It’s not every week that the Israeli state Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) issue statements rebuking the Prime Minister of Israel for distorting the historical record of one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall the Jewish people. But it did happen last week.
What provoked this extraordinary circumstance was a joint statement issued by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, that aimed to settle a dispute that had arisen after Poland enacted a law making it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in the Holocaust. Among other things, it made use of the term “Polish death camps” a crime.
In the face of world outrage, Poland somewhat weakened the law last month by removing the criminal penalties for provisions that critics said would hamper dialogue about the Holocaust and distort history. It was that revision which prompted the joint statement by Netanyahu and Morawiecki.
But when Holocaust historians and experts reviewed the text of the joint statement, they were appalled. Yehuda Bauer, 92, the doyen of Holocaust historians, described it as a “betrayal” that “hurt the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust.”
In Haaretz, he wrote, “We accepted the mendacious official Polish narrative, and swallowed it.” He accused the Israeli government of sacrificing truth and justice “for its current economic, security and political interests.”
Netanyahu and Morawiecki’s statement ignored well-established basic facts: many Poles — including the official resistance movement, the Home Army, as well as the Polish government-in-exile — were indifferent to the fate of the Jews and some welcomed their murder and even assisted in it. It was no accident that all the mass extermination camps were located in Poland and as many as half of all Holocaust victims were Polish Jews. When survivors tried to return to their homes after the war, some were attacked and killed.
The detailed Yad Vashem response was unusually harsh and is worth reading in full. It said:
“The statement contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field. The joint statement’s wording effectively supports a narrative that research has long since disproved, namely, that the Polish Government-in-Exile and its underground arms strove indefatigably—in occupied Poland and elsewhere—to thwart the extermination of Polish Jewry…
“Poles’ assistance to Jews during the Holocaust was relatively rare, and attacks against and even the murder of Jews were widespread phenomena. The attempt to amplify the relief that was extended to the Jews and portray it as a widespread phenomenon, and to minimize the role of Poles in persecuting the Jews, constitutes an offense not only to the historical truth, but also to the memory of the heroism of the Righteous Among the Nations.”
Yad Vashem also condemned “the outrageous insinuation” contained in the statement that Jews also revealed ‘their darkest side at that time.’”
The statement from the USHMM, a U.S. federal institution, was shorter and milder in tone but noted that the revised Polish law was still unacceptable. “It is still possible for the (Polish) state to engage in civil proceedings against persons who accuse ‘the Polish nation or the Polish state of being complicit in Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich,’” it said.
Netanyahu’s apparent enthusiasm for warm ties with authoritarian governments with anti-Semitic tendencies extends beyond Poland to Hungary. Earlier this year, he suppressed an attempt by his own ambassador to Hungary to condemn a clearly anti-Semitic poster campaign launched by the ruling party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whom he regards as a friend and ally.
Last year, when President Trump described as “fine people” some of the racist white supremacists who marched under the banner of the swastika in the deadly hate-filled rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Netanyahu had no comment.
Netanyahu clearly is only interested in one thing: Do people support him unquestionably, or not? If, like the majority of American Jews, they love Israel but do not necessarily equate support of Israel with support of Netanyahu, he is not interested in them and regards them as hostile.
However, if, like the leaders of Poland, Hungary and arguably the United States, they are willing to dabble in (or even embrace) anti-Semitic themes, tropes and historical libels — even to the extent of rewriting the history of the Holocaust — he’s happy to have their support.
And as Aesop said, “A man is known by the company he keeps.”