At a time of rising anti-Semitism around the globe and threats from terrorism and nuclear blackmail aimed at the State of Israel, there are more important things to worry about than the question of who gets to speak at the ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Yet the controversy over the speakers list at the World Holocaust Forum it is sponsoring on Jan. 23 is no trivial matter.
It’s likely that most Israelis and Jews regard Yad Vashem’s decision to deny Polish President Andrzej Duda a speaker’s slot at their Auschwitz ceremony with indifference. But the snub of Duda ought to worry even those who don’t care much about Polish sensibilities, let alone the minutiae of Holocaust remembrance.
The backstory to this dispute stems from the Israeli museum and research center’s decision to try to seize the spotlight during the Auschwitz anniversary that falls on Jan. 27. Since 1959, the State of Israel and the organized Jewish world has observed Yom Hashoah on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which this year falls on April 21. That places the memory of the Holocaust squarely within the context of Jewish history falling as it does the week after Passover, and a week before Israel’s Yom Hazikaron Memorial Day and its Yom Ha’atzmaut Independence Day.
Ever since the U.N. General Assembly’s 2005 vote to establish an International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27—the date that Soviet forces liberated the Auschwitz death camp—that date has grown in importance.
Yad Vashem’s ceremony will provide competition for the event held at the site of Auschwitz in Poland the next week. The list of leaders who will speak at the Israeli observance is impressive and will include Great Britain’s Prince Charles, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeir, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Yad Vashem didn’t offer Duda the opportunity for a speech, and as a result, Poland is boycotting the ceremony.
Should anyone care about the Poles being slighted?
A lot of Jews won’t care because of the hard feelings caused by the Polish parliament’s passage in January 2018 of a foolish law that made it a crime for anyone to allege that Poles collaborated with the Germans during the Holocaust. The Poles were sick of Auschwitz being inaccurately described as a “Polish death camp.” Auschwitz was situated in Poland but run by the Germans, not the Poles, who were among the chief victims of the Nazis. Polish resistance to the Germans was heroic both during the 1939 invasion and the occupation, as well as during their tragic uprising in the summer of 1944. That revolt was crushed with indiscriminate Nazi slaughter because of the acquiescence of the Soviet Union, which preferred to see Polish freedom extinguished before the Red Army occupied the country.
Still, there is also no denying that anti-Semitism was endemic in Poland before, during and after the war, and that there are documented instances of Poles betraying and killing Jews. By labeling truth-telling about Polish anti-Semitism a crime, the country brought down on itself the opprobrium of the Jewish world.
Thanks to Netanyahu’s diplomacy, the Poles amended the law. But the controversy was revived when Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz foolishly insulted the Poles. The slight to Duda from Yad Vashem has now exacerbated the ongoing dispute.
Poles suffered more cruelly at the hands of the Nazis than any other occupied country, save the Soviet Union. But while the Poles were horribly persecuted, the fate of the Jews was far worse. Approximately 18 percent of all Poles were killed during the war compared with a mind-boggling 90 percent of all Polish Jews.
But there’s more at stake here than a natural desire on the part of many Jews to express anger about revisionist history. As is true of other Eastern European governments, Poland does not share the antipathy towards Israel that is so common in Western Europe. Promoting warm relations between Israel and Poland isn’t so much a matter of Netanyahu practicing realpolitik but a policy based in the realization that the conflicts of the past should not doom Jews and Poles to conflict in the present and future.
Moreover, the politics behind the decision to exclude the Polish president from the list of Yad Vashem speakers is particularly troubling.
Moshe Kantor, head of the European Jewish Congress, chairs the Yad Vashem event. Kantor is a Jewish philanthropist. But he’s also a Russian business oligarch who is close to Putin. That authoritarian leader is clearly interested in undermining Poland and separating it from allies like Israel. It’s likely that the insult to Poland was orchestrated by Moscow.
Russia is also guilty of its own outrageous revisionism. The invasion of Poland and the start of World War II were made possible by the Soviet-Nazi pact of August 1939, in which the two totalitarian governments divided up their neighbor. But Putin’s foreign ministry has the chutzpah to claim it was the Poles fault, and that Stalin was justified in collaborating with the Nazis.
Kantor could have been overruled by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, but he failed to heed Netanyahu’s plea to avoid the dispute. The only explanation for that is that Rivlin’s antipathy for Netanyahu and a desire to thwart the prime minister’s policy goal prevailed over common sense. And it has created an incident that hurts Israel and helps no one but Putin. Indeed, the absurdity of the decision is one that has created a rare agreement between columnists from the right-wing Israel Hayom and the left-wing Haaretz.
Poles and Jews shouldn’t be doomed to continued enmity by a shared tragic history. Nor should the interests of Putin or the absurd rivalries of Israeli politics determine how the Holocaust is remembered.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.