Launching a last-minute damage control campaign, Polish officials have descended on Washington, trying to convince American officials, lawmakers and Jewish leaders that the uproar over Warsaw’s recent Holocaust law is no more than a “misunderstanding.”
The law, which makes speaking of a “Polish Holocaust” a criminal offense, will take effect Thursday, although the country’s top constitutional tribunal could still revise it. As implementation day approached, Poland increased its charm offensive, trying to soothe tensions over the law with Israel, the United States and the global Jewish community.
In Krakow, President Andrzej Duda paid a two-hour visit Wednesday to the local Jewish community center, stating that “it is obvious to me” that Jewish life should continue in Poland. In Jerusalem, Polish and Israeli delegations will embark Thursday on joint discussions on ways to avoid problems created by the new law. And in Washington, Poland’s undersecretary of state, Marek Magierowski, shuttled among Capitol Hill, the State Department and offices of Jewish organizations, trying to clean up the mess created by what he views as a public relations blunder.
“I believe we made mistakes in communicating our intention. We should have prepared the ground,” Magierowski told reporters in a meeting held at the Polish Embassy in Washington. “We were quite surprised by the intensity of the backlash.”
But what Poland is trying to brand as a miscommunication at best, or a “brutal misrepresentation” at worst, is viewed by American Jewish groups and by governments in Washington and Jerusalem as a deeply flawed piece of legislation that would stifle broader discussions over the role of Polish citizens in the Holocaust.
In an attempt to counter this narrative, Magierowski and his team met with government officials and lawmakers, including Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Nita Lowey, who are both Jewish, as well as with two high-ranking congressmen, Steny Hoyer and Peter Roskam. They also held meetings with such Jewish groups as the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International and the American Jewish Committee, as well as with the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Magierowski’s message was twofold: First, there is nothing in the new law that would limit free speech or discussion about the Holocaust and about Polish citizens who collaborated with the Nazis, and second, the law is still under review and could still be amended to reflect concerns regarding its vagueness and its impact on free speech. “We don’t want to whitewash,” Magierowski said.
AJC’s associate executive director for policy, Jason Isaacson, told the Forward that the meeting with Magierowski was a “constructive exchange.” He added that the organization “look[s] forward to the outcome of this week’s consultations between Polish and Israeli experts in Israel, and to the completion of the constitutional tribunal review of the legislation.”
But some who met with the Poles were unmoved. “I remain gravely concerned by this deeply troubling law after my meeting with the deputy foreign minister,” Lowey said in a statement to the Forward. “But I am equally concerned by the recent uptick in anti-Semitic incidents against the country’s Jewish community, as well as anti-Semitic and historically inaccurate comments from the Polish government. If the government does not face this anti-Semitism head-on, I fear there may not be a future for Jews in Poland.”
While it is too early to asses the long-term effectiveness of Poland’s outreach, it is clear that the governments of Israel and the United States, as well as major Jewish organizations, are united in their wish to avoid turning the Holocaust law into a breaking point in relations with Poland. The AJC spoke out against a short-lived campaign by the Ruderman Family Foundation that advocated cutting relations between the United States and Poland, and governments in Washington and Jerusalem have rejected the suggestion to sever diplomatic ties with Warsaw.
Poland’s charm offensive couldn’t hide the government’s sense of anger and offense over the perception that it is promoting anti-Semitism. “It’s much safer to walk with a yarmulke in downtown Warsaw than any other European capital,” Magierowski said, adding that Poland has invested more than any other European country in preserving Jewish heritage. He also argued that there is an “anti-Polonism” trend in Israel, which has manifested itself in several incidents of vandalism and threats directed at Polish representatives.
But perhaps Poland’s best-received talking point was its hint that the law will likely undergo changes before being implemented in practice. Magierowski noted the concern expressed by Duda and the constitutional tribunal’s review, perhaps indicating that the final word has not yet been said. Asked what will happen March 1, the law’s official implementation date, Magierowski replied, “Nothing.”
Correction, March 1, 5:20p.m.: An earlier version of the story stated that President Duda visited the JCC in Warsaw. In fact, he was at the Krakow Jewish community center
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.