A bitter dispute between Jerusalem and Warsaw over a controversial Holocaust law reached new heights on Monday, as an Israeli mayor was forced to cancel a speech he was planning to deliver to Israeli high school students on a trip to Poland after local authorities censored his prepared remarks.
Kiryat Bialik Mayor Eli Dukorsky, who is heading the Israeli delegation and who is the son of a Holocaust survivor, was meant to deliver his speech on Monday along with the mayor of Radomsko, Kiryat Bialik’s Polish twin city.
However, before Dukorsky could deliver his address, the Radomsko municipality asked to go over his speech in light of a new law criminalizing the mention of complicity by the Polish state or nation in the Holocaust.
After authorities reviewed the planned speech, they requested that Dukorsky either omit parts of it that dealt with Poles who turned Jews in to the Nazi occupiers, or blame Ukrainians instead.
The Israeli mayor then sought the advice of the Foreign Ministry, which recommended that he not deliver a censored version of his speech, Hadashot TV news reported.
“We reject any attempt at censorship,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon. “We support the mayor’s right to make his speech as planned and not omit any word, not even a single letter.”
The joint ceremony was then canceled, Hadashot news reported.
Dukorsky then decided to hold an alternative ceremony for the Israeli students and read out his full speech. It was not immediately clear if Polish authorities monitored his remarks..
Thousands of Israeli students visit Poland each year to learn about the Holocaust, culminating in the March of the Living in April. The incident appeared to be the strongest yet indication that the new law will cast a shadow over official commemorations.
As currently written, the Polish law calls for prison terms of up to three years for attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or nation. The law also sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone who refers to Nazi German death camps as Polish. Dukorsky’s speech did not appear to accuse the Polish state or nation of Holocaust crimes, nor refer to Polish death camps.
The legislation, which was introduced by Poland’s conservative ruling party, has sparked a bitter dispute with Israel, which says it will inhibit free speech about the Holocaust. The United States also strongly opposes the legislation, warning it could hurt Poland’s strategic relations with Israel and the US.
During his speech, the mayor told the students about the Polish demand from him, noting that besides talking about Polish citizens’ complicity in actions by the Nazis, he also mentioned the many Poles who saved Jews during World War II.
“They asked me to omit the number of Jews murdered by Poles during the war, about 200,000 Jews, and I said I am willing to delete the number,” Dukorsky said.
“But I was requested to make further changes to which I didn’t agree,” he continued, saying he was asked to substitute the word “Poles” with “Ukrainians” when speaking about Poles’ involvement in the Holocaust, and “German Nazis” instead of “Nazis.”
“Israel is not willing to compromise over historical facts,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said, according to Israel’s Channel 10 news. “Mentioning painful events from the past doesn’t mean blaming the entire Polish people. It is important to continue the open and honest discussions between both sides.”
Earlier this month, senior Israeli and Polish diplomats met in Jerusalem in a bid to resolve differences, with both sides vowing to preserve “the truth.”
But last week, Poland demanded that the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem remove a reference to “Polish police” guarding the Lodz ghetto.
One key paragraph of the law states, “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.”
Jewish groups, Holocaust survivors and Israeli officials fear its true aim is to repress research on Poles who killed Jews during World War II. The law and subsequent backlash have unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland.
JTA contributed to this report.