Gabbay, Lapid blast government over Polish, Rwandan genocide initiatives

‘We don’t negotiate over the memory of the deceased,’ Yesh Atid chairman, the son of a Holocaust survivor, says, as Labor party head lambastes the PM for ‘imitating’ far right

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay, left, attending a news conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2017; Yair Lapid attending a conference in Herzliya, June 22, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90; Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)
Labor leader Avi Gabbay, left, attending a news conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2017; Yair Lapid attending a conference in Herzliya, June 22, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90; Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

Amid a diplomatic spat between Israel and Poland over legislation in Warsaw that would criminalize the blaming of the Polish nation for Nazi atrocities, Israel’s opposition party heads slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday for both his response to the Polish government and his support of a separate attempt to “rewrite history.”

Speaking at his weekly faction meeting, Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid lambasted Netanyahu for his decision to open a dialogue with the Polish government aimed at “reaching an understanding” over proposed the legislation.

“We don’t negotiate over the memory of the deceased,” Lapid told his fellow party lawmakers. “This law needs to be buried in the Polish ground, which is saturated with the blood of Jews.”

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, January 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu has pilloried the legislation — which prescribes prison time for referring to “Polish death camps” and criminalizes the mention of Polish complicity in Nazi crimes — as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”

On Sunday, Netanyahu announced that he and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had “agreed to immediately open a dialogue between staffs of the two countries, in order to try and reach an understanding over the legislation.”

But Lapid says that instead of negotiating, “Israel needs to tell Poland one thing: If this law passes you will need to prosecute us.” The Yesh Atid leader charged that it was “not by chance” that most of the concentration camps were in Poland and Israel must not shy away from speaking the truth.

The bill, passed by the lower house of the Polish parliament, still needs approval from Poland’s Senate and president. Still, it marks a dramatic step by the nationalist government to enforce its official stance that all Poles were heroes during the war. Historians say many Poles collaborated with the Nazis and committed heinous crimes.

In his own faction meeting, Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay said that Netanyahu was “imitating” Polish attempts to rewrite history by supporting a controversial Rwandan move to rename the day of memorial for the 1994 genocide in the central African country.

Gabbay said that Israel must do all it can to prevent the Polish proposal to ban the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” from becoming law. “This parliamentary effort to change the past will not succeed,” he insisted, saying that the law will allow anti-Semitism to flourish.

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, January 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But Gabbay also took aim at the Israeli government for supporting what he suggested was a similar attempt to whitewash history.

“The State of Israel must place utmost importance on its foreign policy, but that interest must not come before the truth and we must oppose the far-right parties that spread the message of hatred of foreigners, fear, segregation, hunting down internal enemies, marking rivals as traitors and using democracy in order to destroy it,” he said.

“After we got used to ‘fake news,’ they’re now trying to rewrite history. That is the case with this legislation and it is also the case with the proposal put forward by Rwanda last week,” Gabbay charged.

Israel has backed a UN resolution pushed by Rwanda to designate a day of commemoration for the country’s genocide as specifically against the Tutsi ethnic group, supporting a move widely seen as downplaying the deaths of thousands of Hutus during the 1994 genocide.

On Sunday it was reported that while the resolution was opposed by the US and European countries, it won support from Israel as part of a quid pro quo for Rwanda’s acceptance of African migrants the Israeli government wants to deport to the country under a new Knesset law.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 24, 2018. (GPO)

Netanyahu, who met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame last week, told ministers on Sunday that Rwanda is a fitting deportation destination for African asylum seekers as the United Nations is already taking care of nearly two hundred thousand refugees there.

Gabbay said that Israel “must not learn from or imitate” the methods of European far-right parties, which he likened to those of the Rwandan government.

“It is in complete opposition to the Zionist vision and to our Declaration of Independence,” he said.

The resolution passed Friday renames the “International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda,” marked on April 7, as “International Day of Reflection on 1994 Genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda.”

Over 1 million people were killed in a matter of months during the Rwandan genocide, some 800,000 of them from the Tutsi minority at the hands of the Hutus, who held power at the time in Kigali. Tens of thousands of Hutus are also thought to have perished and 2 million people from the ethnic group were forced into exile when the Tutsi, led by Kagame, took power in Rwanda.

The new measure, which amends a 2003 resolution, specifically designates the genocide as against the Tutsi, but also notes that “during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, Hutu and others who opposed it were also killed.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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