Translated from Hebrew by Ofer Neiman
A public outcry and a media storm have raged in recent months over a joint declaration issued by the prime ministers of Poland and Israel and read by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last June. The statement praised Polish resistance to the Nazis. It came on the heels of Poland passing a controversial law akin to Holocaust-denial that banned implicating Poles for crimes committed during the Holocaust, an offense punishable by a three-year prison sentence. When Netanyahu read the declaration, many criticized him over reaching a faustian detente with Poland.
Professor Yehuda Bauer, Israel Prize laureate and one of the world’s leading Holocaust scholars, deemed the joint statement “betrayal.”
In an interview on Israeli public radio, Bauer said that Israel had accepted the Polish narrative of the Holocaust. “The Poles have deceived us, they have us wrapped around the finger, and we agreed to this, because the State of Israel finds the economic-political-military relations with Poland more important that such a small business, the Holocaust,” he said.
Senior officials in the Netanyahu government, including Naftali Bennett, Minister of Education and Ayelet Shaked, Minister of Justice, also criticized the declaration.
The statement was drafted far from the public eye with support from a secret delegation of Netanyahu allies and former appointees, Yaakov Nagel and Yossi Ciechanover. According to reports by Israeli media, a meeting between the delegations was held at the Mossad offices. It came about in spite that this kind of historic declaration should be made after deep discussion involving experts and the public.
After the statement was made, Netanyahu revealed that “Professor Dina Porat, the chief historian of Yad Vashem was involved the drafting of the declaration.” However, Yad Vashem had already published their own unprecedented and sharp condemnation of the statement. It said the joint Israeli-Polish declaration contained “historical distortions” and was written without Yad Vashem’s involvement.
Porat would have liked to have some sections corrected, she explained in an interview with Kan radio and reported by Ynet. Yet, taken as a whole, she said “We can definitely live with it,” Porat clarified she was not paid for consulting on the declaration. “I was asked to give personal and discreet advice, I did not act as the chief historian [of Yad Vashem],” she said.
How was it possible that Porat acted behind the backs of both Yad Vashem and the Israeli public? Do political ends (such as bolstering Netanyahu’s attempt to have more embassies moved to Jerusalem) justify the means? Does that include the desecration of the memory of the Holocaust? Prima facie, Porat’s conduct was no fluke but a matter of worldview and priorities.
What is anti-Semitism? Depends on what’s in the Israeli government’s self-interest
“New anti-Semitism,” a vague term promoted by the Israeli government and its partners, regards the BDS movement and criticism of Israeli occupation policies as a form of anti-Semitism. While the Israeli right-wing often mocks the “peace industry,” it has formed its own industry under the assumption that new anti-Semitism is real and spreading. The government calls this fighting the “de-legitimization of Israel.” It is spearheaded by politicians who strive to gain personal capital, organizations on the right and extremist groups. This industry offers lucrative jobs and huge budgets.
While sporadic anti-Semitic elements in the boycott movement do occur and should not be tolerated, it makes no sense to sweepingly label this global, diverse movement as innately “anti-Semitic.” Many Jews in Israel and across the world support a full boycott of the State of Israel, or a boycott of Israeli settlements and those who profit from the occupation.
In spite of strenuous efforts by the Netanyahu government, a boycott of the State of Israel is still considered an integral part of the civil right to freedom of speech and conscience in many countries, even if the local governments oppose the boycott or do not support it. In reality, the Netanyahu government has used the fight against the “new anti-Semitism” to silence criticism of the occupation and its policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, to persecute left-wing and human rights groups, and to shrink the democratic sphere in Israel.
It comes as no surprise that the Netanyahu government’s fight against the boycott movement and the “new anti-Semitism” shifted gears in 2015, against the backdrop of the international nuclear agreement with Iran. A new existential enemy had to be found, around which the public in Israel could be rallied. To manufacture a public consensus as to the current “existential threat,” the Netanyahu government could not rely just on the fringe right wing. In this context, Porat became an important asset to the Netanyahu government by joining the campaign. For example, the Kantor Center at the Tel Aviv University, headed by Porat, publishes an annual report (of which she is the editor) on the status of anti-Semitism throughout the world. These reports pay close attention to the boycott movement and groups which campaign against Israeli policies. The reports also regard the labeling of Israel as “an apartheid state” as a manifestation of anti-Semitism. At a hearing of the Knesset’s Immigration and Absorption Committee in May 2015, Porat stated that “It’s obvious that anti-Israeliness and anti-Zionism are acquiring an increasingly anti-Semitic tone.” This means that in her view, anti-Zionism may amount to anti-Semitism.
