Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday called for an urgent meeting between Israeli diplomats in Poland and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to express his “strong opposition” to a bill passed on Friday by the lower house of the Polish parliament which would allow penalizing individuals or organizations for pointing to Poland’s involvement in facilitating atrocities during the Holocaust.
In a Hebrew post on social media on Saturday evening, Netanyahu called the Polish bill “absurd” and said “history can’t be re-written.”
“The Holocaust cannot be denied,” Netanyahu wrote, adding that he instructed the Israeli embassy in Poland to “meet tonight with the Polish prime minister to relay my firm stance against this bill.”
The deputy Polish ambassador to Israel was summoned to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs for talks on Sunday, the ministry said. The Polish ambassador is currently not in the country.
The new bill prescribes criminal proceedings for individuals or organizations who allegedly defame the “Polish nation” by assigning guilt or complicity to Poles for crimes committed by the Nazis on Polish soil. Phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to the killing sites Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II may be punishable by three years in prison or a fine, according to the law. The bill is a response to cases in recent years of foreign media using “Polish death camps” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi-run camps.
Netanyahu’s statement came on the heels of a heated exchange over the bill between Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, a member of the Israeli opposition, and the Polish embassy in Israel.
Lapid, the son of a Holocaust survivor, took to Twitter on Saturday to slam the bill, characterizing it as an effort to rewrite history.
“I strongly condemn the new law that was passed in Poland, which attempts to deny the involvement of many Polish citizens in the Holocaust,” Lapid wrote in a tweet in Hebrew on Saturday.
“No Polish law will change history, Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered on its soil without them having met any German officer.”
He also tweeted in English.
I utterly condemn the new Polish law which tries to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust. It was conceived in Germany but hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered without ever meeting a German soldier. There were Polish death camps and no law can ever change that.
— יאיר לפיד (@yairlapid) January 27, 2018
Poland’s embassy in Israel hit back at Lapid, tweeting that his “unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel.” The intent of the Polish legislation, it said, “is not to ‘whitewash’ the past, but to protect the truth against such slander.”
Your unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel
— שגרירות פולין (@PLinIsrael) January 27, 2018
To which Lapid retorted with outrage and a demand for an apology: “I am a son of a Holocaust survivor. My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles. I don’t need Holocaust education from you. We live with the consequences every day in our collective memory. Your embassy should offer an immediate apology.”
I am a son of a Holocaust survivor. My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles. I don’t need Holocaust education from you. We live with the consequences every day in our collective memory. Your embassy should offer an immediate apology.
— יאיר לפיד (@yairlapid) January 27, 2018
The Polish bill was blasted by a host of Israeli politicians including Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan, Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz, and the head of the Joint (Arab) List MK Ayman Odeh who said the legislation was “embarrassing and dangerous.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on the Polish government to amend the bill before it moves forward. The legislation calls for prison sentences of up to three years and still needs approval from Poland’s Senate and president.
“No law can change the historical truth,” the ministry said in a statement earlier.
Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said that a possible recall of the Israeli ambassador to Poland for consultations was “not off the table.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said Saturday that “the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the entire world must ensure that the Holocaust is recognized for its horrors and atrocities.”
“Among the Polish people, there were those who aided the Nazis in their crimes. Every crime, every offense, must be condemned. They must be examined and revealed. There were also others among them who fought and were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations,” Rivlin said.
Some major news organizations have banned language referring to Polish death camps.
Former US President Barack Obama used it in 2012, prompting outrage in Poland. Obama made the comment while awarding the Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. Karski died in 2000.
During an East Room ceremony honoring 13 Medal of Freedom recipients, Obama said that Karski “served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring to the world to take action.”
After complaints, the White House said Obama misspoke.
Poland’s deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki said in a speech before the lower house on Friday “Non-governmental organizations indicate that every other day the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ is used around the world. In other words, German Nazi crimes are attributed to Poles.”
“And so far the Polish state has not been able to effectively fight these types of insults to the Polish nation,” he added, supporting the bill.
Critics say enforcing the law would be impossible outside Poland, and that within the country it would have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression.
While the law contains a provision excluding scholarly or academic works, opponents still see a danger.
They especially worry it could be used to stifle research and debate on topics that are anathema to Poland’s nationalistic authorities, particularly the painful issue of Poles who blackmailed Jews or denounced them to the Nazis during the war.
Dorota Glowacka, a legal adviser with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw, said the broad scope of the bill opens up the potential for abuse.