An Israeli man arrested for assaulting the Polish ambassador to Israel apologized Wednesday over the incident — which has caused a fresh diplomatic tempest between the countries — and his lawyer claimed the incident had been “blown out of proportion.”
The man, Arik Lederman, 65, made his claims during a hearing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court after police arrested him for shouting and spitting on Ambassador Marek Magierowski’s car outside the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv.
He was sent to house arrest and banned from the embassy for two weeks, although Justice Alaa Masarwe characterized the incident as a “road dispute” and not a politically motivated assault. While Masarwe said spitting at a diplomatic official in Israel was contemptible and embarrassing, he added that the suspect wouldn’t have been arrested had the Polish envoy not been involved.
Magierowski said he was assaulted Tuesday afternoon by a man in the street outside the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv. The ambassador said that all he could make out from the man’s shouting was “Polish, Polish,” but managed to take a picture of the attacker and his vehicle, which he then handed over to police.
Lederman’s attorney told the court at the hearing that he had gone to the Polish embassy to inquire about Jewish property abandoned after the Holocaust. He said the embassy guard addressed him with an anti-Jewish slur, calling him a “Zhid,” and refused his entry.
It was not clear whether Lederman speaks Polish. He said the guard “said a long sentence in Polish” at the end of which he heard the word “Zhid.”
Magierowski rejected the claim as “bizarre.”
He wrote on Twitter: “I’ve read some bizarre claims about inappropriate behaviour & language of the sec guard at @PLinIsrael. Simply not true. He is a loyal, hard-working, well-trained & delicate person. In his 2-month tenure he’s attended approx. 2K people. Not a single complaint.”
At court Lederman said: “I want to express my apology for the event that happened last night. My family suffered the hardships of the Holocaust in Poland and I came to the embassy on the issue of restitution. During that I was subjected to derogatory treatment by one of the embassy employees who called me a ‘Zhid’ in Polish. That remark offended me very much.”
He said he then left the embassy and was walking on the road because the sidewalks were in bad shape, when “a vehicle came from behind me and honked at me loudly, frightening me. I expressed my anger in a way that I regret.”
“I want to clarify that I did not know about the identity or position of the man in the car, and definitely didn’t know he was the Polish ambassador to Israel. I would like to offer my sincere apology for what happened and I have asked my lawyers to contact the embassy offices to apologize to the ambassador. I hope that with that, the incident will reach its end and won’t be blown out of proportion.”
Lederman’s lawyer, David Johan, said it was an “isolated incident, an almost Kafkaesque story” that “somehow has been blown out of proportion.”
A Channel 12 report said Lederman apparently briefly “lost control” after being insulted, and banged on the roof of the ambassador’s car, and that the ambassador then wound down the window to photograph him. Lederman then opened the door and spat in the ambassador’s face, the TV report said.
After the court hearing, Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement condemning the altercation, saying “any such acts directed against diplomatic agents deserve unequivocal condemnation.”
“Recognizing the prompt action of the Israeli police in apprehending the perpetrator, we call on the Israeli authorities to ensure that Polish diplomats are properly and effectively protected in Israel in the similar way as is the case with Israeli diplomats in Poland,” Warsaw said.
“We hope that the Israeli authorities will make every effort to bring those responsible to justice and to prevent similar incidents targeting Polish diplomats from happening again.”
Meanwhile Poland’s President Andrzej Duda called the incident “an anti-Polish act” and said he expected Israeli explanations.
“The Israeli authorities must clarify this matter as well as the services responsible for security in this country,” he said. “Unfortunately, everything indicates that it was an anti-Polish act, an act of hatred against us.”
He added: “Just as I fight all manifestations of anti-Semitism which I consider to be hideous and unworthy, I will not agree absolutely to any anti-Polish act.”
The incident came amid a bitter standoff between Poland and Israel over how to remember the Holocaust and over demands that Poland pay reparations for former Jewish properties that were seized by Nazi Germany and later nationalized by Poland’s communist regime.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki condemned the attack in a tweet, calling it “racist” and “xenophobic.”
I am very worried to hear of a racist attack on @PLinIsrael ambassador @mmagierowski. Poland strongly condemns this xenophobic act of aggression. Violence against diplomats or any other citizens should never be tolerated.
— Mateusz Morawiecki (@MorawieckiM) May 15, 2019
Poland’s foreign ministry summoned the Israeli ambassador in Warsaw, Anna Azari, to explain why the ambassador was assaulted.
Jewish groups — including the World Jewish Congress and Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis and Chief Rabbi of Moscow — also condemned the incident.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the assault was being investigated and expressed “fullest sympathy to the ambassador and our shock at the attack.”
He later reiterated the statement in response to Morawiecki’s tweet, while vowing to update Polish officials on the investigation.
Israel expresses its full sympathy with the Polish ambassador and shock at the attack. Israeli police currently investigating. We will update our Polish friends . This is a top priority to us, as we are fully committed to diplomats safety and security @IsraelMFA @IsraelinPoland
— Emmanuel Nahshon (@EmmanuelNahshon) May 15, 2019
Magierowski, 48, a former journalist and foreign policy columnist, began his diplomatic career in 2015 and was an undersecretary of state for foreign affairs before becoming ambassador to Israel in June 2018.
Israel and Poland have had fractious relations over the past few years, with the issue of Polish complicity in the Holocaust becoming a major sticking point in bilateral relations after the Polish government passed a law in 2018 prohibiting the ascribing of any responsibility for the genocide to the Polish nation.
Shortly after the law was passed, the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv was vandalized with swastikas and anti-Polish graffiti scrawled on a building gate.
A public opinion survey commissioned by the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv in 2019 showed that one in two Israelis has a negative opinion of Poland, although a large majority believe that Poles, too, suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
In February, Morawiecki, the Polish premier, canceled a trip to Israel for a high-level summit in a diplomatic spat over comments made by Netanyahu on Polish collaboration with the Nazis.
In April, the World Jewish Congress condemned a Polish town after reports that residents hung and burnt an effigy “made to look like a stereotypical Jew” in a revival of an old Easter tradition.
More recently, on Monday Warsaw canceled a visit by Israeli officials who intended to raise the issue of the restitution of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust, a matter Poland insists is closed, despite being the only European Union country that hasn’t passed laws regulating the compensation of looted or national property.
Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.