Protecting the Holocaust narrative


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fury over a piece of Polish legislation is at first mystifying, but when considered more closely, highly instructive. The Poles are changing their law to forbid the words “Polish death camps” when anyone refers to the six Nazi extermination camps set up in Poland during the World War II.

The most notorious were Auschwitz and Birkenau but there were also Treblinka, Majdanej, Belzec and Sobibor. To conceal their horrific crimes, the Nazis sought to erase all traces of the last two, removing all buildings, exhuming and pulverizing corpses before planting trees over the sites.

It may be puzzling that the Polish government is making it a criminal offense, in Poland anyway, to refer from now on to “Polish death camps”. The preferred style will be something like “Nazi death camps in Poland”. The view in Warsaw is that calling the death camps “Polish” suggests the Poles had something to do with these monstrous examples of human bestiality in an allegedly civilized Europe. At first blush this is hypersensitive. Though there was pre-war anti-Semitism in Poland, the Poles themselves were treated by the Nazis as a sub-human species who were only good as slave laborers for their new German masters. And there are many established incidences of Poles, with little enough themselves on which to survive, sheltering Polish Jews. However, there is a degree of reason to this sensitivity since more than three generations on from the hideous history of Nazi barbarity, there is declining appreciation of the gross facts of their behavior. A less-informed young person today reading of “Polish death camps” might assume that these were indeed run by Poles.

But it is not the Polish reaction that is so notable but the extraordinary response of Netanyahu to the new legislation. The Polish ambassador has been called in by the Israel government and given an angry dressing down. Netanyahu of course ignores the fact that most of the millions of Polish Jews who were murdered by the Nazis — were all Polish citizens. The death camps were also used to slaughter millions more Jews rounded up and transported from all over Europe together with many hundreds of thousands of captured Russian soldiers and gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents.

But of course for Israel, the Holocaust is a foundation stone of its statehood. It cannot be sullied or criticized in any way. Hard-line Zionists regard even such a minor change to the historic construct of the Nazis’ Jewish extermination as that being debated by the Polish parliament as a diminution of the narrative underpinning the creation of the state of Israel.

Israel has weaponized the Holocaust. It is the cutting edge of a sword used against criticism of Zionism which is always branded as anti-Semitism. Even Jews who question Israel’s conduct are slashed at as anti-Semites. Nothing can be allowed to call into question what modern Israel does.

Yet the supreme and disgusting irony is that Israel’s mantra of victimhood is built upon its own victimization of the Palestinians and its program of illegal settlements as part of a Nazi-style “Lebensraum”— “Living room” to the east. There may be no Israeli death camps but Gaza and the Occupied territories are ghettos run with an uncompromising ruthlessness that the Nazis would have understood.