A blow to all who cherish historical truth

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial in Poland.

IT shouldn’t have been left to Israel to challenge Poland over its new law. The whole of the West should have expressed its outrage too.

Despite reassurances from politicians in Poland, the new law is far from innocuous.

In its current form, it could put all sorts of people on the wrong side of the law – if they dare to talk about the Holocaust in ways that the Polish government doesn’t like.

The first thing we will see is self-censorship. If you lived in Poland, would you want to rock the boat? Would you want to test the law? Or would you steer clear of topics and discussions that could fall foul of the law? So straight away, discussion of the past will become less open.

Next, there may well be actual prosecutions. To cite the law’s wording, who could be said to “grossly diminish” the responsibility of “true perpetrators of said crimes”? Seemingly, anybody who sees the “true” perpetrators in a particular historical episode as Poles when the judge, appointed by the ruling Polish right-wing, applies blinkers and says it was only foreign Nazis who were at fault.

And so it begins. The stage is set for Poland to downplay the role of Poles in Holocaust-era history.

We’ve already seen the extent to which Polish politicians have blinkers on, allowing them to see their people’s wartime past through rose-tinted glasses. They arranged for foreign correspondents to be taken to the village of Markowa, to see a museum devoted to a Polish family who were executed for sheltering Jews.

The Prime Minister’s Office in Warsaw organised the tour – but of course didn’t mention that the family was executed because Polish neighbours shopped them to the Gestapo, and Poles had roles in the firing squad. The PM’s people illustrated that the Polish story isn’t so simple – but it wants to muffle important discussions.

Everyone should be worried by this law. Not just Israel.

In the face of this legislation, I wanted to see news pieces that led with European outrage, not Israeli outrage. The European Union has the time and energy to criticise many an alleged misdeed by Israel, but where is its loud and clear voice on one of its members jeopardising exploration of European history? The UN’s cultural agency, UNESCO, has so much to say about how history should and shouldn’t be remembered here in Israel; where is its leading voice on this?

The same goes for many countries and international organisations that should have been making themselves heard. They were preparing to observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day when the law became a big story.

The whole point of this day – a parallel commemoration to Israel’s Yom Hashoah – is that preserving the Holocaust’s place in history is not an exclusively Jewish challenge, but a challenge for all who care about humanity. It’s an anathema that as this day was being observed, a law was being enacted to place limitations on how this history can be discussed.

Internationally, especially in Europe, people should be reacting not only out of loyalty to Jews, but also because if the Polish government’s way of relating to the past spreads, it is bad news for all who cherish historical truth wherever they live.

The international players have been at fault. They haven’t raised their voices against the Polish law in enough cases, and when they have, it hasn’t been loud or resolute enough. But there have been some important responses, including from the US State Department.

Spokeswoman Heather Nauert voiced concern that the legislation “could undermine free speech and academic discourse”, and said, “We all must be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust. We believe open debate, scholarship, and education are the best means of countering inaccurate and hurtful speech.” Commenting before the Polish senate approved the legislation, Nauert suggested it could harm Poland’s alliances with Israel and the US and urged Warsaw to reconsider. This was drowned out amid a din of often-uninformed Israeli outrage.

If Washington is telling Poland that passing the law may impact “our ability to be effective partners”, this is surely a bigger headache for Warsaw than Israeli anger. Yet the stronger and more dramatic Israeli quotes won the day on journalists’ desktops, and the US reaction hardly featured.

Sometimes, for Israel, less is more. Jerusalem should have held back and had others take the lead on this issue. Washington should have had more prominence, and Israeli diplomats should have been busy persuading other countries to forcefully raise their opposition. Headlines should have been telling readers about a cacophony of Western opposition to the new Polish law – how politicians in many locations in many languages were decrying an assault on world history.

What happened instead was that the issue was framed as an Israeli concern, making many around the world – especially those whose eyes glaze at the mention of Israel or who have a cool attitude towards the Jewish state – see it as a narrow issue that doesn’t matter beyond Israel.

International players shouldn’t have been so quiet, but Israel and Israeli politicians should have also done things differently. While they mustn’t be the sole voices on Shoah history, they have a responsibility to see that Shoah history is protected, and get a low grade on this occasion.

Poland’s law did not just drop down from the sky late last month, fully formed. Jerusalem has known about the legislation for at least a year and a half. Israel had time to prepare a smart diplomatic strategy that galvanised allies to protect the historical integrity that is so important to everyone.

Poland has enacted a problematic law, the international community has been shamefully quiet, and Israeli diplomacy failed when it was needed.

They all had solemn words at solemn ceremonies for Holocaust Remembrance Day a fortnight ago, but this isn’t enough. Each of them owed it to Holocaust history to do better.

NATHAN JEFFAY is The AJN‘s Israel correspondent.