Holocaust row leads to total cancellation of Visegrad summit

Holocaust row leads to total cancellation of Visegrad summit
A new and bitter conflict between Poland and Israel over how to characterise Polish actions towards Jews during the Nazi occupation has erupted.
4 min read
18 February, 2019
The meeting was touted as an important step in Israel's outreach to Central Europe. [Getty]

Poland on Monday pulled out of a summit in Jerusalem, triggering the collapse of the entire meeting, after the acting Israeli foreign minister said that Poles "collaborated with the Nazis" and "sucked anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk".

The developments mark a new low in a bitter conflict between Poland and Israel over how to remember and characterise Polish actions towards Jews during the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had been due to meet with the leaders of four Central European nations known as the Visegrad group. With the Hungarian and Slovak prime ministers already in Israel and the Czech leader still planning to go, bilateral meetings were to go ahead instead.

Netanyahu had touted the meeting as an important step in his "outreach" to the countries of Central Europe, whose pro-Israel governments he is counting on to bolster Israel in international forums.

"It's a stunning diplomatic failure," said The New Arab's James Brownsell. "There are some far-right governments in Central and Eastern Europe - and beyond - who see close relations with Israel merely as a step towards close relations with the United States, and some who see ties with the human rights-abusing, Palestinian territory-occupying Israel as positive in their own right. But Israel's bullish approach to foreign policy can make it even more difficult for some governments to declare their friendship."

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had already announced on Sunday that he was pulling out of the meeting after a comment by Netanyahu last week about Polish cooperation with Nazis.

Morawiecki cancelled Polish participation altogether after the comments made by Israel's acting foreign minister, Israel Katz, which Morawiecki denounced as "racist" and "absolutely unacceptable".

Poland's Foreign Ministry also summoned the Israeli ambassador, Anna Azari, to demand a second set of clarifications in recent days.

Katz made his remarks on Sunday in an interview on Reshet 13 TV:

"Poles collaborated with the Nazis, definitely. Collaborated with the Nazis. As [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Shamir said - his father was murdered by Poles - he said that from his point of view they sucked anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk. You can't sugarcoat this history."

New low in Poland-Israel ties

Jewish leaders in Poland issued a statement saying that Shamir's words were "unjust already when they were first said, in 1989, when Polish-Israeli relations were just beginning to be rebuilt, after the long night of communism".

"They are even more unjust today, 30 years later, when so much has been done on both sides for a mutual understanding of our very difficult, but shared history," the statement added.

Poland was the first country invaded and occupied by Adolf Hitler's regime and never had a collaborationist government. Members of Poland's resistance and government-in-exile struggled to warn the world about the mass killing of Jews, and thousands of Poles risked their lives to help Jews.

However, Holocaust researchers have collected ample evidence of Polish villagers who murdered Jews fleeing the Nazis, or Polish blackmailers who preyed on helpless Jews for financial gain.

The head of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, noted that that Poland and Israel, while otherwise friends, have clashed over the "varying assessments of the magnitude of anti-Semitism in Poland, especially before and during World War II, and often competing historical narratives".

He issued a statement acknowledging that "there are certainly pockets of anti-Semitism in Poland" but largely stressing the fact that Poles suffered and put up massive resistance to the Nazis during the war, also helping Jews. He also noted the Polish contributions in recent years to the renewal of Jewish life.

"As friends, we need to be able to manage our inevitable differences. That begins with choosing our words carefully - knowing when to speak, how to speak, and where to speak," Harris said.

"It means not allowing individual incidents to escalate out of control. And it means not ceding all the progress achieved to date to those who might wish to destroy it."

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