Israel’s preeminent Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer, has castigated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his recent joint statement with Poland, which, Bauer said, belittles the Polish role in the destruction of Polish Jewry. “This is a small achievement and a big mistake, which borders on betrayal,” Bauer said of Netanyahu’s blessing for the Polish amendment that would decriminalize claims that Poles aided and abetted the Nazis, but maintain their status as a civil offense.
It’s tempting to excuse the incident as a triumph of realpolitik over historical truth. Israel, after all, has myriad political and security interests with Poland that are arguably more important than the age-old question of the complicity of Poles in the Holocaust. Yedioth Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea, for example, this week compared Netanyahu’s move to Ben Gurion’s willingness in the early 1950’s to recognize an “other Germany” in exchange for massive German aid. “There were those who cursed him for this; others blessed him. In hindsight, it seems like he was right.”
The comparison, of course, is problematic, and not just in scale. Israel in the early 1950’s was desperate. It suffered from extreme austerity, was strapped for cash and faced the impossible hurdle of absorbing masses of new immigrants that doubled the country’s population within the first four years of its existence. Germany’s decision to grant Israel close to $8 billion dollars in current value literally saved the Israeli economy from going bankrupt. Israel’s reliance on Poland in 2018 is negligible in comparison to say the least.
Contrary to Polish leaders, moreover, who cater to nationalist sentiments by legislating revisionist history, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer defied them in 1952 by accepting responsibility for the Holocaust as crimes committed “on behalf of the German people.” Ironically, Netanyahu’s ideological predecessor Menachem Begin was the fiercest opponent of the so-called reparations deal with Germany, leading a popular revolt that bordered at times on mutiny.
Moreover, Netanyahu’s willingness to forgive, forget and look the other way when Holocaust revisionism and plain anti-Semitism rear their heads isn’t limited to Poland. His chummy relationship with Hungarian authoritarian Viktor Orban is another case in point. Netanyahu visited Budapest last July and extolled Orban’s leadership, despite the Hungarian prime minister’s effusive praise for Hungary’s World War II dictator Miklos Horthy, who was “complicit” in the extermination of Hungary’s Jews, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Netanyahu was also one of a handful of Western leaders who called Orban to congratulate him after his victory in this year’s April elections, despite the fact that the win was based on a virulent public campaign against George Soros, which Hungarian Jews and international observers described as anti-Semitic in tone and content.
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This week it was announced that Orban would visit Israel on July 18-20, thus completing Netanyahu’s efforts to stamp the Hungarian leader with an Israeli kosher certificate. The Hungarian leader will be given a royal welcome, but in light of Netanyahu’s own incessant attacks on Soros, for all we know the two leaders might issue a joint statement condemning the Hungarian-born Jewish financier. This is less Ben Gurion style realpolitik and more an Israeli prime minister’s active collaboration in anti-Jewish propaganda.
The Netanyahu-Orban axis, after all, isn’t a product of tactical political expediency, but a strategic meeting of the minds. Both strive for ethnocentric illiberalism. Both share a disdain for liberal values, especially those admired and cultivated by the vast majority of American Jews. Both agitate against immigrants. Both are sworn enemies of the free press. Both feel an affinity with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and both have tied their country’s fates to Donald Trump. Needless to say, Netanyahu has pointedly refrained from criticizing Trump for any of his questionable statements on racists and Jews, including his post-Charlottesville equation of neo-Nazis with anti-racist demonstrators.
Netanyahu’s courtship of authoritarian regimes can be explained, but not justified. Of course he revels in Trump’s revocation of the Iran nuclear deal and his anti-Palestinian policies, including the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. And naturally Netanyahu is eager to exploit the willingness of countries such as Hungary and Poland to buck the European Union, a pet peeve of the prime minister and the U.S. President, and to undermine Europe’s criticism of Israeli policies in the occupied territories.
But such considerations cannot excuse Netanyahu’s willingness to turn a blind eye to Holocaust revisionism and anti-Semitism. They cannot serve as a pretext for turning his back on the painful legacy of Polish and Hungarian Jews or for alienating the vibrant American Jewish community. His decision to gloss over the odious Polish law against claims of Polish complicity in the Holocaust and to camouflage Hungary’s propaganda against “internationalists” like Soros are a blot on his own record and a stain on Israeli history. Netanyahu’s whitewashing of anti-Jewish regimes may not be tantamount to “selling the memory of slaughtered Jews for blood money”, as Begin said of Ben Gurion, but one thing is certain: the legendary Herut founder would be ashamed.