Visegrad Summit in Israel Canceled After Poland Pulls Out Over Holocaust Row

Poland pulls out after interim Foreign Minister said Poles 'suckled anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk' ■ Hungarian, Czech and Slovak leaders will arrive to meet Netanyahu

FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban share a light moment during the reception ceremony in front of the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, July 18, 2017.
Balazs Mohai/AP

The Visegrad summit in Israel has been canceled after Poland pulled out over Israeli remarks regarding Polish complicity in the Holocaust, with Hungarian, Czech and Slovak leaders arriving in Israel for bilateral meetings instead.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters that Israel's interim Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz's remarks were "racist and unacceptable" and that "this is not something that can be left without a response."

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Katz as interim foreign minister on Sunday. The same day, in an interview to Israel's i24 News Katz said: "I am the son of Holocaust survivors, we will never forgive and never forget, and there were many Poles who collaborated with the Nazis."

He continued to quote former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, saying: "Shamir said that every Pole suckled anti-Semitism with his mother's milk. Nobody will tell us how to express out stance and how to honor the dead."

Poland summoned again Israel's ambassador Anna Azari. She was called in for a clarification talk Friday after Netanyahu made remarks about Poland's involvement in the Holocaust. 

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Poland's ambassador to Israel Marek Magierowski criticized Katz's comments on Twitter, saying that "It is really astonishing that the newly appointed foreign minister of Israel quotes such a shameful and racist remark. Utterly unacceptable."

The recent crisis began after Netanyahu addressed Poland's so-called Holocaust Law during his visit in Warsaw for a summit co-hosted by the United States on the Middle East.

The controversial legislation permits lawsuits against those who attribute complicity in the crimes of the Holocaust to the Polish people.

Netanyahu said that Poles did in fact cooperate with the Nazis during the Holocaust and that he was unaware of anyone ever being sued for making this statement. 

He made the remark in response to a question by Haaretz. 

Netanyahu's comments were initially quoted on the Jerusalem Post's website as having said that "the Polish nation" cooperated with the Nazis, reigniting diplomatic tensions. Morawiecki reacted on Twitter, writing that Poland never cooperated with Germany during World War II and that his country had been victimized by Nazi occupation. He also threatened that if the comment was not clarified, he would not attend the summit meeting of the Visegrad nations in Israel. 

The law passed in the Polish parliament in late 2017, but six months later Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki backtracked on it and asked the parliament to reopen discussions on the law following pressure from Israel and the United States

YIsrael Katz, left, and Prime Minister Netanyahu
Olivier Fitoussi

In its current form, the law makes it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish people or Polish state of being responsible or a partner to the Nazi crimes and outlaws the use of the term "Polish death camps" in reference to death camps that Nazi Germany established in Poland during World War II. It also makes it an offense to blatantly minimize "the responsibility of the real perpetrators of the crimes."

The Polish parliament's approval of the law created a crisis in Poland's relations with Israel and the Jewish community worldwide. Opponents of the legislation, including Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance authority and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, have claimed that the law promotes Holocaust denial and limits debate on the part that some Poles played in the Holocaust.

In a joint declaration, Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart Matthias Morawiecki said in June, following Poland's decision to amend the law: 

"We reject 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," read a joint statement by Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. "Unfortunately, the sad fact is that some people – regardless of their origin, religion or worldview – revealed their darkest side at that time." 

The statement further said: "Both governments vehemently condemn all forms of anti-Semitism and express their commitment to oppose any of its manifestations. Both governments also express their rejection of anti-Polonism and other negative national stereotypes."