Outrage At Yad Vashem Over Holocaust Law Rewrite
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Outrage At Yad Vashem Over Holocaust Law Rewrite

Israel-Poland agreement could have chilling effect on scholars.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

Illustrative photo of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Researchers there are crestfallen at Poland's supposed retraction of a controversial Holocaust law that is, in fact, less of a retraction.
Illustrative photo of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Researchers there are crestfallen at Poland's supposed retraction of a controversial Holocaust law that is, in fact, less of a retraction.

The crisis seemed to be over, but suddenly, anger over Poland’s controversial Holocaust law is back at the boiling point.

It takes a lot to unsettle the hardy historians of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, but they are crestfallen, after believing that Poland had changed course and then reaching the conclusion that it hasn’t.

What’s more, in the process of getting the law changed, Israel’s government rubber-stamped a set of claims about history that Professor Havi Dreifuss, head of Yad Vashem’s research center on the Holocaust in Poland and a Holocaust historian at Tel Aviv University, tells me amount to a “false narrative.”

Meanwhile, at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, there is frustration that Poland hasn’t drawn a line under the dispute, as it says was promised. Rather, a foundation that is close to the government placed full-page ads in international newspapers trumpeting the agreement. It was an apparent attempt to make political capital out of the saga, and Israel sent an official complaint to Poland.

But the main drama of recent days has been the fury of Yad Vashem scholars, men and women who the government sees as its moral gauge on Holocaust matters.

On June 27, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his big announcement saying that Poland was softening its law imposing criminal sanctions against people who describe Nazi camps as “Polish” or suggest that the Polish nation was complicit in the Shoah. Six hours before his statement dropped in journalists’ inboxes came an announcement from Yad Vashem, anticipating the changes as a “positive development in the right direction.” The government-to-government agreement, it seemed, had Yad Vashem’s blessing.

Now, the institution says that it spoke too soon, expecting a very different outcome, and has been left dismayed.

Dreifuss worked quickly with colleagues after the June 27 announcement to write a detailed response to the development.

“I don’t know what to say to young Polish scholars because they could be sued for exposing some of their archival findings and addressing them in their research,” says Professor Havi Dreifuss, head of Yad Vashem’s research center on the Holocaust in Poland.

They finished the process outraged that Polish government ministers managed a PR victory by wiping away criminal sanctions against people who veer from their reading of Holocaust-era history. This is a hollow concession, say the historians in Jerusalem, if historians and others in Poland are still open to economically crippling civil suits. “It might really paralyze the field,” said Dreifuss.

Scholars will self-censor and, says Yad Vashem in its document, use of legislation to limit discourse “deals a serious blow to Holocaust research as well as Holocaust memory and commemoration.”

The Yad Vashem historians have also countered, point by point, the document that pushes the “false narrative” — namely the joint Israeli-Polish declaration which Netanyahu trumpeted as an agreed-upon reading of the past. Netanyahu presented it as a document that would help the countries to move forward; Yad Vashem thinks it opens up some very painful wounds from the past.

Instead of cancelling the law and leaving citizens free to say what they want about the history of the Holocaust, Poland has the discussion shackled by its ideology.

The state’s Institute of National Remembrance has been tasked with the “protection of the reputation of the Polish Republic or the Polish Nation.” And if anyone in Poland speaks or writes in a way that is deemed to impugn Poland’s “reputation,” the Institute or a nongovernmental organization can bring civil charges.

That’s part of the reason why Yad Vashem is so alarmed. The previous version of the law was focused on statements made publicly, “contrary to the facts” and with protections promised to scholars. But the new version, despite eliminating criminal sanctions, in some respects is more far-reaching.

Poles now can run afoul of the law based on statements made anywhere and based on statements that are true as well as falsehoods. Also, while the Israeli-Polish declaration says that scholarship won’t be harmed, a new version of the law eliminates special protections for scholars.

“Our worries about academic freedom in Poland are not without basis,” said Dreifuss. “I don’t know what to say to young Polish scholars because they could be sued for exposing some of their archival findings and addressing them in their research.”

This analysis is a far cry from Netanyahu’s announcement on June 27 that his negotiation had ended with Poland agreeing to “completely rescind parts of the recently legislated law that caused uproar and distress in Israel and in the international community.”

The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem. Wikimedia Commons

Politicians and other scholars foreshadowed Yad Vashem’s fury. Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, called the fix to the law a “bad joke.” The leading historian Yehuda Bauer said almost immediately that the revised law would lead to the persecution of scholars and called the declaration a “betrayal.”

At Sunday’s cabinet meeting Netanyahu insisted that his “goal” in negotiations with Poland was to cancel criminal clauses and this was achieved, but he acknowledged criticism. “I have listened intently to the comments of the historians, including about several things that were not included in the declaration,” he said. “I respect this, and I will give expression to it.”

This is no simple matter as there is division even within Yad Vashem. Its chief historian, Dina Porat, said on Sunday that “we can definitely live with” large parts of the document. But she didn’t write the official response and the tide at Yad Vashem is against her. “I think she’s an important historian but was very wrong in this, regarding the historical facts as well as in terms of putting our Polish friends and their academic freedom in danger,” said Dreifuss.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland visits the Ulma Family Museum, Jan. 2, 2018. Right-wing critics in his country accused Morawiecki of capitulating to Israel in softening a law on Holocaust rhetoric. Getty Images

One of the biggest objections to the statement by Yad Vashem it that is implies that acts of Poles against Jews were few while assistance to Jews was widespread. It also uses wording to “soft-pedal” the reality of hatred that many Poles felt towards Jews, which led them to collaborate with Nazis, and present their acts as isolated acts taken out of context.

Yad Vashem was particularly troubled by a section saying that “some people — regardless of their origin, religion, or worldview, revealed their darkest side at that time.” It believes that this is an attempt to blur the victim-perpetrator boundary, by leaving the door open to claim that Jews collaborated with Nazis just as Poles did.

One question that hovers around all of this controversy is why, last week, did the full-page ads appear in numerous newspapers around the world with the Israeli-Polish declaration: To show the solid nature of Israel-Poland ties? To tell people that the Israel-Poland crisis is over? Dreifuss has a different interpretation.

She said that the ads underscore the “cynical use” by the Polish government of the “false narrative” that it got Israel to sign. In her view, they reflect “a government campaign trying to literally change history by publishing ads that have nothing to do with historical accuracy but rather to do with politics.”

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.

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