Round Table: Polish-Israeli Workshop

First Round Table Workshop on Improving Relations between Poland and Israel organized at S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue in cooperation with the Helping Hand Global Forum at Netanya Academic College, on the day of  July 1, 2019. 

Historical Background

Since before the establishment of the state of Israel, Poland has played a crucial role in its politics, culture, lifestyle, and history. Over 3,000 Polish Jewish soldiers and officers left Anders Polish Army in Palestine during WWII, becoming core of Hagana, Irgun, and later IDF, and Moshe Dayan – Prime Minister of Israel was one of them. 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.

Center for Strategic Dialogue

Center for Strategic Dialogue is dedicated to facilitating and developing platforms for regional and global dialogue on pressing strategic, security, economic, and diplomatic issues. Ensuring positive and fruitful relations between Poland and Israel is of prime importance to the Center, and to the State of Israel in general. After decades of excellent strategic, economic, and diplomatic ties between Poland and Israel, over the last number of months we have been confronted with new challenges to these otherwise excellent relations. Thus, this round table workshop which congregated leading experts and representatives of civil society, many of whom have strong ties with our government. This round table workshop served to raise the relevant challenges and suggest solutions, while brainstorming in preparation for a significant international conference dealing with Israeli-Polish relations, which we plan to hold following the upcoming elections in both Israel and Poland. 

First Round Table Workshop

On July 1, 2019, the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College, in cooperation with the Helping Hand Global Forum, held an expert round table meeting which included academics, members of the diplomatic community, and leading journalists, in order to examine and analyze the deterioration of Polish-Israeli relations over the last number of months, while proposing concrete proposals for restoring and improving relations between these two natural allies.

Summary of the Presentations

The following is a brief summary of the presentations made by conference participants.

Dr. Elie Friedman, Director, S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, Netanya Academic College.

Some of the problems between Israel and Poland are based on communications problems. Take for example the term “Polish death camps”. Back in 2012, Obama referred to the concentration camps in Poland as ‘Polish death camps,’ when in fact they were Nazi camps. This is a term that is to some extent accepted in our historical narrative. This term is problematic because, we know they were in fact Nazi death camps that were established in Poland, for various reasons. However, such a term can be very damaging to the Polish people. Back in 2012, Obama referred to the concentration camps in Poland as ‘Polish death camps,’ when in fact they were Nazi camps.

Another more recent example is the use or lack thereof of the definite article “the”. Just a few months ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu said “Poles cooperated with the Nazis”. He was misquoted first in the Israel, then repeated in the Polish press to have said “The Poles cooperated with Nazis”. The Poles being interpreted as a general national cooperation, rather than individual Poles. This led to terrible diplomatic fallout between Poland and Israel. Thus, we need to be really careful with what we say in public.

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Ephraim Sneh, Chairman, S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, Netanya Academic College.

The current tension between Poland and Israel is not necessary. However, the attempt to settle the dispute by unilaterally accepting the position of the other, as PM Netanyahu did, is not the optimal strategy.

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”. On the other hand, there was collaboration between Polish individuals and Nazis. However, blame should not be cast upon Poland as a nation. In addition, we should not ignore the fact that thousands of Polish citizens risked lives to save Jews. 

With respect to Jewish property in Poland, modern Poland must take responsibility for this issue and stop the continuation of the policy that existed under Communism. 

Israel and Poland should work together to create an agreed upon version of history that includes nuances.

Ms. Claude Grundman-Brightman, President of Francophone Campus, Netanya Academic College. 

Positive relations with Poland are essential to Israel, as today there are not many states that are so friendly to Israel.

Poland has been an essential ally, both with respect to the Iranian issue and the Palestinian issue. There must be an effort to get beyond emotional difficulties to cultivate excellent relations on all levels.

Adv. Jacek Bendykowski, Chairman of Gdansk Foundation, Co-Founder of Forum for Dialogue between the Nations.

Poland is the closest ally of Israel in the European Union. Poland has never boycotted Israeli goods. Poland has less anti-Semitic attacks than France or Germany. 

There are moral reasons for this connection between Israel and Poland. Poland was for years the safest shelter for Jews in Europe, as the first and second Polish republics were safe havens for Jews fleeing persecution around Europe. For over 200 years Warsaw was the largest Jewish city in the world.  During the Holocaust, Poland became the graveyard for 3 million Jewish Poles and 3 million Christian Poles killed by Germans. Hundreds of thousands were murdered also by the Soviets during their occupation of Poland. During the Holocaust, there was a strong Polish voice made by government in exile, demanding the support of the Western allies to save the Jews in Poland. 

