Polish President Approves Controversial Holocaust Bill, but Sends It to Courts for Further Discussion

The controversial bill, which was approved last week by the Polish parliament, led to a serious crisis in relations between Israel and Poland

Polish President Andrzej Duda holding a news conference, Dec. 20, 2017.
Czarek Sokolowski/AP

The president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, announced on Tuesday that he will sign the bill that criminalizes saying the "Polish nation" or the "Polish state" took part in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust. However, he said he would send it to Poland's Constitutional Tribunal for further discussion.

The controversial bill, which was approved last week by the Polish parliament, led to a serious crisis in relations between Israel and Poland.

Duda had the choice of signing the bill, returning the bill to parliament for further debate, asking to make changes to the law or even rejecting it. Patryk Jaki, the Poland's deputy justice minister, said Duda's decision "gives us time to dialogue with our partners."

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The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in response that "Israel continues to work with the authorities in Poland, expressing its reservations about the Polish bill." The statement said that Israel still hopes that it can reach agreement  with Poland on changes to the law before the constitutional court rules on the legislation.

President Duda's speech, before announcing his decision, was balanced, sensitive, and recognized the subject's complexity. On one hand, he stressed that he was not willing to accept accusations that Poland as a state was involved in the Holocaust, saying Poland was under Nazi occupation and not even on the map. 

On the other hand, Duda said that he knows many Holocaust survivors in Israel harbor difficult stories, and stressed that they must be able to express themselves freely.

Duda also added that there is no room for anti-Semitism and xenophobia. He was speaking against the backdrop of a demonstration against him on Monday where protesters called on him to "sign the law and take off the kippah."

Analysts speaking with Polish media speculated that the constitutional tribunal will demand a change in the law, citing the possibly unconstitutional restrictions it imposes on freedom of speech.  

The new law would outlaw publicly and falsely attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish nation. If it is enacted, violators could be punished with up to three years in prison. The law also forbids use of the term "Polish death camp" to describe the death camps where Jews and others were murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II under the Third Reich.

Anyone who violates the new law, including non-Polish citizens, will be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. The law applies to attributions of “crimes against peace, against humanity or war crimes to the Polish nation or state; or who minimize the responsibility of those who are truly responsible for these crimes. 

If Duda signs the bill, it will most likely worsen the crisis between Israel and Poland, because the two countries have agreed to establish joint teams to discuss the matter as a result of the controversy it has caused.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem criticized Duda’s approval of the law, saying that it "could very well lead to the distortion of the historical truth because of the limitations [the law] places on expression regarding the involvement of the parts of the Polish population – directly and indirectly – in the crimes committed on their country during the period of the Holocaust.”

Yad Vashem agreed that the use of the term “Polish extermination camps” was inappropriate, as the camps were built by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland, but  expressed concern that the law "will have implications on Holocaust research, teaching and its memory.”

On Monday, the Polish government cancelled a scheduled visit to Warsaw by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, after Bennett said “the Polish people had a proven role in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.”  

Duda, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and other senior Polish officials have conducted a broad public campaign to convince the world, including Israel and the United States, that the new law is justified. The Polish government even bought ads on Israeli websites explaining the law in English.  

Morawiecki rejected the criticism of the law this week, saying Germany was responsible for all the crimes, all the victims and everything that happened during World War II. He said Poland will never allow claims that Poland was a partner in the Holocaust.

The office of the Polish president said on Friday that the "Polish nation" helped "our Jewish neighbors" during the Holocaust and even "warned the world about the atrocities of the German Final Solution when there was still time to stop it."

The statement by Polish President Andrzej Duda's cabinet chief also said that though "the barbaric Nazi German ideology aimed at a complete annihilation of the Jewish nation, many tend to ignore that it also led to enslavement, expulsion and eventually to extermination of the Polish and other Slavic peoples."