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Netanyahu must recognise Polish suffering in the Holocaust

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development/Flickr]

As a new row erupts over a proposed law in Poland criminalising use of the term "Polish death camps," the Israeli Prime Minister has naturally weighed in. Netanyahu has every right to do so, given the history of his nation. He is now in talks directly with the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, over the issue. As the Prime Minister of a country who also lost millions of citizens in the Holocaust, so does Morawiecki have a right to define the narrative of his people's suffering, and not allow others to do it for him.

At a cabinet meeting on Sunday Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers that Israel has "no tolerance for the distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust".

This is typical Netanyahu illogic, and an untruth.

According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, anyone who "attempts to blur the responsibility for the establishment of concentration and death camps devised and operated by Nazi Germany by putting blame on other nations or ethnic groups" is that most repulsive of people – a Holocaust denier.

It is incredible then to see that Netanyahu himself, as so many other figures in the Israeli right and far-right, has once again fallen short of the definition that they otherwise seem supportive of.

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Much is misunderstood about the role of the Poles in the Second World War – but what is clear is that they were victims, not aggressors, and that far from collaborating with the Nazis – as most of Europe did – they fought them tooth and nail.

Few know that Poland never formally surrendered to the Nazis, almost unique in Europe. Few know that Poland actually made collaboration with the Germans illegal, again almost unique in Europe, and even employed underground courts and execution squads to hunt down known collaborators. That means that assigning blame to Poland for anything the Germans did in this time is deeply problematic.

Few also know that Poland was the only underground resistance to convene a special unit for rescuing and evacuating Jews from their persecutors. Their resistance mustered some 650,000 members, making it the largest anti-Nazi movement in Europe. Over 7,000 of these have been recognised by the Israeli charity Yad Vashem for their special efforts rescuing Jews, more than any other nation that underwent German occupation.

Generalplan Ost was Nazi Germany's secret plan to kill over 20 million Poles, accounting for some 85 per cent of the nation's population, and turn the survivors into slaves to the Aryan race. Had it gone through it would have been by far the largest genocide in history. The Poles were the first victims of the Holocaust, hunted down by the SS – and in a sense they are the last, because they are the last group that nobody ever seems to recognise as victims.

The full plan never came to full fruition – fortunately – but Hitler managed to kill 2.3 million non-Jewish Poles, according to the latest estimates, of which 1.1 million were killed in the same death and work camps that were used to murder Jews, gypsies, the disabled and homosexuals.

This is why the right-wing authoritarian government in Poland, PiS, for all their faults elsewhere, are attempting to stamp out the term "Polish death camps". If you are Polish the term "Polish death camps" is offensive, because you may well be related to someone who died in these camps.

It is like calling Auschwitz a Jewish death camp – disgusting, despicable nonsense.

Little will be done about the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister is a Holocaust denier by the internationally agreed definition. He has already gotten away with it once. Speaking at the World Zionist Organisation in 2015, Netanyahu infamously claimed that Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, had inspired Hitler to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe, and that Al-Husseini "had a central role in fomenting the final solution".

Read: The Arab who rescued Jews from the Holocaust

Part of the problem is that the idea that the Poles committed a genocide against themselves is considered acceptable even by members of the left-wing British intelligentsia.

I have clashed in private emails with some of these people – one even works for the Guardian and Greenpeace, and once wrote a brutally offensive article called "Poland should face up to its anti-Semitic past" about the very same proposed Polish laws that Netanyahu is now attacking.

When I pointed out to him that he was blaming the Poles for killing themselves, literally in their millions, he and his editor, who has his own fondness for calling out the pro-Palestinian Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn on his alleged anti-semitism, told me that "history was still being written" on whether it was the Poles or the Nazis that committed the Holocaust. I told them that a famous legal case involving a certain David Irving would suggest otherwise. They did not reply.

If the hypocrisy of the British left-liberal establishment is not enough we return to Netanyahu for another dose. Last summer the premier made his way to Hungary to meet the vile Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in a bid to shore up Israel's faltering diplomatic efforts within the European Union. Orbán was the man who praised the pro-fascist Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian leader who adored Hitler and helped him kill half a million Hungarian Jews. Of course that kind of anti-semitism does not matter much to Netanyahu.

In fact does anti-semitism matter at all to Netanyanu? Does any relationship with truth, history, cultural empathy, or mutual respect have any bearing on his actions? This is a man who will politicise tragedy at will, and ignore the deaths of millions of Catholics – even distort the killing of millions of Jews – to further his political ambitions. It is not typical of Jews to behave that way but so long as the Likud and the far-right control Israel it is becoming typical of the Jewish state to dismiss other people's suffering, even if those people have died in their millions too.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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