Israel and Poland on Thursday ended a bitter dispute over the Polish Holocaust law, with Warsaw dropping penalties for blaming Nazi crimes on the country and Israel acknowledging some of Poland’s concerns.
Reading out a joint statement crafted between the two governments, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the Polish decision to amend the law and credited it to Israel’s standing up for the truth.
In a speech at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu spoke of the anger caused in Israel and elsewhere by the law, which raised fears it could squelch free speech on the Holocaust. But he also highlighted the importance of ties between the two countries.
These ties, he said, include a “joint responsibility for preserving the memory of the Holocaust.”
“It is clear to everyone the Holocaust was an unprecedented crime, a crime carried out by Nazi Germany against the Jewish nation, including the Jews of Poland,” Netanyahu said in Hebrew. “The Polish government expressed understanding for the meaning of the Holocaust as the most tragic chapter in the history of the Jewish people.”
“We stood up for defending the truth and fulfilled our chief duty: To guarantee the historical truth of the Holocaust,” he said. “This is how we’ll continue to act.”
Switching to English, Netanyahu preceded to read verbatim a joint Israeli-Polish statement on the law’s cancellation, which included a nod to Poland’s rejection of the term “Polish death camps” and “anti-Polonism.”
Denouncing “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during World War II,” the statement read out by Netanyahu stressed the role of some Poles in helping to save Jews during World War II, including the Polish government in exile.
“We are honored to remember heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people,” he said. “We reject actions aimed at blaming Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators of different nations.”
Acknowledging critics of the legislation, Netanyahu then emphasized both countries’ commitment to unimpeded research of the Holocaust.
“We believe that there is a common responsibility to conduct free research, to promote understanding and to preserve the understanding and history of the Holocaust,” he said, continuing to read from the statement. “We support free and open historical expression and research on all aspects of Holocaust so that it can be conducted without any fear of legal obstacles.”
With this, the statement noted Holocaust survivors and their families will not be prosecuted for exercising their right to “free speech and academic freedom” regarding the Holocaust.
“No law can and no law will change that,” he said, before going on to condemn anti-Semitism and “anti-Polonism.”
Netanyahu’s strong backing for the amendment to the Polish law was a marked difference from initial reactions in Israel to the altered legislation.
The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, which had strongly condemned the law before its passage, called the change a “positive development in the right direction.”
“We believe that the correct way to combat historical misrepresentations is by reinforcing open, free research and educational activities,” Yad Vashem said in a statement.
Striking a sharply different note than Yad Vashem, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid called the amendment to the law a “bad joke.”
Lapid, the son of a Holocaust survivor, has been one of the most outspoken Israeli critics of the law, which he labeled an attempt to rewrite history.
The new draft bill was presented to parliament by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and lawmakers held an emotional debate, with members of the opposition lashing out at the Law and Justice party for passing the law in the first place.
The new version removes the penal provisions and is likely to allow Poland to repair its international standing and relationship with its allies. However, Law and Justice also risks losing some support from its nationalist voters.
Morawiecki tried to put a positive spin on the whole affair, arguing that while abandoning the original law, it still had been a success because it had made Poland’s wartime history a topic of international debate.
“Our basic goal was to fight for the truth, for Poland’s good name, to present what reality looked like, the realities of World War II and we achieve this goal,” Morawiecki said.
In response to the removal of penalties, Jewish community leader Klaudia Klimek said that the result was positive; however, “as usual, this government destroyed good relations with Israel, Ukraine and the US and only after reasonable external pressure admitted its mistake and changed.”
The dispute with Israel sparked a wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric in Poland, even by members of the government and commentators in public media, as well as hate speech directed against Poles abroad.
In April, a Polish nationalist group asked prosecutors to investigate whether Israeli President Reuven Rivlin broke the law during a visit to Poland.
The vice president of the National Movement, Krzysztof Bosak, said the request was filed after Rivlin told his Polish counterpart during commemorations at Auschwitz that Poland enabled the implementation of Germany’s genocide.
In February, Morawiecki said that, alongside Poles, Jews were also responsible for perpetrating the Holocaust.
“Of course, it’s not going to be punishable, [it’s] not going to be seen as criminal to say that there were Polish perpetrators, as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as there were Ukrainian; not only German perpetrators,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth.
In March, the Polish attorney general’s office described the law as partly unconstitutional, saying it was “dysfunctional,” could have “opposite results than those intended,” and could “undermine the Polish state’s authority.”
Agencies contributed to this report.