Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Holocaust scholars worry that memory is a victim of Israel’s warming ties with Eastern Europe 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to establish close ties with the European Union’s Central European members has met with pushback from a perhaps unlikely source: Holocaust historians and activists protective of Israel’s role in preserving the memories of the Nazis’ victims.

Netanyahu has justified his outreach to leaders in countries like Poland and Hungary as a way to  counterbalance the E.U.’s more Palestinian-friendly western states.

But his critics say he may be sacrificing efforts to counter Holocaust revisionism, especially by leaders who are trying to downplay their countries’ complicity with the Germans in World War II.

“In recent years, some European governments try to present, and even force, a historical picture which is very different than the one well known based on documentation and on historical research,” Havi Dreifuss, a historian of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe at Tel Aviv University, told JTA.

“We see those phenomena mainly, but not only, regarding the assistance of locals to Nazi Germany murderous acts. It is most disturbing when there is no correction or comment from the Israeli side especially when these distorted narratives are part of an attempt to shape the public sphere and the public discourse,” said Dreifuss. “When Israel does not clearly correct these historical distortions it is very concerning, because it is not only history that shapes the past but also the public debate.”

On Monday, with the announcement that the Visegrád Group’s next summit will be held in Jerusalem, Netanyahu felt Israel had much to celebrate.

An alliance of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, the Visegrád Group represents the nationalist and conservative wing of the European Union. Gaining their support in the international arena should count as an uncontested diplomatic coup.

However, some in Israel see Netanyahu’s political triumph as deeply problematic.

In a scathing condemnation, Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, tweeted that the summit will feature a “prime minister who passed a law that humiliates the memory of Holocaust victims and a prime minister who publishes anti-Semitic content.”

Lapid was apparently referring to Prime Minsiter Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, who signed legislation last year making it a crime to hold Poland responsible for Nazi crimes. Hungary’s Viktor Orban, meanwhile, was accused of using anti-Semitic dog whistles in a campaign against Jewish philanthropist and pro-democracy activist George Soros.

“It is the loss of all national pride and causes us damage in the international arena,” Lapid continued. “The prime minister must overcome his passion for election photography and cancel it.”

The increasingly close relations between Jerusalem and countries such as Hungary and Poland have liberals here worried because both countries’ governments have taken steps to undermine independent institutions and the press. Both European countries are seen as rolling back the process of democratization begun after the fall of communism.

But the specter of World War II casts a distinct shadow in the Jewish state. According to a study released last week by researchers from Yale University and Grinnell College, Holocaust revisionism has been on the rise in Europe. Some of the worst offenders were found in Poland and Hungary.

“Holocaust remembrance is under clear threat in Poland,” according to the report.

Netanyahu has taken notice. Responding to the public outcry in Israel and around the world over Poland’s “Holocaust law,” Netanyahu condemned the legislation, stating that Israel had “no tolerance for distorting the truth, historical revisionism, or Holocaust denial.”

However, as relations between Warsaw and Jerusalem hit a new low, Netanyahu became conciliator, releasing a joint statement with Morawiecki claiming that “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.”

The pronouncement was widely panned by historians. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority, issued an unprecedented statement criticizing Netanyahu’s “grave errors and deceptions.”

Netanyahu has also come under fire for praising Orban for “preserving the memory of the past” despite the Hungarian prime minister’s public praise for wartime leader and Nazi ally Miklós Horthy, as well as the anti-Soros campaign.


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