Israel, Poland summon each other’s envoys over Holocaust restitution law spat

Foreign Ministry official tells Polish envoy not too late to walk back legislation; Lapid: ‘We’re not interested in Polish money. We are fighting for the pride of our people’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski in Jerusalem on October 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski in Jerusalem on October 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Poland and Israel each summoned the other’s ambassador for meetings on Sunday as a rift deepens between the countries after a bill on Holocaust restitution advanced in the Polish parliament.

Last week, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid slammed new Polish legislation, which was passed on Thursday night by the lower house of parliament and is expected to limit Holocaust restitution claims, as “immoral and a disgrace.”

In response, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki hit back at Lapid’s claim.

“I can only say that as long as I am the prime minister, Poland will not pay for German crimes: Neither zloty, nor euro, nor dollar,” Morawiecki said in response to a question at a press conference on Friday about Lapid’s comments.

On Sunday, Lapid harshly criticized Morawiecki’s words.

“The prime minister of Poland should check the facts again,” he said in a statement. “Millions of Jews were killed on Polish soil and no legislation will erase their memory. We’re not interested in Polish money and hinting at such is antisemitic.

“We are fighting for the memory of the Holocaust victims, for the pride of our people, and we won’t allow any parliament to pass laws whose goal is to deny the Holocaust.”

The legislation, which passed with 309 votes in favor, zero votes opposed and 120 abstentions, according to Polish state news agency PAP, places a 10-to-30-year cutoff date on contesting past administrative decisions on restitution. Critics of the law argue that it will effectively cut off the ability of Jews to reclaim property that was seized before and during the Holocaust.

“It is a horrific injustice and disgrace that harms the rights of Holocaust survivors, their heirs, and members of the Jewish communities that existed in Poland for hundreds of years,” said Lapid last week. “This is an incomprehensible action. This immoral law will seriously harm relations between the countries.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a conference on Peace and Security in the Middle East in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. (AP/Michael Sohn)

The Foreign Ministry summoned Polish Ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski on Sunday to express its disapproval over the law.

Alon Bar, head of the Foreign Ministry’s political department, “expressed the State of Israel’s severe disappointment” at the legislation, “which is expected to adversely affect, according to experts, 90 percent of property restitution requests from Holocaust survivors and their descendants,” according to the Foreign Ministry.

Bar also reiterated Lapid’s comments from last week noting that the law is expected to adversely affect Israeli-Polish relations, “and emphasized that it is not too late for Poland to halt these measures… and return to discourse on property restitution.”

Poland on Sunday also summoned Israel’s envoy to the European nation amid the dispute.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski said Warsaw summoned Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon, Israel’s charge d’affaires, in order to “explain to her in a decisive and factual way what it’s about,” Jablonski told state television TVP.

The meeting in Warsaw is slated to be held on Monday. Jablonski told the state TV network that he believes “that unfortunately what we’re dealing with here is a situation that certain Israeli politicians are exploiting for internal political purposes.”

Thousands of Polish nationalists march to the US Embassy, in Warsaw, Poland, May 11, 2019, to protest against pressure from Washington to compensate Jews whose families lost property during the Holocaust. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Poland’s foreign ministry said Friday the introduction of time limits would “lead to the elimination of fraud and irregularities, which occurred on a large scale.”

“The new regulations do not in any way restrict the possibility of bringing civil suits to seek damages, irrespective of the plaintiff’s nationality or origin,” it added.

Holocaust restitution in Poland is unpopular among many citizens, and Polish President Andrzej Duda campaigned against it ahead of his reelection last year. Many Polish citizens believe that claims should only be addressed to Nazi Germany and that it is unfair for Poland to pay out any damages from the Holocaust era.

“There won’t be any damages paid for heirless property,” Duda said last year. “I will never sign a law that will privilege any ethnic group vis-à-vis others. Damages should be paid by the one that started the war.”

Poland is the only country in the European Union that has not passed comprehensive national legislation to return, or provide compensation for, private property confiscated by the Nazis or nationalized by the communist regime.

Issues of Holocaust restitution and revisionism have repeatedly plagued Israeli-Polish ties. In 2018, Warsaw passed a law that made it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or state of complicity in Nazi German war crimes. The move sparked an outcry from Israel, but the standoff largely ended when Poland agreed to amend the law to remove any criminal penalties.

Last January, Duda refused to attend the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem after he was not invited to speak at the event. A week later, during a meeting in Krakow, Israeli President Rivlin asserted that “many Poles stood by and even assisted in the murder of Jews” during the Holocaust, something Poland has worked to deny, despite historical evidence.

AFP contributed to this report.

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