The Polish Holocaust Law, signed on February 6, authorizing imprisonment for those who suggest Poland’s complicity in the Nazi’s crimes is an example of blatant Holocaust revisionism. The law, and its subsequent revision, were sharply criticized by Israeli, U.S. and European policymakers and academics for whitewashing history, i.e. denying the well-documented participation of Poles in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust and in the pogroms that immediately followed. The only outside capitulation to Poland’s display of anti-Semitism, attempting to rid its people of blame and thereby belittle the Jewish genocide, came from the de facto leader of the Jewish people, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This does not come as a surprise, but rather fits a long pattern by Netanyahu of ignoring, and sometimes abetting, anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism by right-wing leaders, many with their own authoritarian streak, in the narrow-minded pursuit of short-term, personal political gain. The long-term consequences of this betrayal of Jewish interests and liberal values by the Israeli prime minister are an increase in acts of anti-Semitism worldwide and an inevitable erosion of Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jewry, international reputation, and ultimately the prospect of peace.The original bill signed into law by Polish President Andrzej Duda stipulated that accusing Poles of being complicit in the mass extermination of Jews on its soil (approximately three million, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum) during World War II will incur a heavy fine or up to three years in prison. Just as outrageous was the insensitivity demonstrated by Poland’s parliament; the legislative body passed the bill on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, triggering a diplomatic incident. Now, four months later, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has amended the law. Prison time is no longer a possible punishment, but fines are, and therefore the controversy has not yet abated. In comes Benjamin Netanyahu, who despite approaching the record for longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, created a tactical blunder of epic proportions.
On June 27, Netanyahu and Morawiecki signed a joint declaration in an attempt to improve Israel-Poland relations following the diplomatic breakdown caused by the original Holocaust Law. Israel also sought to correct for the Holocaust revisionism that was codified by the Polish legislation. Regrettably, the statement accomplishes the very opposite; it stresses the role of Poles in protecting Jews and minimizes their role in Jewish persecution. This unconscionable display of governmental negligence was lambasted by a slew of Israeli politicians, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and notably by the premier Holocaust historians of Yad Vashem. “A thorough review by Yad Vashem historians shows that the historical assertions, presented as unchallenged facts, in the joint statement contain grave errors and deceptions,” read a letter from the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Given this gross dereliction of duty, one has to wonder whether the Netanyahu government is being intentionally deceptive in order to score political points. If so, it begs asking if it is worth sacrificing Jewish interests and liberal values as part of the government’s dubious ploy to perpetuate the status quo.
In asking this question, it is important to examine other examples of the Israeli government’s cozying up to right-wing leaders with authoritarian tendencies. Netanyahu’s recent Poland miscue comes after one and a half years of willful blindness towards, and effective embrace of, the Trump administration’s anti-Semitism. Anti-Jewish sentiment has become an ugly undercurrent of Trumpism; Breitbart News’ Steve Bannon, a notorious apologist for the alt-right, was hired as Trump’s White House Chief Strategist and Trump failed to condemn a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia during which chants of “Jews will not replace us” could be heard. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League reported a major spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the Trump era. Yet, the leader of the lone Jewish state seems perfectly willing to overlook this dreadful reality and stand side-by-side with Trump on such issues as withholding aid to the Palestinians and the Jerusalem embassy decision. For Netanyahu, policy certainly seems to trump principle.
If that weren’t nefarious enough, Netanyahu has also allied himself with Hungary’s strongman, Viktor Orbán, visiting Budapest and praising his leadership. Orbán has been widely condemned for pandering to anti-Semites, particularly for extolling Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian dictator during World War II who aided the Germans in their genocide, using anti-Semitic tropes to rile up his base while campaigning for prime minister, and infamously attacking Jewish-Hungarian investor George Soros in an unambiguously anti-Semitic manner. Evidently, none of these transgressions are red lines in Netanyahu’s view, so long as he gains political backing from a European Union leader who could potentially block initiatives in Brussels critical of Israeli conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians (EU legislation requires the unanimous consent of the 28 member states).
In addition to a common political strategy that aligns the Israeli prime minister to Trump and Orbán, a clear confluence of ideology is also at play. The three leaders share a hardline political vision and aspire to maintain a firm grasp on power. Furthermore, similar to Orbán, Netanyahu has long led a smear campaign against Soros that borders on anti-Semitism. “The prime minister of Israel is the last person on earth who should be putting a kosher stamp on the demonic Jewish stereotype that white supremacists, particularly in Eastern Europe, have fashioned around Soros in recent years,” wrote Chemi Shalev in an opinion piece for Ha’aretz. Soros has funded groups like J Street and B’tselem which criticize the occupation both from within Israel and in the United States. Netanyahu, no friend of leftist civil society groups, has joined the Hungarian government’s propaganda war against the Jewish philanthropist. Most recently, Netanyahu accused Soros of masterminding the efforts to undermine his African refugee deportation plan — a conspiracy theory eerily reminiscent of those devised by virulent anti-Semites. Evidently, it is both policy and ideology that unites these international players.
Netanyahu also boasts a budding relationship with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is set to visit Israel in the coming months. Diplomatic and security relations between the two countries have strengthened; Duterte assisted Netanyahu in combatting a 2017 UNESCO resolution regarding Jerusalem, and Israel continues to sell arms to the Philippines. Furthermore, Netanyahu hopes that Duterte’s visit will lead to the enhancement of financial ties and potentially sway the Southeast Asian Republic to follow in Trump’s footsteps and move their embassy to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Duterte is commonly referred to as a dictator for his use of death squads and imposition of martial law in his war on drugs. He has also been known to make flippant, anti-Semitic remarks. Notably, the Philippine president likened himself to Hitler saying, “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is three million … drug addicts [in the Philippines] … I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know my victims, I would like [them] to be all criminals, to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.” Is this a man that the Jewish state should lay out the red carpet for?
In accordance with his hardline ideology, Netanyahu is seemingly befriending and sponsoring far-right, oppressive political entities to the detriment of the liberal values originally outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Ideologically aligning with governments like those in Poland and Hungary closely associates Israel with illiberal values. Amid this global wave of ethnonationalism, Israel should rise above the fray and combat discrimination wherever it takes root. Only then can it credibly work to defeat anti-Semitism. Netanyahu’s short-sighted approach of championing leaders with shared authoritarian streaks will inevitably prove disastrous for Israel’s founding ethos and its partnership with the Jewish diaspora. In attempting to use leaders like Orbán as a shield against criticism of the occupation, it also impinges on the viability of a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No immediate policy, big or small, is worth such a catastrophic outcome.