Amid rising outrage in Israel over a bill passed on Friday in Poland’s lower House of Parliament outlawing blaming the Polish nation for crimes perpetrated during the Holocaust, Israel’s Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) on Saturday instructed schools to dedicate two hours this week to learn more about European nations’ involvement in the Holocaust and their roles during the war, including that of Poland.
In a statement released Saturday, as Israeli leaders angrily reacted to the pending legislation, Bennett said the bill was a “shameful disregard of the truth.”
“It is a historic fact that many Poles aided in the murder of Jews, handed them in, abused them, and even killed Jews during and after the Holocaust,” he said. “It is also a historic fact that the Germans initiated, planned, and built the work and death camps in Poland. That is the truth, and no law will rewrite it. These facts must be taught to the next generation.”
Bennett called on the Polish government to “remove this embarrassing bill from the table, as it is shameful to the memory of the Holocaust and the relationship between our countries.”
Earlier Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the proposed law “baseless” and ordered his country’s ambassador to Poland to meet with Polish leaders to express his strong opposition.
“One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” he said.
Meanwhile, 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 Polish bill proscribes criminal proceedings for individuals or organizations who allegedly defame the “Polish nation” by assigning guilt or complicity to Poland 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 partly a response to cases in recent years of foreign media using “Polish death camps” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi-run camps, and would apply to locals and foreigners, including Holocaust survivors.
The bill also makes it illegal to “deliberately reduce the responsibility of the ‘true culprits’ of these crimes,” in reference to the murder of around 100,000 Poles by units in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during the World War II.
The bill still needs approval from Poland’s Senate and president.
It marks a dramatic step by the country’s current nationalist government to target anyone who tries to undermine its official stance that Poles were heroes during the war, not Nazi collaborators who committed heinous crimes.
Netanyahu’s government generally has had good relations with Poland, which has been recently voting with Israel in international organizations.
But Israeli leaders across the board slammed the legislation on Saturday.
Yair Lapid, head of Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party and the son of a survivor, got into a heated Twitter spat Saturday with the Polish Embassy in Israel.
“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,” Lapid wrote.
That sparked the Embassy to respond: “Your unsupportable claims show how badly Holocaust education is needed, even here in Israel.”
“My grandmother was murdered in Poland by Germans and Poles,” Lapid responded. “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.”
To which the embassy retorted: “Shameless.”
Critics of the bill 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.
Today’s Poles have been raised on stories of their people’s wartime suffering and heroism. Many react viscerally when confronted with the growing body of scholarship about Polish involvement in the killing of Jews.
For decades, Polish society avoided discussing the killing of Jews by civilians, or denied that anti-Semitism motivated the slayings, blaming all atrocities on the Germans.
A turning point was the publication in 2000 of a book, “Neighbors,” by Polish-American sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross, which explored the murder of Jews by their Polish neighbors in the village of Jedwabne. The book resulted in widespread soul-searching and official state apologies.
But since the conservative and nationalistic Law and Justice party consolidated power in 2015, it has sought to stamp out discussions and research on the topic. It demonized Gross and investigated whether he had slandered Poland by asserting that Poles killed more Jews than they killed Germans during the war.
Holocaust researchers have collected ample evidence of Polish villagers who murdered Jews fleeing the Nazis. According to one scholar at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, of the 160,000-250,000 Jews who escaped and sought help from fellow Poles, about 10 percent to 20 percent survived. The rest were rejected, informed upon, or killed by rural Poles, according to the Tel Aviv University scholar Havi Dreifuss.
The memorial issued a statement Saturday night opposing the Polish legislation, and attempted to put into historical context the “complex truth” regarding the Polish population’s attitude toward its Jews.
“There is no doubt that the term ‘Polish death camps’ is a historical misrepresentation,” the Yad Vashem memorial said. “However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion.”