Ysrael Katz, the Israeli Foreign Minister has said he will not apologise for his remarks about Poles “suckling antisemitism with their mother’s milk”.
“I will not apologise to Poles for my remarks about their cooperation with Nazis” said Mr Katz during an interview given to “Reshet 13”.
The remarks have been criticised by the US Ambassador to Poland and have caused outrage in Poland. The Polish Prime Minister cancelled any participation in a planned Visegrad summit in protest at the remarks made by the Israeli FM.
It was also reported today that during a conversation between Polish FM Jacek Czaputowicz and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the American official expressed understanding for Polish reactions to the unfriendly and provocative comments coming from the Israeli camp.
Mr Katz, like other Israeli politicians is engaged in Israel’s election campaign in which anti-Polish sentiments are playing a part. These sentiments are derived from the tensions that existed between Poles and a large Jewish diaspora before the war, and anti-semitic campaigns provoked by the Polish communists during their time in power after the war.
Despite good relations between Israel and Poland since the end of communism, the tensions flared up last year during the debate over the Polish defamation law. The law sought to penalise blaming Poland for the Holocaust and was interpreted in Israel and the US as an attempt to whitewash Poles and stop further research on the Holocaust. Poland removed the controversial penalisation clause from the legislation and Poland and Israel signed a joint declaration acknowledging that Poland, as a nation and state, was not responsible for the Holocaust.
Mr Katz statements seen as anti-Polonism
Remarks such as Mr Katz’s are viewed in Poland as anti-Polonism that should not be tolerated. There can be no denial that some Poles out of fear, hate or greed committed crimes against their fellow citizens, the Jews.
However, Poland as a nation was a country which fought German Nazis from the first to the last day of the war. Its underground state and government in exile opposed the Nazi extermination campaign aimed at Jews. Poles found to have collaborated with Germans were often executed by the Polish underground.
Many Poles risked, and gave, their lives trying to protect Jews. A group of Polish diplomats, now called the Bernese group, ran an undercover operation forging Latin American passports to allow Jews to leave German occupied territories.
This is why Poles find it galling that they are often tarred with the anti-semitic and Nazi collaborator brush whereas western and central European nations whose states collaborated with Nazi Germany are not. Anti-semitic incidents are far more prevalent in these countries than in the Poland of today.
This dismay is also conveyed by Israeli journalist Eldad Beck writing in the Polish press. He argues that “Polish sensitivity and anger are understandable given the hurtful generalisations coming from populist Israeli politicians...When it comes to the Holocaust Israelis are treating Poles like a punchbag while worshiping and excusing the Germans”.
Refusal to apologise will escalate tensions
Eldad Beck argues that Israel should apologise rather than try and explain or excuse before it loses a good friend in Europe. The post-election period may provide a chance for doing so but the portents after Mr Katz’s refusal to apologise are not good
The lack of an apology from Mr Katz is bound to freeze relations between Israel and Poland. It means that the current, and any future, Israeli PM will be faced with either dismissing MR Katz or apologising on behalf of the Israeli state. The problem is that such an action will lead to criticism in Israel for backing down. But with Mr Katz in charge of Israeli diplomacy it is hard to see how normal relations between Poland and Israel can resume.