The Israeli government got into a diplomatic disagreement with the Polish government this week after the former registered its displeasure with the latter’s initial approval of a bill exculpating Poland and Poles from any responsibility for the Holocaust. The bill, which was passed by Poland’s lower house of parliament on Friday and its Senate today and now goes to the president for his signature in order to become law, would criminalize speech that acknowledges Polish complicity in exterminating Jews or includes the term “Polish death camps.” For obvious and understandable reasons, Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians harshly criticized the bill as Holocaust revisionism bordering on Holocaust denial, but the Polish government has given no indication that it will back down or make any changes in response to Israeli concerns.
One does not have to squint too hard to see that there is an uncomfortable angle to the Israel-Poland fight related to Israel’s own recent efforts to limit different kinds of speech. The Knesset has not passed any laws that are equivalently Orwellian as what Poland is considering, and anything involving the Holocaust should be treated with an extra layer of sensitivity given its unique historical nature. But Israel has also been grappling with its own debate about what kinds of speech should be protected and what kinds of speech should be prohibited, and if you are – as I am – a free speech absolutist, the results of that debate have not been encouraging.
The Israeli government has banned high profile boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) supporters and members or employees of groups that support BDS from entering the country on the basis that BDS represents a strategic threat. That is a perfectly valid position to take, but it requires acknowledging two things. The first is that speech can pose a threat so harmful that it must be limited, and the second is that not everyone will have the same notion about what is and is not harmful. Israel believes that BDS rises to this level of threat despite what others may think, and Poland believes that blaming Poles for committing or abetting genocide against Jews rises to that level of threat despite what others may think. While the Israeli government wants people to respect its own assessment, it does not want to extend the same courtesy to Poland in this instance.
Let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not in any manner comparing or making an equivalence between treatment of BDS supporters and the Holocaust, or between BDS and Holocaust denial. There are a number of ways to distinguish Israeli policy from Polish policy here, starting with the fact that Holocaust denial deserves to be in a category all its own that requires a figurative geder saviv la’torah, or extra stringency, so as not to even approach its territory, and continuing to the fact that the Polish government is criminalizing its own citizens’ speech while the Israeli government is only establishing border control standards. I also take a skeptical view of the Israeli moves to counter BDS because I think that Israeli officials wildly overestimate the threat from BDS, a movement of misguided misfits who can barely walk straight and have no real successes to their name. But the point stands that the Israeli government is furious with the Polish government for creating speech standards with which it vehemently disagrees and condemns as an overreaction, all the while seeming oblivious to the fact that it has done the same thing in a different arena.
But leaving the lack of Israeli self-awareness in this instance aside, there is a more important point to make surrounding Israel’s reaction to the Polish legislation. In intervening in another sovereign state’s legislation that will not directly affect Israel in any appreciable way, Netanyahu is advancing a principle that Israel should have a say in another country’s affairs because of its unique role pertaining to the subject matter at hand. As the world’s only Jewish state, Israel has a special obligation to guard against a repeat of a genocide aimed at Jews, and one of the ways in which it does so is by ensuring that “never again” is more than an empty slogan. Educating people about how the horrors of the Holocaust were perpetrated is a vital part of this task, and even those who think that Israeli politicians – and Netanyahu in particular – sometimes wield the Holocaust for political ends cannot deny that Israeli leaders have a vested interest in and responsibility for preserving an accurate historical memory of the destruction of European Jewry. This is what gives Israel a stake in what goes on in Poland and appropriately so, despite the fact that a cursory glance might leave a less knowledgeable observer confused about why the Israeli prime minister is incensed about a bill in the Polish Sejm that has nothing to do with Israel.
This same principle, so assiduously guarded by Netanyahu and Israeli politicians across the political spectrum, applies to Diaspora Jews concerned about laws in Israel; laws that actually affect them in tangible and easily traceable ways, making that concern even more pressing. The prevailing Israeli response to American Jews angry about Israeli non-recognition of Jewish denominations that are dominant outside of Israel, or the denial of non-Orthodox and even some Orthodox conversions, or the Orthodox monopoly and enforced gender segregation at the Western Wall has been to wave off these concerns because the aggrieved parties are not Israeli citizens. American Jews have been told time and again that such interference in internal Israeli affairs is inappropriate, and if American Jews want a say in what happens in Israel, they should make aliyah. But on issues that actually touch Diaspora Jewish life and observance – issues that are not solely Israeli, but are Jewish – Diaspora Jews should be granted the same privilege that Israel now claims for itself with regard to how Poland treats the Holocaust. The illuminating lesson from this diplomatic crisis should be that some issues, because of their historical importance and ability to cross boundaries in real ways, are so large as to transcend a narrow national interest, and the Holocaust is not the only one that falls into this category.