February 5, 2018 / 9:58 PM / in 4 months

Israeli minister 'honored' to be barred from Poland over Holocaust bill

WARSAW/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s education minister said on Monday he was “honored” Poland had canceled his visit to Warsaw this week because he refused to back down from condemnation of a bill that would outlaw suggesting Poland was complicit in the Holocaust.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett enters the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem February 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Hollander/Pool

Earlier on Monday, Naftali Bennett said he would travel to Poland to discuss the bill, which Israeli officials have said amounts to Holocaust denial. However Poland’s government spokeswoman said there would be no such visit.

“The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it,” Bennett later said in a statement. “The government of Poland canceled my visit, because I mentioned the crimes of its people. I am honored.”

After Bennett’s statement, the government spokeswoman said the Polish side is “convinced” that soon the two sides will agree on a date to meet.

“We will certainly talk about our common history soon,” Joanna Kopcinska, the spokeswoman, said in a statement sent to Reuters.

Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said on Tuesday that Bennett’s visit has not been planned by the Polish government.

“Minister Bennett declared readiness to come and his words do not help the dialogue at this stage and, at the same time, show that there are different voices in Israel,” Czaputowicz told broadcaster TVN on Tuesday.

“Part of the public opinion, some politicians want to accuse Poland of complicity in Holocaust and this is a problem which has arisen,” he added.

Israel has denounced the Polish Holocaust bill, which passed in parliament last week and is awaiting a decision by President Andrzej Duda over whether to sign it.

“I hope that an agreement will be reached still ahead of the president’s signature,” Dziannik Gazeta Prawna daily quoted Anna Azari, the ambassador of Israel to Poland, as saying.

Supporters of the far-right National Radical Camp (ONR) gather in support of the Holocaust bill in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, February 5, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Dawid Zuchowicz via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. POLAND OUT.

“If we are to talk, then it makes sense before the legislation process is finally completed,” Azari said.

Duda is likely announce his decision on the bill on Tuesday, RMF FM radio said.

The Polish measure would impose prison sentences of up to three years for mentioning the term “Polish death camps” and for suggesting “publicly and against the facts” that the Polish nation or state was complicit in Nazi Germany’s crimes.

Poland’s right-wing nationalist government says the bill is necessary to protect the reputation of Poles as victims of Nazi aggression. Israel says the law would ban true statements about the role that some Poles played in Nazi crimes.

“I think that the bill is precise and does not require a change. I do not know what the president’s decision will be. Let’s wait a few hours. We are all tired with this issue,” Foreign Minister Czaputowicz said.

The bill has drawn criticism from the United States and condemnation from a number of international organizations as well as Polish minority groups.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Poland, which had Europe’s biggest Jewish population when it was invaded by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at the start of World War Two, became ground zero for the “final solution”, Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

More than three million of Poland’s 3.2 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, accounting for about half of the Jews killed in the Holocaust. Jews from across the continent were sent to be killed at death camps built and operated by Germans in Poland, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

According to figures from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazis also killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians.

“The death camps in Poland were built and operated by the Germans, and we cannot allow them to evade responsibility for these actions,” Israel’s Bennett said.

“However, many Polish people, all over the country, chased, informed or actively took part in the murder of over 200,000 Jews during, and after, the Holocaust. Only a few thousand people, Righteous Among the Nations, risked themselves to save Jews.”

Kopcinska said that Poland would like to talk about “the huge involvement of the Polish nation in saving Jews during the war because, under the conditions of German occupation, people of Jewish origin could hardly be saved without the help of Poles.”

But she said Poland is also ready to talk about “the painful cases when people behaved despicably” and turned their neighbors in to Germans.

“(The bill) does not limit such discussions, but aims to fight against false accusations against Poland for its complicity in the Holocaust.

Additional reporting by Pawel Sobczak and Agnieszka Barteczko; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Peter Graff and Robin Pomeroy

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