Six months ago Poland passed a controversial law intended to criminalize and silence discussions of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. Anyone who suggested that Poland as a nation had blood on its hands for the genocide of the Jews could be charged, arrested, and imprisoned for libel.
Outraged, Holocaust survivors, scholars, public intellectuals, and governments around the world admonished the Polish government and demanded the law be revoked. In order to try and work out a diplomatic solution to the controversy, the Israeli government entered into discussions with Polish officials.
On June 27, Israeli and Polish officials announced an agreement to amend the law, decriminalizing it. Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu himself took credit for a joint declaration, boasting that he had protected the “historic truth of the Holocaust.”
But many others read the revised law, and the accompanying joint statement by Israel and Poland, as essentially giving Israel’s seal of approval to a bill that attempted to cover up the historical truth and exonerate Poland’s role in the Holocaust.
No less august an institution than Yad Vashem harshly denounced the Netanyahu government. “A thorough review by Yad Vashem historians shows that the historical assertions, presented as unchallenged facts, in the joint statement contain grave errors and deceptions,” read the press release. Furthermore, the statement gives the appearance that the Polish government-in-exile and Polish citizens were trying to rescue Jews when they were more often willing accomplices in the destruction of the Polish Jews. The joint statement harms the principle of “unimpeded research,” and potentially distorts “the historical memory of the Holocaust.”
Noted Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer agreed, accusing the Israeli government of participating in the denial of historical truth and betraying the memory of the Holocaust.
It’s a shocking thing for the Prime Minister of the Jewish State to be accused of aiding Holocaust revisionism. And yet, this episode is only the latest in a string of events in which the Israeli government has given comfort to anti-Semitism.
On June 4, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer praised Hungary for being a great friend of Israel, saying the country had a “zero tolerance policy” regarding anti-Semitism. And yet, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, and many of its leading politicians have trafficked in anti-Semitism, blaming Hungary’s ills on the Jewish philanthropist George Soros and making speeches that are laden with anti-Semitic tropes.
“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us,” Orban said in an election speech in March rife with anti-Semitic dog-whistles. “Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”
In response, the Anti-Defamation League and other American Jewish organizations issued one denunciation after another.
And yet, Ron Dermer praised Hungary. It raises a stymying question: Why is the Israeli government willing to be an accessory to Holocaust revisionism and give cover and praise to anti-Semites?
Realpolitik provides the most straightforward explanation for Israel’s unfortunate associations. From a realpolitik point of view, Israel’s security is in constant danger, and the state’s fundamental interest must be its own security. As famously observed by Lord Palmerston, “there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”
From this point of view, states will associate themselves with their purported values only so long as the values do not undermine their fundamental security interests. There is no room for sentimentality, ethics, and morality when it comes to the survival and security of the state. The weak who believe the promises of the strong will be disappointed, and put their own security at risk.
This realist wisdom maps reasonably well onto Israeli foreign policy. Israel lives in a rough neighborhood and knows that it can rely on no one else for its survival and security.
In addition to the defense of Israeli and Jewish security, the Israeli state also identifies with various values, such as human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. But Israel, just like all other states, will have a relationship of convenience with its values; interests will and must always trump them. Despite its rhetorical commitment to these values, Israel has worked in the past with an authoritarian Argentina and an apartheid South Africa, and currently with a genocidal Myanmar.
And Israel knows better than to put its faith in the commitments made by others to its survival. The U.S. has been a long-time friend, defender, and benefactor, but Israel’s security and defense policy operates with the premise that it must be prepared to fight on its own. In this way, it’s like all other countries.
And yet, in one critical respect, Israel is quite different: Israel claims to defend the security and survival of both the state and the Jewish people. Its definition of the “national” interest is thus more expansive than that of other states because the Jewish nation lives not only in Israel but also in the diaspora.
This raises a huge question: What will the Israeli government do when there’s a trade-off between protecting Jewish Israelis and Diaspora Jews?
Realists tell us that Israel will probably choose the survival and security of the state over all other demands, including the needs of diasporic Jews.
And the Israeli government seems to be operating true to realist predictions.
Israel’s recent foreign policy decisions make more sense in the realpolitical context. Israel is doing what is best for Israel, not necessarily what is best for the Jews. If the price of advancing Israel’s security is becoming an accessory to Holocaust revisionism, then so be it.
