Netanya | Polish-Israeli Relations: Grappling with the Past and Forging the Future

Before the establishment of the state of Israel, Poland has played a crucial role in its politics, culture, lifestyle, and history. The first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was Polish-born; and in 1989 Shimon Peres, deputy prime minister at the time, visited Poland to resume diplomatic relations which led to the expansion of political, military, economic, and cultural cooperation between Israel and Poland. Poland and Israel have also joined forces to sign bilateral agreements. Their relationship has survived many years, however, due to recent controversies, Israel and Poland are not as close as they once were.

On July 1st, 2019, the first round table workshop, co-organized by Helping Hand Global Forum and hosted by Dr. Elie Freidman, took place at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College to revisit the topic of relations between the two countries. Bringing together leading experts and representatives of civil society from Israel, Poland, Austria, and France, the afternoon was spent in avid discussion about the best ways to heal Israeli-Polish relations and educate its citizens, along with the world, about the events that occurred during the Holocaust and World War II.

Opening the discussion, Jacek Bendykowski, Chairman of Gdańsk Foundation and co-founder of Forum for Dialogue Between the Nations, spoke about statistics, the history of Poland and Israel’s relationship, and the changes that are happening in terms of anti-Semitism and stereotyping. For more than two hundred years, Warsaw was the largest Jewish city in the world, establishing kibbutzim throughout the country. In fact, its agricultural education prepared the Jews for their immigration to Israel. However, over recent years, anti-Semitism has risen due to myths and stereotypes. According to Mr.Bendykowski, the best way to rebuild the relationships with these two countries would be to break the stereotypes and bring Polish students to see Israel just as Israel already brings its students to tour Poland.

Many of those present at the round table agreed that words have power, and when political parties make statements that generalize Poland and its involvement in the war, disputes and controversies arise. As Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Ephraim Sneh stated when he spoke, “Neither Poles nor Jews should exempt Germans for responsibility for the Holocaust… The Polish people are correct in protesting the term ‘Polish concentration camp.’ They were ‘Nazi concentration camps.’ However, the blame should not be cast upon Poland as a nation.” 

Dr. Elie Friedman, Director at S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College, added to Dr.Ephraim’s statements by giving examples of such generalizations made by the former President of the United States, Barack Obama, and Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Back in 2012, Obama referred to the concentration camps in Poland as ‘Polish death camps,’ when in fact they were Nazi camps. Then in February of this year, Netanyahu spoke at a conference in Warsaw making the statement, “Poles cooperated with the Nazis.” However, the Polish press misquoted Israel’s PM by adding ‘the’ to his statement, causing Poles to think that Netanyahu was blaming the entire nation of Poland rather than the individuals who cooperate with the Nazis during the war. Unfortunately, this error caused a stir between the governments, and as a result, the Visegrad conference was canceled. 

Creating a new dialogue for the next generation was also a subject that was often brought up. As Yuval Bazak, former military attaché to Poland, mentioned during the discussion, the perception of Holocaust survivors has changed over the years. In the beginning, the survivors were blamed for being killed, then they became victims, and now they are thought of as heroes and survivors. Yoav Krakowski, the head of Political Desk, contributed to Yuval’s remarks by discussing how the murderers of WWII are known as Nazis and not Germans, while when people talk about the Poles who collaborated with the Nazis, there is no distinction. It’s time for there to be a differentiation! It was suggested that one way of achieving this goal would be to add more to the education system to teach the coming generation of Jewish history, their country’s history, and the history of those who were involved in the war.

Learning about his Jewish heritage at the age of thirty, Andre Gasiorowski shared how he came to work with the Holocaust survivors. After seeing how the survivors were continuing to suffer and not seeing any work being done to improve their living conditions, Dr.Gasiorowski established Helping Hand Coalition. As he began sharing his thoughts, Andre said, “If we don’t bring change now, the future of the coming generations will be very bad for our grandchildren.”

During the meeting, Andre spoke about the power of media and how it should be used to bring more education to the world. He also encouraged policies and films to be made that portrays a more positive, impactful outlook on Poland and Israel. It’s time for there to be conclusions and hear the silent cries of the countries that are still suffering from the effects of the war.

In closing, Andre discussed that the 7,000 Righteous Among the Nations that are named in Yad Vashem is not the correct number of rescuers. During the Holocaust, about ten Polish people had to work in the conspiracy to save one Jew in Poland during six years of the German occupation. If over 100,000 Jews survived the Holocaust in Poland, the number of rescuers had to be over one million!

Following Andre’s speech, David Altman, Vice-chairman of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, took the time to speak about anti-Semitism and its desire to wipe out the Jewish people. The world is still keeping quiet against anti-Semitism, and according to Mr.Altman’s closing words, if we don’t stand up and bring the movement to an end, it will indeed be the final solution that wipes out the Jewish population.

Culture is essential, and though no concrete conclusion was reached during this first round table meeting, it instituted the importance of education and communication. There are multiple sides to the events that occurred during the Holocaust, each country having a tale of its own, so it is important to combine all understandings to educate and change the perception of the world’s views of the war, Israel, the Jewish people, and Poland. 

July 1st conversation was only the beginning. There will be more discussions in the near future that will further communicate what needs to happen to strengthen relations between two countries that have supported each other for more than seventy years!

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