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WARSAW, Poland – A diplomatic dispute has erupted between Poland and Israel over pending Polish legislation that imposes prison terms of up to three years for falsely attributing the crimes of Nazi Germany to Poland. Bitter recriminations have exposed painful historical baggage on both sides despite years of reconciliation efforts — anger by Poles who feel wrongly depicted as anti-Semites and by Israelis who fear Poland wants to whitewash the persecution that Jews suffered in Poland.
Here is a closer look at the issue:
Poland's ruling Law and Justice party vowed to push through the bill soon after coming to power in 2015, depicting it as a way of protecting Poland's good name. After an initial uproar, the issue seemed to have been dropped, only to reappear last week, when the lower house of parliament approved it on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Polish government officials argue the law is needed to fight expressions like "Polish death camps" for the camps Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II. While "Polish" is almost always used as a geographic designator, Poles still object because they feel it defames Poland for the Nazi-run camps, where Poles made up the largest group of victims after Jews. The Polish Senate approved the bill Thursday despite mounting international opposition. The final step will be approval by President Andrzej Duda, who strongly supports it.
Israeli officials strongly object to the law and say the issue is not the language about "Polish death camps." Instead, they see the law as part of a slippery slope that minimizes the role of Poles in the Holocaust as well as the painful Jewish history in the country. Poland has a long history of anti-Semitism, and the prevailing view in Israel and among Holocaust scholars everywhere is that many Poles were willing to at least look the other way, if not actively collaborate, with the Nazis. Israeli media have been filled with interviews in recent days of Holocaust survivors talking about mistreatment at the hands of Polish neighbors and others. Emmanuel Nahshon, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a recent tweet: "Dear Polish followers — the issue is NOT the death camps. Of course they were not Polish. Those were German death camps. The issue is the legitimate and essential freedom to talk about the involvement of Poles in the murder of Jews without fear or threat of penalization. Simple."
A U.S. WARNING
The United States firmly warned Poland on Wednesday that to go forward with the law could hurt its strategic interests and "our ability to be effective partners." State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. understands that phrases like "Polish death camps" are "inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful," but voiced concern the legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse. "We are also concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland's strategic interests and relationships — including with the United States and Israel," she said. "The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies benefit only our rivals." Nauert's statement came just four days after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Polish officials and marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Warsaw.
A LONG HISTORY TOGETHER
Before the outbreak of World War II, Jews had lived in Poland for centuries, thriving in some eras and even becoming the world's largest Jewish population at one point. But anti-Semitism in the decades before the war had grown virulent, driving many Polish Jews to emigrate, some becoming Israel's founders and first settlers. During the war, Poles, like elsewhere across German-occupied Europe, reacted to the mass killing of Jews in different ways. Some risked their lives and those of their families to shelter Jews, with nearly 7,000 recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations" by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center. Historians say some Poles were complicit in the killings, denouncing Jews to the Germans or taking part in killing themselves. Historian Jan Grabowski, who has studied the persecution of Jews by Poles, has estimated that more than 200,000 Jews were killed either directly or indirectly by Poles during World War II. After the war some of the returning survivors were also killed by Polish neighbors, who in some cases had taken over their properties.
REPERCUSSIONS FOR HISTORIANS
Holocaust historians and other scholars, in Poland and abroad, have come out firmly against the law, with many saying it will lead to self-censorship. Grabowski says the greatest risk he sees is the potential for lawsuits to be brought against scholars by groups or individuals doing the bidding of nationalist authorities. Then, "it will be up to courts to decide — after a long and very costly legal battle — whether "the Polish Nation" has been slandered or not," Grabowski wrote in a post on Facebook Thursday. "If one wanted to halt research into the history of the Holocaust, one could not come up with a more devious and disgraceful way! It is all an outrage and one can only hope that the international outcry will have an impact on the nationalist zealots in Poland." Poland's Foreign Ministry, however, insisted Thursday that it simply seeks to "protect historical truth" and "fight all forms of denying and distorting the truth about the Holocaust, as well as belittling the responsibility of its actual perpetrators."
REPERCUSSIONS FOR ISRAEL'S GOVERNMENT
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hawkish coalition has found some common ground with conservative governments, like the one in Poland, over issues like combating the threats of Islamic militancy. But the dispute with Poland exposes how delicate those relations can be. Netanyahu also had a delicate situation to manage when he visited Budapest last year after a Hungarian government campaign against the Hungarian-American billionaire-philanthropist George Soros and his support for migration and refugees. The campaign against Soros, a Holocaust survivor, was criticized by Jewish organizations for its anti-Semitic overtones, a charge Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban denied.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.