The chief historian of Israel’s vaunted Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial defended her role in an Israeli-Polish Holocaust declaration that caused a firestorm in Israel when it was published in major newspapers last week.
In an interview with the Kan public broadcaster — her first public comments since the furor began — Prof. Dina Porat insisted “we can live with” much of the controversial declaration’s claims about the Holocaust.
She also acknowledged that some clarification might be needed, saying, “If it’s possible to fix, I would fix, I would add, there’s no doubt about that. But not in the atmosphere that has been created” surrounding the declaration. “That’s why I haven’t responded until now; you couldn’t open your mouth in all the noise.”
The declaration was released on June 27 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, as part of an agreement signed by the two that ended the spat between Israel and Poland over a controversial Polish law that criminalized any accusation of the Polish nation being “responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.”
The joint declaration was issued minutes after the Polish parliament passed legislation to remove the troubling passages and President Anderzej Duda signed it into law.
The statement concerned the Holocaust and Poland’s role in it. It declared the term “Polish death camps” to be “blatantly erroneous” and said 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.” It also rejected anti-Semitism and “anti-Polonism.”
Most controversially, 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.”
On Thursday, Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and research center, released a scathing analysis of the amended law and joint statement. 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.
The joint declaration caused a political firestorm in Israel last week, after an NGO with links to the Polish government decided to publish its contents, translated into local languages, in newspapers in Israel, Poland, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere.
Throughout the furor, Netanyahu’s chief negotiators in the secret talks with Poland that led to the agreement insisted that Porat, a renowned historian of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, had accompanied the talks throughout the negotiating process, and that “historical statements that appear in the declaration were approved by her.”
Porat denied that claim on Sunday, saying she had indeed been consulted on the talks, but only on a “voluntary, personal and confidential basis,” and not as a representative of Yad Vashem.
Nor did she “approve” every statement. “No one committed to change every word I asked to be changed,” she said.
The Times of Israel reported last week that Porat did not see the final draft of the statement before it was made public. But, she insisted on Sunday, the text nevertheless reflected a legitimate demand by the Poles.
“I don’t think you can accuse the entire Polish nation of persistently targeting [Jews] in a systematic way” during the Holocaust, she said. “The Poles really were victims” of the Nazis as well.
She said she accepted the criticism that the statement included language that appeared to magnify Polish aid to Jews while seeming to minimize the complicity of Poles in the Nazi persecution.
“They don’t want their crimes to be central to their consciousness or identity. They want a different identity,” she said.
Asked about the declaration’s apparent equating of anti-Semitism and “anti-Polonism,” she tried to offer the Polish view.
“The Poles have protested that we have forgiven the Germans, because of the reparations, and therefore we don’t badmouth the Germans as much as we badmouth the Poles. They claim that Germany bought our forgiveness with money, while they say, ‘We’re a poor people.'” That’s what the Polish side means when it complains of “anti-Polonism,” she said.
In the interview, Porat agreed with Yad Vashem’s criticism of one particular sentence in the declaration that has drawn the fiercest opprobrium in Israel. It said: “Some people, regardless of their origin, religion, or worldview, revealed their darkest side at that time.”
Yad Vashem characterized the sentence as an “outrageous insinuation that Jews also revealed ‘their darkest side at that time.'”
It was a “very bad sentence, poorly phrased,” Porat said. Those who revealed their “darkest side,” she insisted, “were Poles and they were Catholics.”