January 17, 2019

Should Israel Care About Historical Truths?

There are three main players in the unfolding drama surrounding the Israel-Poland statement that ended the diplomatic crisis between the two countries: the government of Israel, the government of Poland and the historians debating, and mostly criticizing, the statement. 

There are three main layers in this unfolding drama that must be discussed separately: the interests of the two countries involved, the role of the three main players and the historical truth. 

There are three main stages in this unfolding drama: the decision by Poland to pass a law that could turn an honest discussion of the Holocaust into a crime, the negotiation and agreement that enabled the cancelation of this law, and the aftermath — that is, the drama of the last week. 

At the beginning of the year, Poland passed a bill that outlawed anything that could be interpreted as blaming the country for crimes committed during the Holocaust. The response was harsh: the law was seen — rightly so — as an attempt to silence any research that exposes the extent to which Poles participated in the persecution of Jews. A diplomatic crisis with Israel ensued. It was a crisis that the two countries, which have mutually beneficial relations, did not seek nor want. A ladder was needed for both to be able to climb down and go back to business as usual. 

Following negotiation, an agreement was reached. The law would be eliminated; Israel and Poland would issue a statement. The statement said many things — some more accurate than others. Among them, for example, “that structures of the Polish underground state supervised by the Polish government-in-exile created a mechanism of systematic help and support to Jewish people.” Historians in Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, argue that this is “a narrative that research has long since disproved.” They harshly criticized the joint statement, because of this and other untruths, and were joined in their criticism by some of Israel’s politicians. 

Remember, we have three players. The Polish government does not much care. It handed Israel what Israel demanded (a cancellation of the law) and got what it wanted in return (a whitewashed version of historical events). The Israeli government is embarrassed. Its supposed achievement — repairing relations with an ally — became a fiasco. Historians are both outraged (because of the statement) and dismayed (because they were not consulted). 

Remember, we also have three layers. 

Layer One — The interests of the countries: Interest — remedy the relations. Done. Interest — remedy the relations amid certain political realities. This means that neither Poland nor Israel could get everything it wanted from the negotiation. So, at some point, a decision had to be made based on one question: Is the agreement good enough for Israel (and Poland) to sign. Good enough means not perfect, not what we wanted, not what we’d sign in an ideal world. Well, was it good enough? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that it was. He decided to make a compromise on the past to preserve the present. 

A ladder was needed for Israel and Poland to be able to climb down and go back to business as usual.

Layer Two — The role of the players: Here it is important to remember that people do have roles. Prime ministers make history. Historians make research. Prime ministers can, if they want, consult with historians. But they don’t have to. Prime ministers can, if they want, accept the advice of historians. They can also ignore their advice or accept some parts of it and ignore other parts. This is what Netanyahu did. This is what he ought to do, if the interest of the country demands it.

Layer Three — The historical truth: It is, of course, important for us to know that Poles (like citizens of many other European countries) actively participated in hunting Jews, killing Jews and robbing them of their property. Historians must defend their ability to expose these actions. Israel must also defend it, with a caveat. It must defend it among other things that it must defend. In other words, for historians, the main interest is caring for historical truth. For a country, historical truth is one interest, relations with Poland are another interest. 

Is one more important than the other? Balancing both is important. Maybe Netanyahu failed to strike the right balance; or maybe he succeeded in striking the right balance. As long as we remember what we seek is a balance; as long as we remember prime ministers are not elected to defend a truth, but rather to defend a country; the debate can go on.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.