Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday responded to a storm of accusations that he was whitewashing Holocaust history over an agreement he signed with Poland, and said he would “listen… to the historians” and speak out accordingly.
Speaking at the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu for the first time addressed the controversy which has seen him rebuked by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center as well as politicians from across the spectrum, saying that he had heard the criticisms and would work to address them.
The joint declaration, signed simultaneously on June 27 by Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki, ended a diplomatic standoff over a Polish law that made it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in the extermination of Jews during World War II.
Ahead of the joint signing, Poland amended the law. Netanyahu said Sunday that had been his primary goal.
“Regarding the Polish law, the goal of the contacts with the Polish government was to abrogate the criminal clauses in the Polish law that cast a pall of fear over research and free discourse regarding the Holocaust. This goal has been achieved,” Netanyahu said.
“The [joint] statement published following the change in the law was overseen by a senior historian,” he added.
“However, various comments were made after its publication. I have listened intently to the comments of the historians, including about several things that were not included in the declaration. I respect this and I will give expression to it,” said Netanyahu, offering no further details.
The controversial joint text declared that the term “Polish death camps” is “blatantly erroneous” and that the wartime Polish government-in-exile “attempted to stop this Nazi activity by trying to raise awareness among the Western allies to the systematic murder of the Polish Jews.”
Controversially, too, it condemned “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during… World War II” but noted “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people.”
While the joint declaration — which Poland is actively promoting through full-page ads in newspaper across the globe — appears to give the same prominence to those Poles who helped Jews and those who persecuted them, Yad Vashem made plain in a statement Thursday that “decades of historical research reveal a totally different picture: Poles’ assistance to Jews during the Holocaust was relatively rare, and attacks against and even the murder of Jews were widespread phenomena.”
The joint declaration issued by Warsaw and Jerusalem “contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field,” the institution said in a press release.
Also on Thursday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett rejected the joint statement as factually inaccurate, vowing that it would not be taught in Israel schools. Bennett further called on Netanyahu to rescind the statement or bring it to a vote in the cabinet for approval. Opposition leaders joined Bennett’s calls for the declaration to be rescinded.
On Wednesday, the Knesset will debate a motion presented by Meretz leader Tamar Zanderberg to hold a declarative vote denouncing the joint statement released by the Israeli and Polish governments. Zandberg called on Bennett to “show he truly denounces” the joint statement and to vote in favor of her motion.
Zandberg charged that the agreement is part of “the phenomenon of Netanyahu and Likud joining with anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi leaders and parties around the world.”
The Foreign Ministry confirmed this week that Netanyahu will host Hungary’s President Victor Orban later this month. Numerous Israeli lawmakers have urged Netanyahu not to do so, citing among other things the right-wing Hungarian leader’s campaign against the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros that many considered obliquely anti-Semitic.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.