WARSAW, Poland — The Polish Senate on Wednesday passed a bill regulating Holocaust speech that has sparked a diplomatic dispute with Israel, despite assurances from the country’s prime minister that Israeli concerns would be addressed before steps were taken to write it into law.
The upper house of parliament voted 57-23, with two abstentions, to approve the bill, putting the controversial bill a step closer to becoming law. It must still be signed into law by the president, who supports it.
Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party authored the bill, which provides for up to three years of prison for any intentional attempt to attribute the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or nation.
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.”
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 legislation, 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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pilloried the law as “distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust.”
Netanyahu spoke to his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, Sunday night, and the two “agreed to immediately open a dialogue between staffs of the two countries, in order to try and reach an understanding over the legislation,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office read.
Amid the dispute some Polish commentators, including in government-controlled media, have made strong anti-Jewish remarks.
In one instance, the head of a state-run channel suggested referring to Auschwitz as a “Jewish death camp,” in response to an outcry over use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the Nazi killing site in German-occupied Poland.
On Wednesday, a US Congressional taskforce on combating anti-Semitism said it was “alarmed” by the legislation and called on Polish President Andrzej Duda to veto it.
“We are deeply concerned that this legislation could have a chilling effect on dialogue, scholarship, and accountability in Poland about the Holocaust, should this legislation become law,” the bipartisan group said.
The lower house of the Polish parliament approved the bill on Friday, a day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, timing that has also been criticized as insensitive.
Duda on Sunday sought to defuse the crisis by promising “a careful analysis of the final shape of the act” focused on provisions that have alarmed Israel.
However, the next day Duda told public broadcaster TVP that he was “flabbergasted” by Israel’s “violent and very unfavorable reaction” to the bill.
“We absolutely can’t back down, we have the right to defend the historical truth,” he said.