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What Israel And Poland Are Really Fighting Over

Earlier this month at the Munich Security Council, Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman caused a stir when he confronted Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki. Poland has been grappling with the fallout of a controversial new law making it a crime to blame Poland for Nazi crimes, and in the question-and-answer session of a panel discussion, Bergman took to the microphone to offer a personal anecdote.

“Both my parents were born in Poland,” Bergman said. “When the war started, they lost much of their families, because their Polish neighbors snitched to the Gestapo.” Bergman’s mother was able to save some members of the family, he went on, because one night she heard her Polish neighbors conspiring to give up her family to the SS.

“After the war, my mother swore that she will never speak Polish for the rest of her life, not even a single word,” Bergman told Morawiecki. “If I understand correctly, after this law is legislated, I will be considered a criminal in your country for saying this.” He then demanded to know the purpose of the law, to raucous applause.

The thing is, Bergman had not understood the law correctly. The law’s language intentionally excludes from prosecution those who point out the actions of individual Poles during the Holocaust. As it is currently written, the law states, “Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.”

The law is certainly a little ambiguous. But it professes to penalize only statements that are factually inaccurate, like calling Auschwitz a “Polish death camp” or speaking of the “Polish Holocaust,” which blames a nonexistent Polish government or a brutally occupied Polish people for the crimes of the Nazis. In other words, Bergman may discuss the individual Poles and even the group of Poles who betrayed his family with impunity.

Nevertheless, in a follow-up article Bergman doubled down. He wrote that after the Polish prime minister insisted (correctly) that there were no Polish death camps and no Polish concentration camps, but rather German Nazi death camps, his “eyes were filled with tears of pain and rage.”

For his mother, Bergman writes, the Poles were “worse than the Nazis.” “From a historical perspective, I believe Mother was wrong,” he explains. “Clearly, the Nazis were the ones who initiated the Holocaust, and they were the ones who built the death camps. But mother knew the Poles and this was her very personal and moral judgment of what had happened.”

This distinction between historical truth and moral judgment is incredibly problematic. (Bergman did not respond to requests for comment.) And yet, both Bergman’s inability to understand the danger of privileging a “moral” over a historical truth and his demand that the Polish prime minister answer for a bill that Bergman interpreted incorrectly are failures that have plagued the Israeli response overall to Poland’s bill.

In the Israeli press and among Israeli politicians, the discourse surrounding Poland’s Holocaust law has been characterized by a fevered, hysterical pitch from day one.

When the news first broke, Lahav Harkov, an Israeli reporter, wrote out the words “Polish death camps” 14 times in a tweet. Then the Simon Wiesenthal Center mulled a travel ban. And the Israeli Knesset voted to make the bill a form of Holocaust denial.

“The historical truth of the Jewish people is not for sale,” Zionist Union Member of Knesset Itzik Shmuly declared.

The Polish response to these attacks was pretty disastrous. Harkov was subsequently flooded with anti-Semitic hate mail and death threats, as was anyone else criticizing the bill on Twitter. And the Polish prime minister responded to Bergman with the awful and false assertion that there were Jews among the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

The war of words then escalated. Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay said, “The blood of millions of Jews cries from the earth of Poland over the distortion of history and the escape from blame.” Then Bergman went on Polish TV and repeated his statements about his mother telling him Poles are worse than Germans. Finally, there was the release — and subsequent removal — of a video by the Ruderman Family Foundation:

Editor’s note: The Forward captured the video before it was taken offline. The video clearly was produced with actors and not identifiable Jews in Poland, and is published here as a public service, so that our readers can understand the nature of this controversy.

The video accused Poland of perpetrating a “Polish Holocaust” and had actors saying that they were willing to go to jail for talking about it. Then the actors said the phrase “Polish Holocaust” over and over and over.

The video horrified many Poles, including Polish Jews, who reached out to the foundation to ask it to take down the video.

And yet, it wasn’t just fear that Polish Jews felt watching the video. It was also horror of another kind.

“I have to tell you, it killed me when I saw it,” a Jewish woman who was born and lives in Poland, and asked not to be identified by name, told me. “I thought it was exactly like videos of far right-nationalists I personally felt ashamed.”

*

Poland’s tiny Jewish community has had the unique distinction of being disgusted by both the Holocaust bill and the Israeli response to it, according to the Polish Jewish woman to whom I spoke. She believes the bill was a mistake, and called the Polish government’s refusal to walk it back “childish.”

But she told me that the Israeli press contributed to the lack of understanding and the heightening of emotions around the bill, as did Israeli politicians, whose response to the bill “was nothing to be proud of.” “The reactions are just very disappointing on both sides,” she said. “They are adding to this fire that’s consuming regular people and it’s consuming us — our sense of stability, our sense of security.”

