Israel nixes visit by top Polish official amid Holocaust bill backlash

Upcoming trip by Warsaw security council chief postponed day after Polish Senate passes bill making it unlawful to accuse country of being complicit in Nazi crimes

Visitors at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, January 26, 2015 (AP/Alik Keplicz)
Visitors at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, January 26, 2015 (AP/Alik Keplicz)

Israel has canceled the planned visit to the country of Poland’s national security adviser, Pawel Soloch, amid an escalating row between the two governments over legislation in Poland that seeks to criminalize any intentional attempt to attribute the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or nation.

“In light of the Polish Senate’s approval of the bill, Israel asked to postpone the planned visit in Israel of the head of the Polish national security council,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday.

Pawel Soloch, head of the Polish National Security Bureau. (Courtesy)

Soloch was scheduled to travel to Israel on February 4-7, with a planned visit at Israel’s official Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.

The cancellation follows the Polish Senate’s vote on Wednesday passing a bill regulating Holocaust speech. The upper house of the Polish parliament, or Sejm, voted 57-23, with two abstentions, to approve the bill, putting it a step closer to becoming law. It must still be signed into law by Polish President Andrzej Duda, who supports it.

Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party authored the bill, which states: “Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich… or other crimes against peace and humanity, or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the actual perpetrators thereof, shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.”

Law and Justice says it is fighting against phrases like “Polish death camps” to refer to death camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.

Israel, however, sees the legislation, with its wide-ranging provisions, as an attempt to cover up the role some Poles played in the killing of Jews during World War II.

Senators attend an overnight session at the Polish Senate in Warsaw, on February 1, 2018. (PAP/Radek Pietruszka/AFP)

“Everybody knows that many, many thousands of Poles killed or betrayed their Jewish neighbors to the Germans, causing them to be murdered,” said Efraim Zuroff, a prominent historian on the Holocaust and the Eastern Europe director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, on Sunday. “The Polish state was not complicit in the Holocaust, but many Poles were.”

The dispute, which erupted over the weekend, has elicited bitter recriminations on both sides. Some Israelis have accused the mostly Catholic Poles of being driven by anti-Semitism and of trying to deny the Holocaust. Poles believe that they are being defamed by being linked to German crimes of which they were one of the largest group of victims.

Israel, along with several international Holocaust organizations, and many critics in Poland, argues that the law could have a chilling effect on debating history, harming freedom of expression and leading to a whitewashing of Poland’s wartime history.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pilloried the law as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gives a speech to lawmakers at the parliament in Warsaw on December 12. (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynski)

Netanyahu spoke to his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, Sunday night, and the two “agreed to immediately open a dialogue between staffs of the two countries, in order to try and reach an understanding over the legislation,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office read.

Amid the dispute some Polish commentators, including in government-controlled media, have made strong anti-Jewish remarks.

In one instance, the head of a state-run channel suggested referring to Auschwitz as a “Jewish death camp,” in response to an outcry over use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the Nazi killing site in German-occupied Poland.

On Wednesday, a US Congressional taskforce on combating anti-Semitism said it was “alarmed” by the legislation and called on Polish President Andrzej Duda to veto it.

“We are deeply concerned that this legislation could have a chilling effect on dialogue, scholarship, and accountability in Poland about the Holocaust, should this legislation become law,” the bipartisan group said.

The lower house of the Polish parliament approved the bill on Friday, a day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, timing that has also been criticized as insensitive.

Duda on Sunday sought to defuse the crisis by promising “a careful analysis of the final shape of the act” focused on provisions that have alarmed Israel.

However, the next day Duda told public broadcaster TVP that he was “flabbergasted” by Israel’s “violent and very unfavorable reaction” to the bill.

“We absolutely can’t back down, we have the right to defend the historical truth,” he said.

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