By Sara Ye || Contributing Writer
Photo courtesy of Vatican News
On Tuesday, February 19, the Visegrad Group was supposed to have its summit in Jerusalem, but the meeting was cancelled after political leaders from Poland and Israel clashed. The Visegrad Group (V4) consists of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, and V4 claims to “reflect the efforts of the countries of the Central European region to work together in a number of fields of common interest within the all-European integration.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to host the V4 to try and gain international support before the upcoming elections in April.
When questioned by a reporter in Warsaw, Poland, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that Polish people were involved in the Holocaust and killing of Jewish people. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki did not take kindly to the remarks, but Netanyahu’s office later released a statement that his words had been misinterpreted by media outlets; he had not meant to condemn all Poles in the Holocaust, only the few who did participate in violence against Jewish people.
However, Israel’s newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yisrael Katz, escalated the conflict. In a radio interview, Katz stated, “Poles collaborated with the Nazis, definitely. As [seventh prime minister of Israel] 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.” Offended on behalf of Poland, Morawiecki pulled out of the V4 summit and called Katz’s comments “an example of racist anti-Polonism.”
Netanyahu and Katz’s comments come about a year after Polish President Andrzej Duda signed an anti-defamation bill pushed by the nationalist Law and Justice party. The law forbids speech that claims Poland was “responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” Punishments for violating the law include fines and up to three years in jail. Scientific research and artistic work is exempt from the law. Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians were against the anti-defamation bill when it first passed, thinking it was an attempt to misrepresent history.
Millions of Poles certainly suffered during Nazi occupation, and many Poles tried to help Jewish refugees. However, according to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, antisemitism had been increasing in Poland since before World War II. The Nazis took advantage of institutions like the Polish police to segregate and deport Jews. On an individual basis, many Poles assisted in the capture of many Jews who were hiding, and some Poles even murdered Jewish people.
There has been a history of Polish politicians trying to discourage speech condemning Polish involvement in the Holocaust. In 2012, Poland heavily criticized President Barack Obama when he granted a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, who was instrumental in the Polish resistance against the Nazis. President Obama referred to an extermination camp as a “Polish death camp,” earning immediate anger from Poland’s then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
The prime ministers from Hungary and Slovakia are already in Israel and will meet with each other. After backing out of the V4 summit, Morawiecki stated that Poland is “waiting for a firm reaction to the reprehensible, unacceptable, and simply racist words of the new appointed foreign minister of Israel.” According to a tweet from Morawiecki’s account on February 18, he told Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic’s prime ministers that the V4 summit would have to be postponed. However, Morawiecki considered sending the Polish foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, in his stead.
Meanwhile, in America, there has been pressure for the Israeli government to apologize to Poland. Georgette Mosbacher, the US ambassador for Poland, asked that Katz apologize for his remarks about Polish involvement in the Holocaust. She argued that diplomatic relations between the two countries was too critical for offensive comments to break the bond. In 2018 after the Polish anti-defamation bill passed, Netanyahu and Morawiecki spoke over the phone to continue the conversation and keep the peace. Perhaps a year later, the two leaders will be able to move forward with Israel and Poland’s historically shaky relationship.
Sophomore Sarah Ye is a contributing writer, her email is firstname.lastname@example.org