Israel erupted, and rightly so, when the lower house of the Polish parliament approved a bill that would make any mention of the participation of “the Polish nation” in crimes committed during the Holocaust or use of the term “Polish death camp” to describe the camps where Jews and others were murdered in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.
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The anger stems from two sources. The first is that while Germany has made an effort to recognize its crimes during the war, to apologize for them and to education a new generation to never allow another generation of Nazis to emerge, Poland and other Eastern European countries have developed an alternative narrative of crouching in the shadow of Nazism and shirking responsibility for their own actions during the war.
“It wasn’t us, it was them,” they say in Poland, Hungary and other countries, pointing to the Nazi regime. It’s a convenient position that in effect demands no response in the areas of education or self-examination. If there was any apology from these states, it was offered weakly during a visit by official figures to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem.
The second reason Israelis are angry about the law is that in an effort to beautify reality it silences the victims and distorts the truth.
The saying that the guerilla must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea — in other words, that an underground movement needs the right environment in order to exist — is attributed to Mao Zedong. One could paraphrase it by saying there is no doubt that the successful murder of Poland’s Jews was the result of the Polish sea’s cooperation with the Nazis.
While Yad Vashem has recognized 6,706 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations for risking their lives to save Jews from being killed by the Nazis, they were a negligible minority of the Polish nation, which was largely happy to cooperate with the Nazis and to murder Jews who lived among them.
It’s a pity, however, that Israel is so sensitive to our justified national pain, but commits a sin similar to the one we attribute to the Poles: the sin of ignoring and denying the catastrophe suffered by the Palestinians when Israel was established, which they call the Nakba.
I am not comparing the Holocaust to the Nakba, neither in scope nor intent. However, should remember that Israel, too, via the offices of Culture Minister Miri Regev, is doing everything in its power to deny funding for organizations that nonetheless wish to commemorate the Nakba.
Pain and a sense of injustice cannot be dealt with by silencing, and all pain, including that of the Nakba, is legitimate. Moreover, it is better to verbally express pain than to suppress it; if repressed, the pain will be sublimated into actions. Those who are silenced are more likely to use violence than those who are permitted to express their pain and to protest.
For that reason, Israel would do well to behave as it expects others — the Poles, in this case — to behave, and to recognize the pain of the Palestinians and the injustice caused to them by the establishment of the state. This recognition is the first step toward a dialogue that might facilitate the hoped-for reconciliation.
So long as Israel turns its back on the Palestinians’ pain and forbids them to make their voices heard legally, peace in our region will not be possible.
This article was amended on January 30th, 2018, to remove an incorrect reference to the illegality of commemorating the Nakba in Israel.