Lapid: Israeli ‘surrender' to Poland a 'national disgrace’

‘Polish propaganda’: Critics assail deal to resume Israeli youth trips to Poland

Destinations in a draft agreement include a museum for Poles who saved Jews and another for Soviet repression victims — including killers of Jews

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Illustrative: Israeli high school students on school trips to Poland, where they learn about the Holocaust. (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israeli high school students on school trips to Poland, where they learn about the Holocaust. (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

A draft agreement between Poland and Israel on the resumption of school trips to Nazi former death camps is drawing fire for its inclusion of recommended sites that critics say provide a distorted view of the Holocaust.

Critics of the draft agreement, which was drawn up and signed by the foreign ministers of both countries last month but whose details were published only Monday by Haaretz, say it ignores Polish complicity in the Holocaust and aggrandizes efforts by Poles to save Jews.

Some of the criticism about the draft, which still needs to be ratified by the Israeli and Polish parliaments, is about a list of 32 recommended sites in Poland, one of which must be visited by each Israeli delegation. The list includes sites that commemorate victims of Soviet repression, including, ostensibly, Poles who killed Jews. It also includes two major Jewish museums, a host of general Polish history museums unrelated to World War II and a synagogue.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust memorial and museum, said in a statement to Haaretz that the list contained “problematic sites inappropriate for visiting on educational trips.”

Advocates of the draft, or parts of it, said it contains pedagogical progress and ample choice to avoid controversial sites, and asserted that it represents an acceptable compromise.

The draft agreement is a step toward normalizing ties with Poland, which until several years ago had been one of the most pro-Israel countries in the European Union. Relations deteriorated in 2018, after Poland passed legislation that outlawed blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes. Then-foreign minister Yair Lapid called the law antisemitic, touching off a diplomatic row.

People walk next to the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Sets You Free) gate at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, January 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

As part of that conflict, Israel last year suspended youth trips, which had brought about 25,000 Israeli youths annually to Poland. The official reason for the suspension was disagreements on security arrangements but controversies concerning content also played a part in the abrupt suspension.

The new agreement gives the Polish state sole security responsibility over Israeli trips in the absence of information on imminent risks to Israelis in Poland. If such information arises, Israel may ask to assign its own security agents to trips.

On the more sensitive issues of content, the draft states that each delegation of Israeli students would get a Polish guide at the sites they visit – a potentially controversial concession to demands on the Polish side for more say in how the former death camps are presented to the visitors from Israel.

In a tweet, opposition leader Yair Lapid said Israel’s “surrender” to Poland in the countries’ recent deal “is a national disgrace.”

“The Poles have for years attempted through every means to hide and deny the part of many Poles in the extermination [of Jews in the Holocaust] — alongside those Righteous among the Nations who acted to save Jews… It is unacceptable that youth trips coming to learn of the Holocaust will learn the Polish narrative.”

He said that, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, “I am ashamed of the Israeli government for giving up on its morals and principles.”

Education Minister Yoav Kisch, who was involved in the new agreement, said Lapid under the previous government “was responsible for destroying relations” with Poland and “is now trying to do what he does best — ruin international relations.”

Kisch insisted that “there is no change in the [student] trips. Anything else is fake news.”

Meir Bulka, an Israeli activist promoting the preservation of Jewish heritage in Poland and founder of the J-Nererations group, was quoted as saying that the agreement means Israeli parents “are now funding Polish propaganda.”

The agreement describes the 32 recommended sites as “pertaining to the Holocaust and other World War II crimes.”

Some of the agreement’s critics have taken issue with that language, which they say equates the Holocaust, despite its singularity, with other atrocities. Others criticized the destinations themselves, including the Museum of Cursed Soldiers and Political Prisoners of the Polish People’s Republic, which commemorates the victims of Communist persecution – including militia fighters involved in the murder of Jews.

Another recommended destination is the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II. A third is the Katyń Museum, commemorating Polish soldiers killed by the Soviets.

In this July 16, 2019 file photo a woman passes the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. Two co-founders of the museum urged the third partner — the Polish government — to comply with an agreement to re-appoint the museum’s former director, saying a failure to do so is incomprehensible and is damaging to Polish-Jewish relations. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, File)

Havi Dreifuss, a historian at Tel Aviv University and Yad Vashem, told Haaretz that the list was “outrageous” and that most of the locales on it “are dubious at best and controversial at worst.” Some of the sites “ignore documented aspects of Poles’ involvement in the murder of Jews,” whereas others “glorify Poles who were involved up to their necks in the murder of Jews.”

Jan Grabowski, an influential Polish-Canadian historian, was quoted in the report as saying that the list reads “like a Holocaust denier’s dream.” He and Dreifuss object specifically to the Ulma Family Museum’s inclusion, the report said. This museum “should be avoided at all costs,” Grabowski said. “If there were a museum of Holocaust distortion, this would be it.”

Yitzchak Mais, a former director of the historical museum at Yad Vashem, disputed this criticism of the Ulma Family Museum. Mais, a world-renowned museum planner and expert on exhibition narratives, told The Times of Israel that that museum “is a worthy and welcome addition to the trips.”

Based on his 2018 visit to Ulma museum, Mais said it “celebrates rescue, as is worthy, but doesn’t shy away from complicity. Its narrative is balanced and honest.” Mais criticized the inclusion in the agreement of the “other World War II crimes” category and that the list of recommended destinations includes “agenda-oriented museums,” including the Katyn Museum for Polish soldiers killed by Soviets. But, Mais added, the list does contain “better places to visit, which are more relevant to the Holocaust and don’t risk obfuscating it.”

Avi Mehl, an Israeli diplomat who helped establish ties with Poland as it broke away from the Communist bloc in the 1980s, downplayed the inclusion of controversial sites on the recommended list. “It’s a long, ample list with many options, like the excellent Polin Museum. There’s no need to go to the problematic places,” Mehl told The Times of Israel. He also praised the inclusion in the agreement of a reference to meetings between Polish and Israeli youths on trips (the draft says they’ll occur “whenever the hosting side is able to organize them”).

Jonny Daniels, an Israeli, Warsaw-based Holocaust commemoration activist, said: “We should be under no illusions: The Polish side is investing huge financial and diplomatic resourses to push their narrative, which sadly often skews historical truths.” But Daniels, who heads the From the Depths organization, ultimately supports the deal, he said.

“This agreement is a decent compromise to build on. It gives the Polish side a limited say in what happens on those trips, and that’s not a big price to pay for resuming them because it’s crucial the trips are resumed so that young Israelis understand the Holocaust,” he said.

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