Polish-Israeli relations are undergoing another severe test. As in the past, it is about the past. This is most unfortunate.
Poland and Israel share a deep friendship and strategic partnership. Ties have grown across the board. 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.
And this week, leaders of the Visegrad Group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) of which Poland is the largest country, were slated to hold a key round of meetings in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but which, sadly, has now been canceled because of the latest dispute over history.
There is no nongovernmental organization anywhere that has devoted more time and attention to relations between Poland and the Jewish people than American Jewish Committee (AJC).
For more than four decades, we have worked to write a new chapter in the very complex links among us. There have been notable successes. Obviously, more work remains.
The main, though not the only, sticking point has always been varying assessments of the magnitude of anti-Semitism in Poland, especially before and during World War II, and often competing historical narratives. Indeed, not surprisingly, this is the trigger for the current tension, as it was last year with the regrettable Polish IPN law, since amended.
Our approach has always been to recognize that we may never fully agree on the past, which, by the way, is not unique to our links with Poland, even as we must all listen to each other as friends and examine the past with clear-eyed courage.
But there are certain things we should be able to jointly acknowledge:
Poland is central to our understanding of Jewish history. For centuries, it was the epicenter of Jewish life.
1000 years of Jewish presence on Polish soil cannot be reduced to a single headline or sound bite.
Like Jews, Poles have been targeted by their larger neighbors more than once and there remains a deep-seated sense of vulnerability. Indeed, just as Israel disappeared from the world map for centuries, so did Poland for 123 years.
Poland was the first target of the German army, leading to the start of the Second World War. It experienced a brutal Nazi (and, for a time, Soviet) occupation for nearly six years.
While Auschwitz is understandably associated with the Holocaust, it also held non-Jewish Poles, including many Catholic clergy.
Its soldiers continued to fight in the Allied forces, including its brave pilots in the British air force.
Its resistance in Poland was the most developed in Europe. Unlike France or Norway, for example, there was not a Polish collaborationist regime with the Nazis.
And, notably, there are thousands of Poles recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for risking their lives to save Jewish lives. Names such as Irena Sendler and Jan Karski ought to be hallowed for Jews.
To fast forward, past the laudably essential Polish role in bringing down Soviet-dominated communism, yes, there are certainly pockets of anti-Semitism in Poland. No doubt about it. They can’t be denied or willed away.
But, and it’s a big but, there is also a small but growing Jewish community, a remarkable Jewish museum in Warsaw, an electrifying annual Jewish cultural festival in Krakow, and, again, deep links between Warsaw and Jerusalem.
As friends, we need to be able to manage our inevitable differences. That begins with 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. And it means not ceding all the progress achieved to date to those who might wish to destroy it.
For our part, in other words, AJC seeks to help chart a brighter path forward for Poles and Jews alike.