Analysis |

Israel’s Rift With Poland Remains Hard to Bridge Despite Revival of Ties

Plenty of ego battles and concerns about personal and national respect are in play, even though the two countries have a lot in common such as suspicion of foreigners and the strong influence of religion

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The Nozyk Synagogue and parts of the pre-war Warsaw Jewish quarter. before World War II, in Warsaw, Poland. The World Jewish Restitution Organization, a group that helps Holocaust survivors claim lost prewar properties, launched a database aimed at helping more than 2,000 Holocaust survivors or their heirs regain property lost in Warsaw due to World War II and communism. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Poland Holocaust PropertyThe World Jewish Restitution Organization, a group that helps Holocaust survivors claim lost prewar properties, launched a database aimed at helping more than 2,000 Holocaust survivors or their heirs regain property lost in Warsaw due to World War II and communism. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Poland Holocaust Property before World War II, in Warsaw, Poland. The World Jewish Restitution Organization, a group that helps Holocaust survivors claim lost prewar properties, launched a database aimed at helping more than 2,000 Holocaust survivors or their heirs regain property lost in Warsaw due to World War II and communism. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Poland Holocaust Property
The Nozyk Synagogue and parts of the pre-war Warsaw Jewish quarter, in 2016 photo.Credit: Czarek Sokolowski/AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Wizz Air flight from Tel Aviv to Krakow on Saturday night was packed. Scores of Israelis filled the plane, both Jews and Arabs. There were plenty of older people born in Poland and others born in North Africa. There were young people, teenagers, couples in love, businesspeople, lone travelers and groups.

Not everyone, to put it gently, came to tour the death camps. To judge by the lively Facebook groups of Israeli tourists in Poland, most came in search of (in descending order): shopping, family attractions, spas, walking tours of Krakow’s Old Town and trips to the Masurian Lake District or the mountains of Zakopane, while some sought a casino, preferably in their hotel.

Normally, this can be seen as a sign of normal relations between two countries, the kind that grow from the ground up without letting loudmouthed politicians on both sides ruin it. In many ways, it’s similar to the Israelis vacationing in Turkey despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated insults, and even the concrete danger to the tourists’ lives.

The joint statement by President Isaac Herzog and his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, on the reviving of bilateral ties is of scant interest to the Israelis flocking to Poland this summer. Most are too busy deciding what to wear, because they’ve discovered that the weather can be volatile even in July.

They leave the diplomatic relations to the politicians, who argue whether more Poles saved Jews during the Holocaust than handed them over to the Nazis. Eighty years have gone by. Give it a rest, they say, and not without some justification.

The presidents’ announcement states that, in coordination with the prime ministers of both countries, relations will “be restored to their proper course.” After a long break, a new Polish ambassador will be appointed, and the newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Poland, Yacov Livne, will submit his credentials to the Polish president.

Have talks behind closed doors suddenly yielded the magic formula letting Warsaw and Jerusalem bridge years of suspicion, as well as personal and national insults as if everything were behind us? Highly doubtful. The rifts are too wide and are unlikely to be closed in the foreseeable future.

Previously in our saga, in case you missed it, there was the law threatening a fine and jail time for those who argue that Poland lent a hand to the Nazis’ crimes. There’s also the law that curbs Jews’ chances of claiming family property left behind after the Holocaust.

More recently, trips by young Israelis to Poland have been halted, with Poland demanding that it help decide on the content of these journeys – amid their qualms about Israeli security people brandishing their guns on Warsaw’s streets.

On the Israeli side, the Polish people have been collectively tarnished with antisemitism. As Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, put it, “Poles imbibe antisemitism with their mother’s milk.” And there have been other harsh statements, including by our new prime minister when he was still in the opposition.

Behind all this is a mixture of ego battles, power, and personal and national respect, alongside the desire to mollify potential voters, mostly on the Polish side, for whom defending their country’s good name is sometimes more important than the level of interest rates.

So what has changed? It may be that Herzog has employed his latent personal charms yet again, buoyed by his success on the Turkish front. It’s also possible that, under American pressure, the two sides realized that it’s in their best interest to make up already, as more significant threats lurk on the agenda than disputes between historians.

A good example: the united Western front against Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For many years, Poland has made no secret of its hostility toward the man and his regime, and it’s now spearheading the coalition sheltering Ukrainian refugees while receiving tighter American protection of its borders in return.

Israel is new to the realization that it’s good to seek other friends, even if this means swallowing a few antiquated grudges along the way. And, except for disagreements about a certain chapter in the past, Israel has quite a bit in common with Poland.

Both countries are less than fond of minorities and foreigners of different skin colors, and they’ve put up walls to prevent the entry of “infiltrators” – unwanted asylum seekers. (In Poland, the Ukrainians are a different case. It’s enough to hear the similarity of the two languages to understand the affinity between Poles and Ukrainians.)

Both countries feature a strong influence of the respective religious establishments (the Rabbinate and the Catholic Church) on the people’s daily lives. (In Poland, severe abortion restrictions have already claimed lives.) Nor is the treatment of the LGBTQ community much different in the two countries.

In Poland, the undisputed leader of the party in power, Jarosław Kaczyński, viciously mocked transgender people last week as deviating from normal family values. (He forgot he’s a 73-year-old childless bachelor.) In Israel, the Knesset speaker may have taken part in the Jerusalem Pride march, but in some cities these parades takes place under heavy armed guard due to the incitement by certain religious leaders.

“Both presidents expressed their hope that any future issues between Poland and Israel will be solved through sincere and open dialogue and in a spirit of mutual respect,” the joint statement concludes. We can only hope that this will happen, but only time will tell if this goodwill lasts longer than the lifespan of an average Israeli parliament in recent years.

To ensure a respectful dialogue, both sides should keep the politicians and courts away from debates on history. Let the academics handle the hot potato of events between 1939 and 1945.

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