'We have to take off the gloves,' says deputy minister

Israel condemns passing of Polish Holocaust law, stops short of recalling envoy

‘Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth,’ Foreign Ministry says, but takes no immediate action against Warsaw

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Auschwitz death camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945.  (AP Photo/ File)
A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Auschwitz death camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, in January 1945. (AP Photo/ File)

Israel on Thursday condemned the Polish Parliament’s passing of a law that would criminalize those accusing the Polish nation or state of complicity in the Holocaust, but stopped short of taking any concrete measures.

“The State of Israel opposes categorically the Polish Senate decision. Israel views with utmost gravity any attempt to challenge historical truth. No law will change the facts,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

A diplomatic official added that Israel is “deeply disappointed” by the vote, especially given the otherwise strong bilateral relations between Jerusalem and Warsaw.

The law’s passage in the Senate on Wednesday evening was “opposed to the spirit of the conversation” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had with his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, on Sunday, the official added.

Many in Israel had hoped for a stronger reaction.

Speaking to Israel Radio, Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren called the Foreign Ministry’s reaction to the bill’s passing “tepid.”

“I always support the Foreign Ministry, but they have not gone far enough,” he said. “We have to take off the gloves,” he said calling for the recall of the ambassador as a minimum step. “This is part of a wider phenomenon. What starts with Holocaust denial ends with the denial of our right to defend ourselves.

“There are red lines,” he said.

Other Israeli officials, too, urged Netanyahu to call back Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari.

“The law passed by the Polish government is severe and constitutes a brush-off of its own responsibility and a denial of Poland’s part in the Holocaust against the Jews,” Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said.

“In the balance between political considerations and moral considerations, there must be a clear decision — perpetuating the memory of Holocaust victims over any other consideration.”

On Saturday the Sejm, the Polish parliament’s lower house, voted in favor of the bill. A day later, Morawiecki and Netanyahu agreed to “immediately open a dialogue between staffs of the two countries, in order to try to reach an understanding over the legislation,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office read.

But two hours after the Prime Minister’s Office issued its statement, Polish government spokesperson Joanna Kopcińska wrote on Twitter that “the conversation will not concern sovereign decisions of the Polish parliament.”

Illustrative photo of the Polish parliament October 6, 2016. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

The bill, which was passed the Senate with 57 yes votes and 23 no votes, with two abstentions, still needs to be confirmed by Poland’s President Andrzej Duda before it becomes law.

It states that, “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.”

Other Israeli lawmakers initiated their own legislative moves to counter the Polish bill. One bill would provide legal protection to Israelis incriminated by Poland over statements about Polish complicity in the Holocaust.

The other seeks to expand Israel’s existing Holocaust denial laws to include a five-year jail sentence for anyone who denies or minimizes the role played by Nazi collaborators, including Poles, in crimes committed in the Holocaust.

Alicja Mularska (2L), the daughter of the late Polish couple Jan Dziadosz and Sabina Perzyna, stands with her family after receiving the Righteous Among the Nations award on behalf of her parents during a posthumous ceremony honoring them and their son Aleksandr Dziadosz at Yad Vashem on January 30, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust Remembrance Center, also slammed the law as “problematic,” saying it was “liable to blur historical truths due to limitations it places on expressions regarding the complicity of segments of the Polish population in crimes against Jews committed by its own people, either directly or indirectly, on Polish soil during the Holocaust.”

It was false to speak of “Polish death camps,” as it were Germans who built and operated the Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland. However, the proper way fight historical misrepresentations is “not by criminalizing these statements but by reinforcing educational activities,” Yad Vashem said in a statement.

“Yad Vashem will continue to support research aimed at exposing the complex truth of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust and promoting educational and commemorative activities in this spirit.”

Halina Birenbaum, a Holocaust survivor and acclaimed Israeli author, called the new law “madness,” telling Israel’s Army Radio it was “ludicrous and disproportionate to what actually happened to Jews there.”

Birenbaum, a member of the International Auschwitz Committee, said she was concerned the Polish government “might arrest me there for what I’m saying now.”

AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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