Since the bill was introduced, she has noticed an airing of troubling and even anti-Semitic views in the public sphere. And while she says that she and her fellow Polish Jews don’t feel physically endangered, the bill has launched a very visible rise of anti-Semitic comments online and nasty phone calls or emails to Jewish institutions. TV shows are now airing points of view that would have been unheard of a few years ago, she said, like false narratives about Jewish collaborators, which elide the reality of ghetto life.

Opinions considered beyond the pale for the past 25 years are now appearing on television and on the covers of magazines, like one she saw at the post office with a cover story headlined “Why Jews Have To Apologize To The Poles.”

“There were always people like this everywhere,” she said. “But they didn’t have a space in the media to speak up and now suddenly it’s there.”

And yet, despite the fear and discomfort, the woman told me that the Polish Jewish community does not feel abandoned or alone. They have allies in Polish society – many, in fact, and some of whom even support the bill while simultaneously opposing anti-Semitism. This week, for example, Polish President Andrzej Duda visited Krakow’s Jewish community center.

She, too, had complicated feelings about the bill. She opposes regulating history by law. And yet, she understood the impetus behind it.

“As a Polish Jew, I’m very attached to historical accuracy,” she explained. “Both narratives are my narrative, the Jewish narrative and the Polish narrative. As a Polish person, I care about what’s being said about my country, and as a Jew, I care.”

And when she sees the words “Polish death camps,” she is as horrified as any other Polish person.

“It hurts,” she said. “Being Polish Jews makes us alone in the sense that we are torn, we are in between.”

*

Poland’s history during World War II is complex. True, the Nazis orchestrated the Holocaust. And yet, the work of Jan Gross and Jan Grabowski has shown that ordinary Christian Poles did participate in killing Jews, sometimes even of their own initiative. Anti-Semitism pervaded large parts of Polish society in the prewar era, and in some sectors it intensified during the war, says Amos Bitzan, a historian of modern European Jewish history at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. “This anti-Semitism, even if not genocidal, hindered efforts to save the lives of Jews, especially in combination with the mix of opportunism, desperate need, and fear that Nazi terror produced in Poland,” Bitzan told me.

And yet, Poles also suffered terribly under the Nazi occupation of their country, Bitzan says. Nazi rule in the parts of Poland annexed to Germany destroyed Polish society, not only through the genocide of 3 million Polish Jews, but also with policies aimed at Christian Poles, like the targeted murder of elites, food deprivation, forced labor and harsh reprisals against resistance.

This history is much less well known than the Holocaust. As Bitzan put it, “I can only imagine how painful it must be to face a world that is largely ignorant of this suffering, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands.” Still, he thinks the bill is a terrible idea, “totally counterproductive in terms of correcting this knowledge gap.”

It has already had a chilling effect on discourse; some of the Jews I contacted did not want to speak, even off the record, for fear of government reprisals, a shocking thing for a Jew to fear in 2018. Others have noted the connection between the bill and the rising nationalism in Poland.

Perhaps most important, using state power to penalize speech is an infraction of civil liberties. But this is not the reason that so many Israelis opposed it. In fact, Israel has its own laws against Holocaust denial. It’s these laws that, in the wake of the Polish bill, Israeli Knesset members are now proposing to expand to include a five-year jail sentence for anyone denying or minimizing the role of Nazi collaborators, including Poles.

In fact, it is on the grounds that the Polish Holocaust bill constitutes Holocaust denial that Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have opposed it.

In other words, the tension between Israel and Poland over this bill is a not a legal one but a narrative one. It is a tension over who is allowed to regulate the terms of speech about the Holocaust. Israel insists that it alone gets to ratify laws around Holocaust discourse, whereas Poland is insisting on its right to dictate the rules of engagement regarding its own past.

It’s in this sense that there’s an irony to the Israeli response to Poland’s Holocaust bill. As Jews, we are uniquely positioned to understand how critical it is that one’s national experience of the WWII is validated. By and large, we have succeeded at making Holocaust denial unacceptable in respected discourse, and the truth about the Holocaust is one we have successfully transmitted.

Not so the Poles, whose fate has been to hear Jews privilege “moral” over historical judgment. In fact, one can easily imagine an alternate world in which Israel, and Jews more generally, understood what Poland was trying to achieve with its bill, and made helpful suggestions about how to take control of the historical narrative, as we Jews have done so effectively. Instead, the Israeli response has been fevered opposition to Poland’s bill, and an insistence that only the Jewish state may decide what one may or may not say about the role Poles did and did not play in the Holocaust.

Understanding and compassion is what’s needed going forward, rather than Israeli hysterics and Polish nationalism. Perhaps both can learn from us American Jews, who have managed to make Holocaust denial unacceptable through social — rather than state — pressure.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.

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