Jewish groups respond to Israeli FM's comments

A number of Jewish organisations have commented on controversial statements by Israel's acting Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who accused Poles of anti-Semitism, which lead to a diplomatic incident between Poland and Israel.

The acting foreign minister on Sunday referred to words ascribed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he had mentioned that Poles had collaborated with Nazi Germans during the Second World War.

"Our prime minister expressed himself clearly," Katz said. "I am a son of Holocaust survivors (...) The memory of the Holocaust is something we cannot compromise about, it is something clear and we won’t forget or forgive. Poles collaborated with the Nazis, and as (Israeli's former prime minister - PAP) Yitzhak Shamir, whose father was murdered by Poles, said, they suckle anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk."

After Katz's comments, Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki on Monday cancelled a Visegrad Group (V4) summit in Israel.

The regional lobby V4, which is made up of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, was slated to hold a summit in Jerusalem on Tuesday. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu was to attend the meeting.

Following the diplomatic spat, several Jewish groups commented on Katz's statements.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) urged restraint and the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland (ZGWŻ) criticised Israel's acting foreign minister's words on Monday as they tried to defuse the recent incident in Polish-Israeli relations.

AJC CEO David Harris issued a statement on Monday in which he observed that Poland and Israel have managed to build good relations, stressing the importance of "choosing our words carefully — knowing when to speak, how to speak, and where to speak."

"It means not allowing individual incidents to escalate out of control," David Harris added.

Harris termed Polish-Israeli relations a "strategic partnership," despite undergoing "another severe test".

"Most recently, despite pressure from certain other countries, Poland agreed to host an intergovernmental conference on the Middle East, especially Iran, to which Israel attached the greatest importance," Harris noted.

He recalled that this week leaders from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, the four countries that make up the Visegrad Group, "were slated to hold a key round of meetings in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but which, sadly, has now been cancelled because of the latest dispute over history."

"Varying assessments of the magnitude of anti-Semitism in Poland, especially before and during World War II," are the background of the most recent dispute, according to the AJC head.

While expressing a view that there are still pockets of anti-Semitism in Poland, Harris stressed that "there is also a small, but growing Jewish community, a remarkable Jewish museum in Warsaw, an electrifying annual Jewish cultural festival in Kraków, and, again, deep links between Warsaw and Jerusalem."

"As friends, we need to be able to manage our inevitable differences," the AJC CEO said.

The ZGWŻ in its statement, which was also signed by Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, said that accusing all Poles of anti-Semitism, insults the Righteous, "and us, Polish Jews, who are part of this society."

ZGWŻ head Monika Krawczyk and the chief rabbi said that the words by Israel's former PM Yitzhak Shamir that Katz quoted "were unjust already when they were uttered for the first time, in 1989, at a time when the restoration of Polish-Israeli relations had just started after the long night of communism."

"These words are even more upsetting today, 30 years later, when both sides have done so much to foster mutual understanding of our very difficult but shared history. The fact that some Poles took part (indirectly or directly) in the German extermination of Jews during WWII is a historical fact. We also remember that occupied Poland did not create a regime that would collaborate with the Third Reich during WWII."

The Polish Jews also underlined that Poles "constitute the biggest group among the Righteous Among the Nations," or people who helped Jews survive the Holocaust, often risking their own lives as well as their families'.

"Levelling an accusation of anti-Semitism against all Poles, also insults these Righteous; it also insults all those who want to see the true representation of Polish society in these Righteous. And it also insult us, Polish Jews who are part of that society," the group wrote in a statement.

The worsening of Polish-Israeli relations was also criticised by the leader of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), Ronald Lauder.

"As someone who has been deeply engaged in promoting Polish-Jewish understanding for over three decades, I can only decry the deterioration in relations between Israel and Poland. It is unfortunate for both Jews and Poles that obnoxious and offensive stereotypes, that have caused so much pain and suffering on both sides over the years, continue to circulate," Lauder said.

"Such language should have no place in civilized discourse," the WJC president continued. "How sad to think that decades of cooperation and goodwill are now in jeopardy. Let us all work together to overcome this crisis, which has been a victory for the forces of intolerance and narrow-mindedness — and a terrible stain on the societies of both peoples."