Another reason for the connection is the deep roots of Zionism in Poland. There were more kibbutzim in Poland than in Israel before World War II. The agricultural education took part in Poland, as a way to prepare pioneering agriculture for Jews moving to Israel. Weapons and ammunition was smuggled from Poland to Palestine in 1930s to arm the Yishuv. 

Poland clearly has a national moral obligation to the Jewish people. 

Poland is a divided society. Many of the issues between Poland and Israel actually reflect internal divides within Poland.

The Holocaust law had an internal reason:  to intimidate Polish historians and to fight liberal forces. Populist statements by politicians on both sides allowed for the rise of hidden emotions. In addition, there is a hidden hand operating in social media to create hatred between the peoples. 

Antisemitism in Poland is a shameful phenomenon based on myth and stereotypes. Poland has done much to combat antisemitism, although it does still exist.

Anti-Polish sentiments in Israel are based on lack of knowledge and reinterpretation of history. 

There is a need to bring Israelis and Poles together to break down stereotypes: student and teacher exchanges. In addition, Israeli textbooks should include a nuanced description of Jewish history in Poland. Closer political and security cooperation would enhance relations. 

HE Ambassador Gershon Zohar, former Ambassador of Israel to Poland.

Poland and Israel have had exceptional political, economic and cultural relations since the fall of Communism. For example, Poland always contributed peacekeeping forces to UN border forces. In addition, Polish universities are filled with researchers studying Jewish history. 

With respect to the issue of restitution of Jewish property – a central problem in Poland is the issue of so called 447 JUST declaration – US Congressional oversight of the issue. There is strong resistance in Poland to American interference. In addition, populist nationalism in both countries creates a threat to relations. There is a need to prevent populist politics from impacting civil society relations. 

Colonel (ret.) Yuval Bazak, former Military Attaché to Poland.

Following the fall of Communism, Poland began to discover its history. There are many faculties for Jewish history in Poland, which could only be developed following 1989.

Many Polish youth learn today Hebrew. In addition, to dialogue between the states, each society must conduct a dialogue with its own history about the Holocaust narrative. 

Mr. Yoav Krakowski, Head of Political Desk, Kan Broadcasting Corporation.

The stereotype in Israel of Poles as anti-Semites does not reflect reality in Poland. Why has Israel forgiven Germany but not the Poles? Poland feels Germany bought Israel’s forgiveness with money and submarines. In addition, why do we call those who planned and carried out the Holocaust Nazis rather than Germans? However, we have forgiven the German nation, but still speak about the Poles as accomplices. This is very hurtful to Poles. 

The Polish Holocaust law was a reaction to Obama’s speech in which he called death camps “Polish death camps”. Thus, we have to be very careful of how we use words.  However, the problem is not the historic part of the law, but attempts by the Polish government trying to re-write history. In addition, Polish pupils know very little about the Holocaust and World War II. The education system must do more in this respect. 

Mr. Akiva Tor, Head, Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Poland is an important state in Europe: it has a growing economy, it is a member of the UN security council, it supports upgrading relations between Israel and the EU, and is closer to the Israeli perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

40,000 young Israelis visit Poland every year. The youth who go on are well prepared for the visit to understand nuances.

We want to recommend the establishment of a heritage fund that would present positive aspects of Jewish life in Poland to the Polish public through education. 

Dr. Andre Gasiorowski, Chairman of the Helping Hand Global Forum.

Media have utilized the Polish Holocaust law as a way to destabilize relations between the states.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz created a global crisis in Polish-Jewish relations through his very damaging and insulting statement about “Poles imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk” This led to terrible diplomatic fallout which resulted in the cancellation of the Visegrád Group conference in Jerusalem last months. (Visegrád Group is a political alliance of four Central European states – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, that are members of the European Union).

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 6 years of the German occupation. If over 100,000 Jews survived the Holocaust in Poland, the number of rescuers has to be over one million!

Just like Israel, Poland is a divided country between liberals and nationalists. Therefore, for both countries, particularly during election periods, statements against the other country are often made to serve internal interests.

Now is the time to stop process of destabilisation of relations between Poland and Jewish state. Otherwise there is no hope for future generations to ever fix it again.

Joseph Dakar, President of Israeli – Polish Chamber of Commerce.

Regarding the case of restitution or compensation for “orphan” Jewish properties in Poland – it will never happen. It is too costly for the Poles.

