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Activists of Egyutt (Together) opposition party removes a government billboard displaying George Soros
25.04.2021

The Politics of Holocaust Remembrance

Until recently the adoption of the lessons of the Holocaust: to work against racism, nationalism, xenophobia, and for the protection of human rights – was one of the prerequisites for joining the EU. However, the various Eastern European countries that have joined the EU have begun to rebel against this tradition and prefer a narrative that suits their nationalistic needs, all the while occasionally distorting historical facts. Surprisingly enough, the Israeli government helps them along for its own reasons.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Day last January was accompanied by discord- the court case against two prominent Holocaust researchers in Poland – Jan Grabowsky and Barbara Engelking, who were accused of slandering the mayor of a Polish town along with the whole Polish nation because they had noted that he had helped murder Jews during the Holocaust. Though the suit was ostensibly civil, it was supported by the Polish governmental agenda of silencing critical voices regarding the murder of Jews by the Poles. The narrative that this government is promoting, in opposition to known historical facts about the Holocaust, is that only a few Poles cooperated with the Nazis, that many Poles saved Jews, and that those who accuse Poles of murdering Jews are not only lying, but also turning the victims into the perpetrators. One of the prominent examples of this agenda over the last few years is the 2018 “Polish Concentration Camp Law” which makes it illegal to claim that the Polish nation was involved in Nazi crimes- which was legislated with the approval of the Israeli government after certain refinements were made.

The historians’ case symbolizes a wider crisis within the EU related to the “Politics of Remembrance,” which have become a central part of the fight for European identity over the last few decades and is centered on the memorialization of the Holocaust. At the start of the millennium the EU began to present the Holocaust and its lessons as a founding ethos of the union and an important element of the liberal identity that its most powerful members such as Germany, France and Britain wanted to promote- against racism, nationalism and xenophobia, and for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This included adding learning about the Holocaust to the curriculum in the education system. However, with time, it became clear that after they were accepted into the EU, many Eastern European countries adopted a Holocaust remembrance agenda that fit their narratives and their nationalistic needs, and often, essentially consisted of a historical distortion of the facts and meaning of the Holocaust.

Poland is a clear example of this: at the start of the millennium, in light of the book by the Polish historian Jan Gross, “Neighbors”, which dealt with the pogroms carried out by Poles against the Jews during the Holocaust and after it, there was a sense of a certain amount of willingness to take responsibility for the murder of Jews by Poles. However, with time, especially with the rise of the current nationalistic government, Poland returned to a more familiar narrative, according to which the Poles were essentially the greatest victims, not only of the Nazis, but also of the Communist regime that followed them. According to this narrative, the Polish nation is a sort of “modern Jesus” (in keeping with the strong Catholic identity of the country) without any moral failings.  The suffering the country experienced and the bravery it showed are the underpinnings of its national identity. However, since the actual facts of the Holocaust in Poland are in such opposition to this narrative- mentioning them must be made illegal.

At the same time, like other right-wing European governments and right-wing nationalist movements, the Polish government needs a good relationship in Israel in order to reinforce its international legitimacy and distance itself from accusations of anti-Semitism, as well as to receive the support of the United States. Poland also needs Israel as an ally against the EU’s liberal agenda. Israel, for its part, also needs an ally against the EU’s liberal agenda, an ally that won’t criticize it for the Occupation, for example, and will be partner to the idea that the Muslims are not just a security threat but also a threat against what has been called “Judeo-Christian Civilization”, i.e. European, Western culture. This is why Israel is willing to make its peace with Holocaust distortion, and to indirectly cooperate with the silencing of those who want to tell the truth about the murder of Jews in Poland. One could see a similar dynamic in the Israeli government’s cooperation with the anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros in Hungary and additional incidents.

The IHRA- the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance- definition of anti-Semitism has played a large role in the process. Since the IHRA definition is essentially focused on the characterization of intense pro-Palestinian criticism of the State of Israel as anti-Semitism, it makes it possible for governments and right-wing movements in Europe to enthusiastically adopt it, and in doing so express their support of Israel. They can proudly announce that they protect Jewish communities against Muslim anti-Semitism – among other things, because they oppose immigration and the absorption of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East. In this way they distance themselves from accusations of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, while at the same time are able to promote distorted historical accounts of the Holocaust and divert attention from the fact that they themselves are fanning the flames of anti-Semitism among their compatriots.

As is well known, the Israeli government is trying to promote the adoption of IHRA definition of anti-Semitism everywhere, since it serves its political interests in silencing Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices. However, it is very doubtful that this definition does indeed serve the fight against anti-Semitism or Holocaust remembrance.
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