WARSAW, Poland (AP) - A diplomatic dispute has erupted between Poland and Israel over pending Polish legislation that imposes prison terms of up to three years for falsely attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to Poland. Bitter recriminations have exposed painful historical baggage on both sides despite years of reconciliation efforts - anger by Poles who feel wrongly depicted as anti-Semites and by Israelis who fear Poland wants to whitewash the persecution that Jews suffered in Poland.
Here is a closer look at the issue:
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party vowed to push through the bill soon after coming to power in 2015, depicting it as a way of protecting Poland’s good name. After an initial uproar, the issue seemed to have been dropped, only to reappear last week, when the lower house of parliament approved it on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Polish government officials argue the law is needed to fight expressions like “Polish death camps” for the camps Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II. While “Polish” is almost always used as a geographic designator, Poles still object because they feel it defames Poland for the Nazi-run camps, where Poles made up the largest group of victims after Jews. The Polish Senate approved the bill Thursday despite mounting international opposition. The final step will be approval by President Andrzej Duda, who strongly supports it.
Israeli officials strongly object to the law and say the issue is not the language about “Polish death camps.” Instead, they see the law as part of a slippery slope that minimizes the role of Poles in the Holocaust as well as the painful Jewish history in the country. Poland has a long history of anti-Semitism, and the prevailing view in Israel and among Holocaust scholars everywhere is that many Poles were willing to at least look the other way, if not actively collaborate, with the Nazis. Israeli media have been filled with interviews in recent days of Holocaust survivors talking about mistreatment at the hands of Polish neighbors and others. Emmanuel Nahshon, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a recent tweet: “Dear Polish followers - the issue is NOT the death camps. Of course they were not Polish. Those were German death camps. The issue is the legitimate and essential freedom to talk about the involvement of Poles in the murder of Jews without fear or threat of penalization. Simple.”
A U.S. warning
The United States firmly warned Poland on Wednesday that to go forward with the law could hurt its strategic interests and “our ability to be effective partners.” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. understands that phrases like “Polish death camps” are “inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful,” but voiced concern the legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse. “We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships - including with the United States and Israel,” she said. “The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals.” Nauert’s statement came just four days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Polish officials and marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Warsaw.
A long history together
Before the outbreak of World War II, Jews had lived in Poland for centuries, thriving in some eras and even becoming the world’s largest Jewish population at one point.
But anti-Semitism in the decades before the war had grown virulent, driving many Polish Jews to emigrate, some becoming Israel’s founders and first settlers. During the war, Poles, like elsewhere across German-occupied Europe, reacted to the mass killing of Jews in different ways. Some risked their lives and those of their families to shelter Jews, with nearly 7,000 recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center. Historians say some Poles were complicit in the killings, denouncing Jews to the Germans or taking part in killing themselves.