When it comes to the “old anti-Semitism,” Porat seems more pragmatic. This was evident not just in her (professed) clandestine participation in the preparation of the joint declaration with the Polish government, but also in her approach to other regimes with a serious anti-Semitism problem. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has been waging a racist and anti-Semitic campaign for years, and has even expressed his personal support of Miklós Horthy, the country’s ruler during WWII who was directly responsible for the extermination of Hungary’s Jews. While the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has condemned Orban sharply, and Elie Wiesel returned a medal he had received from the Hungarian government due to its whitewashing of the country’s Nazi past, we have not heard Porat’s criticism of this grave anti-Semitism in Orban’s party and government. In fact, the opposite is true – Orban visited Yad Vashem recently. It comes as no coincidence that Hungary is being coaxed by Netanyahu to transfer its embassy to Jerusalem.
Furthermore, we have not heard Porat’s critique as to Ukrainian legislation which, similarly to the Polish one, bans criticism of Nazi Germany’s Ukrainian henchmen during WWII. Nor have we heard her public voice regarding the integration of a neo-Nazi Militia, Azov, which uses Nazi insignia, into the national Ukrainian security forces. Once again, the converse is true: The Prime Minister of Ukraine visited Yad Vashem in May 2017, and met Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman to discuss arms deals. By contrast, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has campaigned against the militia’s efforts to recruit new members, and the United States Memorial Museum has strongly condemned the Ukrainian legislation. Nor have we heard Porat’s critique as to the recent visit by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is responsible for the extrajudicial killing of thousands of suspected drug dealers and addicts. Duterte has also compared himself to Hitler and said he would gladly slaughter three million drug addicts similarly to Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews.
A dangerous stamp of approval
Porat published in Haaretz a response to an article by the Israeli writer Amos Oz, in which he claimed that Israel would not resolve its conflict with the Palestinians by using its military might, but only through negotiation, including with the Hamas terror organization. Porat criticized Oz strongly and cited an excerpt from his book “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” in which the guard from Kibbutz Hulda says: “It’s not because they are a nation of murderers that we will shoot them (if they show up to shoot us), but only for the simple reason that we too are allowed to live and for the simple reason that we too are allowed to have a country, not just they.” Porat of all people should have known that the logic of this sentence has served to justify crimes against humanity and genocide in Guatemala, Rwanda, Bosnia, South Sudan, Burma and other countries.
Accordingly, we did not hear Porat’s voice when the Chairman of the South Sudanese Parliament, Mr. Anthony Lino Makana, visited Yad Vashem in December 2017, as crimes against humanity were being committed in South Sudan by the government’s security forces and allied militias, and the UN warned that the situation could escalate to a full genocide. Nor did we hear Porat’s voice when the head of the Burmese military regime visited Yad Vashem in September 2015, although the Burmese security forces under his command are responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Porat should have noted reports by the United States Holocaust Museum, regarding the minority Muslim Rohingya population, as to grave violations of human rights taking place in the country, with a serious threat of genocide. Israel has sold weapons to the above-mentioned states, and visits to Yad Vashem have been a part of the package deal.
Porat is surely not responsible for the decades-long policies of the Israeli government and Yad Vashem. But her stamp of approval to the Netanyahu government’s foreign policy illustrates the danger of politicizing the memory of the Holocaust and the Israeli right-wing’s cynicism. It seems that the more she deals with the “new anti-Semitism” bogeyman, the less she addresses the “old anti-Semitism.” If Porat is really more concerned with support for BDS in Ireland, which has enacted a law banning settlement products, than with Hungary, whose government erects statues honoring those who assisted in the elimination of Jews, and a senior extreme right-wing figure calls for the compilation of a “Jewish list” for national security reasons – She would do wisely in letting someone more qualified assume her position at Yad Vashem. Indeed, Porat has offered her resignation, but reportedly Yad Vashem did not accept it. If she does leave her post, she will be free to advise Netanyahu as personally and publicly as she wishes.