After WWII borders Poland was moved westward . There were 2.5 million Poles that were kicked out from Eastern part of pre-war Poland – what is now Ukraine and Belarus. After the war Polish communists confiscated all measurers of productions and also those who had large chunks of property as part of the communist ideology.

Nobody in Israel has ever been compensated nor will anyone ever get compensated for this, as well as the 2.5 million Poles that were kicked out. Poland this days is seated in 16 regions, 6 of which were Germany before the war. Large cities like Opole, Wroclaw, Szczecin, and Gdansk they were all German cities, are now in Poland. 7 million Germans were deported from that land. We think they are Germans so they shouldn’t be compensated for what was done by Nazi Germany, but the Germans don’t agree to that, and they are demanding the retrieval of the property from Poland.

Poles, Jews, Germans – nobody was ever compensated. If the Poles ever compensate Jews for lost properties in WWII, then they will have to compensate Germans too, and this is a complete impossibility.

There is existing agreement in which the Israeli government would NOT ask for compensation from Poland. The only results in asking for compensation or retrieval from the Poles can just worsen our relationship with them.

Dr. Emanuel Navon, International Relations Expert, Tel Aviv University and Interdisciplinary Center, Hertzlia.

The compromise between Israel and Poland on the Polish Holocaust law is a compromise between principles and realpolitik.

The left wing in Israel thinks we should not get close to the Visegrád Group states (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), as they are illiberal democracy. The right wing encourages these relations, to counter the approach of the EU on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Israel can use relations with Visegrád Group states to break up EU consensus on various issues, such as the Iran nuclear agreements. However, it should not become anti-EU and pro-Visegrád Group for a few reasons: 1) Some of these states are pro-Putin (not Poland). 2) These states are against globalization and free trade, which could hurt Israeli exports. Therefore, Israel should take a nuanced approach on these issues.

David Altman, Vice-chairman of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue.

Anti-Semitism is rising in some countries again such as Iran, and its clear desire to wipe out the Jewish people. The world is still keeping quiet against Anti-Semitism, and 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.

Trilateral Israeli-Polish-US relations should be further developed.

Mr. Eldad Beck, European Affairs Columnist, Israel HaYom Newspaper.

Polish PM was very afraid of coming to Israel for Visegrad summit. He thought he might say things that would make things worse. 

There is a need to begin joint research by Polish and Israeli researchers regarding the Holocaust and World War II. This could bring about a change in both states’ education systems. In addition, there should be an Israeli-German-Polish trialogue. 

Trips to Poland should also include a trip to Germany to see how Holocaust was initiated, and only then should groups go to Poland. This should be financed by the German government.

Ofer Levy, former at Ministry of Defense in High-Tech industry  management,

Even if agreement between Europe with Iran succeeds, this does not take off the table the very imminent threat to eliminate the State of Israel. It would be good to hear a much higher and stronger voice by Europe, maybe led by Poland, with regard to this imminent threat. It’s impossible after the experience and after what we’ve been through, to simply ignore it.

Regarding past – we have a burden to carry. We suffered together. Poles know pain, Jews know pain. We live with it every day. In order to carry a burden we need to see it, to weigh it , to feel it and together to carry it, as we try to enhance our relationship into the future.

We need to define new reality, carry it with us without stereotypes, without generalisations, without finger pointing – in order to enhance our excellent relationship.

We’ve done a lot in the last 70 years. Great achievements. This is not a crisis, this is some kind of friction that we have to overcome and time will be a great healer.

Dr. Barry Feinstein, Member of the Executive Steering Committee of the Strategic Dialogue Center.

This was a fascinating discussion, mainly dealing with international law. It was great to have this opportunity to thank each of the participants for their fascinating and very valuable contribution to this engaging discussion which emanated from their own varied backgrounds and experiences and expertise, bringing greater understanding of the complexity of the Polish – Israeli relations.

Other participants:

Poland is an important state in Europe: it has a growing economy, it is a member of the UN security council, it supports upgrading relations between Israel and the EU, and is closer to the Israeli perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

40,000 young Israelis visit Poland every year. The youth who go on are well prepared for the visit to understand nuances.

Poland needs to work with Israel and world Jewry to find a compromise, just as has been done with other countries.

It is a need to establish of a heritage fund that would present positive aspects of Jewish life in Poland to the Polish public through education. 

Final Conclusions

July 1st debate 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.

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 during World War II, each country has 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. 

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