law with an irate posting on his Twitter account in English.
“I utterly condemn the new Polish law which tries to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It was conceived in Germany but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier. There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that,” he wrote.
Lapid followed up with several other incendiary posting recalling his grandmothers’ suffering during the Holocaust.
Lapid’s tweets were key for two reasons.
First, while Lapid has an excellent feel for populism, he is not the world’s most educated man. In all the centuries of organized Polish antisemitism, the one crime the Poles never committed was running death camps.
In saying that the reason to oppose the antisemitic Polish law was the necessity of highlighting alleged Polish death camps, Lapid was feeding the perceived Polish need to revise history in its own favor.
Second, Lapid, whose Yesh Atid Party is a secularist party, wrote his posts during the Jewish Sabbath, when official government operations are suspended. By the time the Sabbath ended on Saturday night, the issue was at the top of every news broadcast. Any attempt by the government to lower the flames would have been attacked by the media and the political opposition as a bid to sacrifice the history of the Holocaust on the altar of good relations with an antisemitic government in Warsaw.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not afford to be seen as the leader who is afraid to tackle Polish antisemitism, while Lapid, who is the leading candidate to replace Netanyahu in the event of new elections, grasped the title of foremost defender of Israeli pride in the world.
In other words, Lapid used Poland’s populist antisemitic law as a populist ploy of his own.
Rather than carefully walk away from the hornet’s nest it stepped on, the Polish government doubled down.
On Sunday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki escalated the crisis in relations when he slandered Holocaust victims during his remarks at the Munich Security Conference. Morawiecki alleged that Jews contributed to the perpetration of the Holocaust, saying wrongly that in the Holocaust “there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukraine and German perpetrators.”
The crisis in relations between Israel and Poland over Warsaw’s desire to ban honest discussion of Poland’s role in the Holocaust has eclipsed every other issue relevant to Israeli-European ties. No air is left in the room to consider, for instance, the physical peril in which the Jews of France now live. No one is talking about Europe’s role in protecting Iran from U.S. sanctions. All anyone can find time to talk about is Poland and its law banning discussion of the truth about the Holocaust.
Due to the extensiveness of Polish antisemitism, it would be foolhardy for Israel or Poland to aspire to a long-term resolution of the problem. But in the interest of maintaining mutually beneficial bilateral relations, both sides are going to have to make some difficult accommodations to one another.
Israel is going to have to acknowledge that living with officially supported antisemitism is the price of relations with European states, just as it is the price of doing business with Arab states. Part of this accommodation will involve backing off its efforts to change or abrogate the Polish law.
For its part, the Polish government is going to have to restrain its anti-Jewish reflexes at least publically. To this end, the Polish government should avoid additional antisemitic and fraudulent remarks about the Holocaust and about Jews more generally.
The world is often an unpleasant place. Europe in particular has never kicked its antisemitic habit. It isn’t Israel’s job to transform Europe. It is Israel’s job to secure its interests, and when necessary, to do so in cooperation with governments it doesn’t like that have values it abhors.