Opinion

Restitution Both in Poland and Israel

Far right protest against the U.S. Senate's decision on to allow Jews to claim compensation, Poland, May 11, 2019.
\ AGENCJA GAZETA/ REUTERS

This week, Polish President Andrzej Duda denounced an incident in which a Herzliya resident spat at Poland’s ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski. It’s a “humiliation of Polish pride,” Duda said, going so far as to link the act to the world’s treatment of Poland during World War II.

Israelis’ relationship with Poland is complicated to say the least, and in recent years this complexity has been reflected in several ways. It’s possible to empathize with the Poles’ frustration that their country has become the address of Israelis’ disgust at Nazi crimes, while Berlin serves as a refuge for young Israelis fleeing budding fascism at home.

Also this week the Polish Foreign Ministry canceled the visit by an Israeli delegation to Warsaw, with the excuse that Israel planned to focus on issues related to the restitution of Jewish property. A few days earlier Polish nationalists marched in Warsaw in protest a law passed by the U.S. Congress a year ago to monitor progress in the restitution of Jewish property in dozens of countries. This applies in part to property that was expropriated during the German occupation of Poland, and then, after the war, was confiscated again by the communist regime as a way to help rehabilitate the destroyed country.

According to Gideon Taylor, chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the property owners and their children aren’t asking Poland for “property that the Nazis confiscated. We’re talking about confiscation after the war, after the Holocaust by the communist government.”

But it’s hard not to feel discomfort by the attitude toward Poland, an attitude backed by Israel’s government. In recent years, Israeli PR has significantly changed tack. The right wing bases the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel on its status as the Jews’ historical homeland, the one mentioned in the Bible. It almost stopped talking about our right based on the UN resolution, in a bid to reduce the partition lines’ importance, (and hence the importance of the “1967 lines” as well). In this way, Israel could legitimize the annexation of occupied territories.

The right wing’s Israel is crying out from every podium that it has ownership of the Land of Israel, and that the Palestinians’ demands are groundless. If so, what does Israel want from the Poles? If Israel belongs to the Jews, no matter how many generations of Palestinians have lived here, isn’t it fair to accept that Poland, with all its confiscated property, belongs to the Poles, no matter how many generations of Jews lived there?

With its 1950 Absentees’ Property Law, Israel confiscated the property of those who left it for hostile states during the War of Independence. Moreover, in recent years the Israeli government has fought to pass a law letting it confiscate from the Palestinians even land on which settlements have been built. Isn’t this hypocritical of Israel? Can a country for which confiscating Arab land is second nature afford to demand of another country to return property to its Jewish owners?

When it’s convenient, Israel is the land of the Jewish people, whose demands cross borders. And when it’s convenient, Israel is the land of the Jewish people returning home and the territorial domain of the Israelis. Israel is a state whose citizens by definition have two passports and two complementary ownership demands. Now this is the real deal of the century.