Netanyahu giving a statement about the Polish 'Holocaust law' in Tel Aviv, June 27, 2018. Haim Zach / GPO

Yad Vashem Rebukes Netanyahu: Israel-Poland Holocaust Declaration Contains 'Grave Errors and Deceptions'

Israeli team behind declaration says in defense: Yad Vashem's chief historian was involved every step of the way. Poland's deputy FM: Netanyahu's statement is binding, not Yad Vashem

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem harshly criticized the joint statement signed last week by both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki, following Poland's decision to amend a controversial law that criminalized those accusing the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi era crimes.

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Yad Vashem said in a statement that the Israeli-Polish declaration contained a number of historical errors, and that it paves the way to continue with legal battles against historians and other Holocaust researchers – even if these will now be only civil and not criminal proceedings.

“A thorough review by Yad Vashem historians shows that the historical assertions, presented as unchallenged facts, in the joint statement contain grave errors and deceptions, and that the essence of the statute remains unchanged even after the repeal of the aforementioned sections, including the possibility of real harm to researchers, unimpeded research, and the historical memory of the Holocaust,” said Yad Vashem in its statement, released a week after the official joint statement. The Yad Vashem document was signed by the institution’s senior historians Prof. Dan Michman, Prof. Hava Dreifuss and Dr. David Silberklang. 

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Yad Vashem warned of a possible wave of lawsuits by Polish groups against those who “impugn the good name of the Polish State and the Polish Nation,” as the language of the law stpiulates. By Polish law, the burden of proof in these cases will be on the defendants and not the plaintiffs, which will force defendants to raise large sums to defend themselves in court.

Even worse, now that the criminal sanctions have been removed, the reservations to them that appeared in the original text, which stated that it does not apply to artists and researchers, have been removed as well. In practice, according to Yad Vashem, this means that now researchers, artists, tour guides, politicians and others can be sued for statements not made in public and that “are not contradicted by the facts.”

As a result, many people could now be exposed to suits because they fulfilled their rights to freedom of speech and academic freedom concerning the Holocaust, said Yad Vashem. This will create an atmosphere of intimidation, which will deter people from touching on sensitive questions that are the foundations of Holocaust research.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki stuck by the joint Israeli-Polish statement, telling Polish news outlets in response that Netanyahu's commitment is the one that is "binding", not Yad Vashem's statement. 

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said in response that the statement "is a disgrace rife with lies. As education minister, charged with teaching the memory of the Holocaust, I fully reject it. It lacks a historical basis and will not be taught in schools." Bennett added that he would ask the prime minister to either cancel the declaration or bring it to the government to be approved.

"The historical reality is that Poles assisting Jews was a relatively rare phenomenon, while Poles hurting Jews was widespread," the minister continued.

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid also referred to the statement as a disgrace and called on Netanyahu to immediately cancel the joint statement with Poland. Lapid said the statement "outrageously debases the memory of the victims... 200 thousand Jews were killed by Poles in the Holocaust, and Netanyahu signs a declaration that clears the Poles' name."

Yad Vashem released its statement even though Netanyahu thanked Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Prof. Dina Porat, for her help in in his explanation of the joint declaration. Yad Vashem has said that if Prof. Porat was involved, it wasn't on behalf of the institution.

On Thursday, the Polish government published a Hebrew translation of the joint statement (written in English and not in either of the native languages of the countries involved) in ads it bought in Israeli newspapers.

On June 27, after months of secret negotiations between Israel and Poland, the Polish government amended the section imposing criminal sanctions in the “Holocaust Law,” which was passed in January. In signing the joint statement, Israel in fact accepted the Polish narrative concerning the Holocaust, which emphasizes the efforts of the Poles in saving Jews and minimizes their role in persecuting and killing Jews.

The Yad Vashem historians specifically criticized the wording of the joint statement signed by Netanyahu and Morawiecki, saying it has a number of sections that are historically controversial, such as recognizing that the Polish Government-in-Exile and the Polish underground acted to rescue Jews during World War II, and “attempted to stop this Nazi activity by trying to raise awareness among the Western allies of the systematic murder of the Polish Jews.”

“The statement contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field. The joint statement’s wording effectively supports a narrative that research has long since disproved, namely, that the Polish Government-in-Exile and its underground arms strove indefatigably—in occupied Poland and elsewhere—to thwart the extermination of Polish Jewry. As such, they created a ‘mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people’ and even took vigorous action against Poles who betrayed Jews. Although the joint statement acknowledges that there were cases in which Poles committed cruelties against Jews, it is also says that “numerous Poles” risked their lives to rescue Jew,” write the historians.

But they continue: “The existing documentation and decades of historical research yield a totally different picture: the Polish Government-in-Exile, based in London, as well as the Delegatura (the representative organ of this Government in occupied Poland) did not act resolutely on behalf of Poland’s Jewish citizens at any point during the war. Much of the Polish resistance in its various movements not only failed to help Jews, but was also not infrequently actively involved in persecuting them.”

The document does “acknowledge and condemn every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during WWII,” but only as individuals and refers to “the sad fact is that some people – regardless of their origin, religion or worldview – revealed their darkest side at that time.”

At the same time it states: “We are honored to remember heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people,” while rejecting “the actions aimed at blaming Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators of different nations.”

Another controversial part of the joint declaration is its final section, which drew parallels between anti-Semitism and “anti-Polonism and other negative national stereotypes” and condemned both equally. “While we should put an end to the use of the misleading and ill-conceived concept of ‘Polish death camps,’ calling the use of such terms ‘anti-Polonism’ is fundamentally anachronistic and has nothing whatsoever to do with antisemitism.”

The statement from Yad Vashem emphasized that this is the official, and only official position of the institution and its scholars. The statement was released after Prof. Yehuda Bauer, an Israel Prize-winning Holocaust historian formerly at Yad Vashem, said last week that the Israeli-Polish statement was a “betrayal” that “hurt the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust.”

In a radio interview, the 92-year-old said the backtracking on the law and the signing of a joint statement with Poland was “a small achievement and a very big mistake, bordering on betrayal.” Bauer said Israel had accepted the Polish narrative and “legitimized it,” even though it was a “completely mendacious story.” Bauer said the Poles “cheated us, twisted us around their finger and we agreed to it because to the State of Israel, economic, security and political ties are more important than a little matter like the Holocaust.”

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