(Bloomberg View) -- The class trip to Poland is a high school highlight for many Israelis. Although not mandated by the government, it has become a widespread rite of passage. Touring Warsaw and Krakow affords students an opportunity to learn about the grandeur of Jewish life in Poland before it was eradicated. Seeing the death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor or Treblinka serves as a chilling reminder of the Holocaust and an opportunity to appreciate the drastic change in the Jewish existential condition that Israel has wrought.
Not all Israelis are fans of the trips. Some parents remain opposed to funneling money to the Polish economy. Others assert that if the Israeli educational system needs trips to death camps to inculcate in its students a commitment to Zionism, something is terribly amiss. By and large, though, Israelis acknowledge the power of these tours, and thousands of teenagers participate each year.
So, too, do Israeli soldiers. The IDF regularly sends delegations of officers to Poland. The highlight is often marching into Auschwitz wearing Israeli uniforms, in the very place where almost a million helpless Jewish victims were murdered.
Diplomatically, Israel and Poland have long had cordial relations. With Israel increasingly worried about the erosion of American support in the long run (a recent Pew Center report showed that most Democrats are more sympathetic to Palestinians than they are to Israelis) and given its isolation in Europe, Israel has been anxious to maintain those relations, even in the face of Poland’s move to the nationalist right.
A new Polish law, however, has suddenly battered the relationship: It criminalizes suggestions that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. Although the Poles are correct that they were not entirely free actors during the war (the country was invaded first by Germany and later by Russia), the claim that they were not intimately, even enthusiastically, involved in the slaughter of Jews is a horrific distortion of history.
The Israeli response has been vociferously critical. As the law was under debate, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced that he would visit Poland, and meet with students and Polish officials, to express Israel’s strong opposition to the bill. “I am determined to clearly say that history has already confirmed that the Polish people had a proven involvement in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust,” he said. “I am going to speak truth, where the truth took place and it is not dependent on any law.”
The Polish government would have none of it, and canceled Bennett’s trip. Escalating the war of words, Bennett then tweeted a photo of himself next to Auschwitz, and insisted that he saw the cancellation as a “badge of honor.” “The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it,” he later said. “The government of Poland canceled my visit because I mentioned the crimes of its people. I am honored.”
Whatever Poland’s affront to history or Jewish sensibilities, Israel would swallow its pride, however, and seek to minimize damage to its diplomatic position. Bennett insisted that the visits of Israeli students would continue; the government announced that it might hold a summit to which the Polish prime minster would be invited.
But Poland was not done. With the tumult over the Holocaust bill far from over, lawmakers began exploring legislation that would criminalize the kosher slaughter of meat. The country also froze progress on a Holocaust survivors’ property restitution bill. Israel’s Hebrew press reported that Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had visited a memorial for the Holy Cross Brigade, which is known to have collaborated with the Nazis. He also commented this month, in response to a question from an Israeli journalist about the “concentration camp” law, that “we do not deny the fact that there were Polish perpetrators as well as there were Jewish perpetrators or Ukrainian perpetrators.” For many Jewish observers, the comment was beyond abhorrent. It was clear that Poland was awash with a new wave of government-sanctioned anti-Semitic sentiment.
Noa Landau, a senior journalist for Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, tweeted, that it was an “outrageous scene” at the security conference in Germany where Morawiecki made his remarks. After the prime minister compared “‘Polish perpetrators’ in the Holocaust to ‘Jewish perpetrators.’ The audience, Europe’s elite, stays politely quiet,” she wrote.
Landau’s point was that it’s not only Poland that hasn’t changed since World War II; Europe’s response remains horrifyingly recognizable. Israelis who feared that Jews might forget Europe’s hate-filled legacy can now rest assured. For the foreseeable future, Poland itself is ensuring that will not happen.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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