'The 1st state to institutionalize Holocaust denial by law'

Lawmaker proposes Israeli legislation to counter Polish Holocaust bill

Outrage in Israel as Polish Senate passes legislation despite pledge to first hold talks with Israel; minister calls for Israel to recall ambassador in protest

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Jews from Poland and abroad gather for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of a massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland, on July 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Michal Kosc)
Jews from Poland and abroad gather for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of a massacre of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland, on July 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Michal Kosc)

Israeli officials reacted with outrage on Thursday after the Polish Senate passed a contentious Polish Holocaust bill, with one lawmaker proposing Israeli legislation to counter it and a minister calling for the ambassador to be recalled in protest.

The Polish Senate late Wednesday passed the bill despite assurances from the country’s prime minister that Israeli concerns would be addressed before steps were taken to write it into law. The bill would outlaw blaming the Polish state or nation for crimes of the Holocaust committed in Poland.

The upper house of parliament voted 57-23, with two abstentions, to approve the bill, putting the bill a step closer to becoming law. It must still be signed into law by the president, who supports it.

The Polish senate has given the country “the dubious honor of being the first state to institutionalize Holocaust denial in the law-book,” said lawmaker Itzik Shmuli from the opposition Zionist Union.

Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli speaks during a Labor, Welfare, and Health Committee meeting at the Knesset, March 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shmuli has proposed two pieces of legislation to counter the Polish bill. The first will provide legal defense to anyone prosecuted under the new Polish law.

The second, proposed on Wednesday, expands 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.

“We will not allow the collaborators to hide behind the Nazis and deny their historic responsibility,” Shmuli wrote on Twitter late Wednesday. “Many Poles and many others heard, knew and helped the Nazi extermination machine. The Polish attempt to rewrite history and to shut Holocaust survivors’ mouths is audacious, shocking and despicable and we will strongly oppose this.”

Shmuli’s proposed law also guarantees full legal protection to any Holocaust survivor who tells their story and has legal procedures taken against them in a foreign country, and to guides and education staff participating in tours in Poland on the subject of the Holocaust.

The new Israeli bill was co-authored by Shmuli along with MKs Yair Lapid, who leads the Yesh Atid party, Robert Ilatov (Israel Beytenu), Nurit Koren (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home). It has been signed by over 61 of Israel’s 120 lawmakers, representing a majority in the Knesset.

The move by the Polish Senate drew condemnation in Israel from across the political spectrum.

Transportation Minister Israel Katz called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to immediately recall Israel’s ambassador from Poland for consultations.

“The law passed by the Poles is a grave development, as it removes the blame and denies Poland’s part in the Holocaust of the Jews,” Katz said in a statement.

“Balancing diplomatic considerations against moral considerations should yield a clear choice — immortalizing the memory of Holocaust victims prevails over any other consideration,” he said.

“We will not let the Polish Senate’s decision pass without reaction. Polish anti-Semitism fueled the Holocaust,” Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant told Army Radio.

Zionist Union’s MK Tzipi Livni at a party faction meeting in the Knesset on January 16, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Former foreign minister and Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni told the radio station that “they have spat in Israel’s face twice,  firstly as the state of the Jewish people that is trying to prevent a second Holocaust, and secondly in the face of an Israeli prime minister who had reached an agreement with his Polish counterpart, and had it ignored.”

MK Lapid wrote on Twitter that “no Polish law can change history. We’ll never forget.”

Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party authored the bill, which mandates up to three years of prison for any intentional attempt to attribute the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or people.

A key paragraph of the bill 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.”

The infamous German inscription that reads ‘Work Makes Free’ at the main gate of the Auschwitz I extermination camp on November 15, 2014 in Oswiecim, Poland. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images via JTA)

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 move, 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.

“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.

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

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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