Israel is quite quick to denounce Holocaust denial when it comes from Tehran, but Tehran is an implacable foe. Poland can whitewash its own participation in the Holocaust, on the other hand, and it gets a pass because it is an ally.
What does Israel get in return for its seal of approval for anti-Semitism? Hungary and Poland are members of the European Union, and might be able to help Israel fend off EU legislation that is critical of Israel and its policies in the occupied territories.
Because of Israel’s policies in the territories it is finding it more difficult to maintain its long-standing alliances with liberal-oriented Western European governments; consequently, it must search elsewhere.
The logic of a sharp self-interest also helps explain why Prime Minister Netanyahu stayed quiet in response to the anti-Semitic white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman was killed and neo-Naizs chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Netanyahu spoke only after President Trump had done so. While White Supremacists were chanting anti-Semitic slogans, the Israeli government took a policy of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
When given the choice between defending Jewish security and survival in the United States, or maintaining access to an oval office that has aligned itself with anti-Semites, the Israeli government chose the latter.
The events of 2017 and 2018 suggest that what is good for Israel might not be necessarily good for diasporic Jews. If this is a reasonable possibility, then the implication is that the Diaspora Jewish community must respond appropriately. It must learn to protect itself.
It wont be the first time. Beginning in the 19th century and continuing through the Holocaust, Jews in London, Paris, and Berlin established various Jewish protection societies that lobbied their governments to place diplomatic pressure on those eastern European states and Russia that were persecuting their Jews. American Jews often joined their West European brethren, but they often deferred to these more established Jewish communities as they focused on the challenge of settling hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants.
The Holocaust, though, promoted the American Jewish community to the role of primary protector of the Jewish diaspora. How Jews organized to protect the diaspora changed again with the establishment of the State of Israel, as Israel and American Jews began to partner in the defense of Jewish people.
Israel had sovereignty, a military, and a seat at the major international organizations where it could defend Jewish interests, as well as an identity as chief representative of the Jewish nation.
American Jews were the largest Jewish community in the world, increasingly confident and politically connected, and had close ties to a U.S. government that was the world’s leading superpower.
Together, Israel and American Jewry worked jointly to defend Jewish communities around the world, free Soviet Jews, and rescue Ethiopian Jews.
Israel’s recent foreign policy behavior, though, suggests that American Jewry must be prepared to take a more robust role in the protection of Jewish life outside of Israel. To do so, it should move in the following three directions.
First, it must sharpen and assert its moral leadership. An Israel that is prepared to give cover to ant-Semitism and Holocaust denial is an Israel that has ceded considerable moral authority in the Jewish world. The declaration between Israel and Poland was just that — a declaration between two sovereign states. But it should not be interpreted as anything more than that. Israel has no moral authority to decide what kind of inquiry into the Holocaust is acceptable or not. American Jewry and other diasporic Jewish communities can make this clear by raising a dissenting voice.
Second, it should actively debate whether Israel is willing and able to defend the basic physical security or diasporic Jews. Israel has had a standard answer to diasporic Jews under threat: make Aliyah. That is one possibility, for sure, but it should not be the only one.
Diasporic Jewry must consider all possible options. And among those options must be a willingness to call out an Israeli government that seems prepared to give credibility to governments that traffic in anti-Semitism.
Third, American Jews must become a stronger voice for refugees and displaced peoples, and lobby for a just immigration policy. In many respects they already are. Because of American Jewish history — the closing of the immigration doors after World War One and refusal to accept European Jewish refugees during the Holocaust and afterwards — they have been important advocates for vulnerable populations attempting to reach American shores.
At the moment, American Jews are using their own historical experience to identify with the suffering of others. But at some point in the near future it might be Jewish lives at stake.
Consider the nightmare scenario of French Jews forced to flee because of rising anti-Semitism. It is quite possible that many of them will prefer to seek refuge in the United States, just like European and Soviet Jews of the past.
They should have that choice. But they will only have the choice if the United States creates a compassionate immigration policy. Better to push for justice now rather than ask for special favors for French Jews later.
It is painful to watch Israel, the homeland of the Jews, give comfort to anti-Semitism and to those who want to distort the history of the Holocaust. Defenders of Israel’s policies point to realpolitik and accepting the world as it is.
Regardless of whether or not this is an acceptable defense, the implication is the same: Diaspora Jews might not be able to count on Israel to defend their interests and values.
Michael Barnett is University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at George Washington University. His most recent book is “The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews” (Princeton University Press, 2016).