Israel’s harsh diplomatic protest against the approval of a Polish law preventing Jews from receiving restitution for property that was stolen from them during the Holocaust and the Communist era in Poland, is logical and necessary. The law is another step in a series of attempts by the Polish authorities in recent years to reshape the historical narrative. This includes the wholesale shirking of responsibility for crimes committed by Poles, too, during World War II, and pointing the accusing finger solely against the Germans.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said the law “will put an end to an era of legal chaos” and “the uncertainty of millions of Poles and the disrespect of the basic rights of the country’s citizens.”
In response, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recalled Israel’s chargé d’affaires in Poland, Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon. She will remain in Israel indefinitely for consultations, while the designated new ambassador to Poland will remain in Israel for now. In addition, the Foreign Ministry said it would recommend that Poland’s ambassador to Israel prolong his vacation in his home country.
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In addition to protecting the property rights of Holocaust survivors and their descendants living in Israel today, Israel plays an important symbolic role in the struggle over the memory of the Holocaust. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, historic principles were frequently set aside in favor of forging alliances with anti-liberal governments in European Union member states such as Poland and Hungary.
This was the case during the legislation of a Polish law that threatened to criminalize anyone who claimed that Poles also took part in Nazi crimes. Netanyahu chose not to confront the Poles and even signed a problematic historic declaration with them – all in order to recruit another European vote against the Palestinians. Lapid’s decision to change this policy is correct in principle. Israel cannot agree to the theft of Jewish property in Poland.
Nonetheless, Lapid and the rest of the cabinet members would do well to recognize that Poland is not alone in opposing restitution. Israel also stole property from many innocent Palestinians who were forced to flee in 1948, and since then their homes and land have been expropriated without compensation through the Absentee Property Law. The events of World War II and Israel’s War of Independence are of course not identical, but the result – innocent victims losing all their property, which was given to other people without any compensation – exists here too.
The right to property is fundamental to Western liberal culture. This is the proper way to treat the victims of any war: Recognize the theft, and if restitution is impossible then pay reparations. Israel, too, should act in this manner and recognized the theft of Palestinian property during war. Failure to do so at the same time that it – justifiably – rebukes the Poles, is sheer hypocrisy.
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The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.