Netanyahu, Putin, and the Politics of Memory at the World Holocaust Forum

Even better for Netanyahu, while he was giving Pence a tour of Jerusalem’s Old City, word leaked that Trump had invited him and Benny Gantz, his main rival in the upcoming election, to the White House on Tuesday, to join him in presenting his so-called peace plan. According to reports in the Times, the plan is tailored to Netanyahu’s specifications, which the Palestinians will reject out of hand: Israeli annexation of all of Jerusalem, most of the settlements (read: thirty per cent more of the West Bank), and the Jordan Valley. The Israeli media has suggested that the Palestinians would get a state, though virtually no return of refugees, and only if Gaza is disarmed and the Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. We have to await the full text to see just what Trump’s plan will call for.

But, clearly, announcing the plan in a White House ceremony, while Trump is being tried in the Senate, and five weeks before Netanyahu faces voters—and on the very day the Knesset is scheduled to debate, and likely deny, his request for immunity from prosecution—is a transparent stunt to promote both men. Gantz, who is trying to poach some of Likud’s right-wing voters, and in the process has clumsily endorsed annexation of the Jordan Valley—“in coordination with the international community,” according to the Times—could not dismiss the plan out of hand. But he obviously knew he was being invited into a public-relations ambush, to sit in Trump’s presence while Netanyahu grandstands with Trump’s White House allies. So, on Saturday evening, Gantz announced that he would go to Washington, but to meet with Trump privately, on Monday, to discuss how Trump’s plan could serve as “the basis for progress toward an agreed settlement, vis a vis the Palestinians, and the states of the region, while continuing and deepening a strategic partnership with Jordan, Egypt, and other regional states.” He will then return to Israel to vote no on immunity for Netanyahu. But Netanyahu will also meet with Trump, and will stay in Washington after Gantz returns. There, at least, he will likely have another good day.

If the forum was destined to host a clash of the scarred, it might well have been between Israel and Poland. Netanyahu and Duda, the President of Poland, have nursed public grievances. In February, 2018, the Polish government, dominated by the far-right Law and Justice Party, proposed a bill to parliament that would make it a criminal offense to accuse the Polish nation or the wartime Polish state of being responsible for, or a partner to, Nazi crimes. This set off the Israeli government because of violence carried out against Polish Jews by other Poles, most notoriously during the Jedwabne pogrom, of 1941, and the Kielce massacre, of 1946. But the proposed bill also cut against the Likud axiom that Polish anti-Semitism is a feature of the diaspora. (The Israeli Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, said that Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”) The law, in any case, was amended, in June of that year, and Netanyahu and Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, signed a joint declaration agreeing, in effect, that some Poles were implicated in the crimes, but not as any kind of official policy. (“Unfortunately, the sad fact is that some people—regardless of their origin, religion or worldview—revealed their darkest side at that time,” the declaration said.)

But the real reason Duda declined to come to the forum was that he was not offered a speaking slot. That was more Russia’s doing than Israel’s, though it also exposed the extent to which “memory” can become spin. Since the last forum, at Auschwitz, in 2015, Poland and Russia have been in the grip of a diplomatic standoff. That year, Poland was hosting, and Putin had recently invaded Ukraine. The Polish President at the time, Bronisław Komorowski, along with leaders of the World Jewish Congress, Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer wrote, failed to issue Putin a personal invitation to participate, and Putin, miffed, boycotted the event. Since then, he has found it increasingly useful to traffic in a rehabilitated reputation of Stalin’s staunch wartime regime and the undeniable heroism of the Red Army. Poland’s Law and Justice Party, for its part, has railed against the postwar Soviet occupation of the nation; it has also found it useful to recall Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler to divide Poland and his consequent massacre, in 1940, of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn forest, as symbols of Polish tragedy. So, last December, Putin began a new disinformation campaign, charging that Poland had formed an anti-Soviet alliance with Germany, in 1938, and annexed a part of Silesia during the division of Czechoslovakia. He also recalled, out of context, a dispatch from that year by Poland’s Ambassador to Nazi Germany, Józef Lipski, in which Lipski endorsed Hitler’s apparent plan to deport Jews to Africa. The inference was that Poland had no right to pose as a victim—not, at least, as Russia’s victim.

With Russia strongly influential in Syria, and Israel bombing Iranian forces there—and with Russia detaining an American-Israeli backpacker for trivial drug possession—Netanyahu seems to have felt that it would be prudent to keep Putin content, and Duda off the stage. Earlier in the day, in a Jerusalem park, Netanyahu, with Putin at his side, unveiled a memorial to the siege of Leningrad, Putin’s birthplace. Putin seems to have returned the favor by not advancing new claims against Poland during his address at the forum.

But he did note that the Nazis had collaborators in some of the countries they occupied. “Where these criminals were operating,” Putin said, “the largest number of Jews were killed; thus, about 1.4 million Jews were killed in Ukraine.” For a moment, one could almost forget how times have changed, that Ukraine’s current President is a Jew, or that Russia’s proxy forces are at war with Ukraine, or that Putin has been trying to deflect anger at Russia’s meddling in the 2016 American election by falsely implicating the Ukrainians. Later, he conceded that “the Nazis intended the same fate [as Jews] for many other peoples. Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, and many other peoples were declared Untermensch.” But, with Duda absent, his first point hung in the air like a dirigible.

“I have never seen a time when European governments are so quiescent with regard to the Netanyahu government—so willing to accommodate its uses of the Holocaust,” Amos Goldberg, an expert on Holocaust history and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told me. He added, “The Israeli, Polish, and Russian governments, all custodians of grim histories, are also reactionary populists—all using memory to make their nations dangerously self-justifying. For Israel, this means insisting that Polish anti-Semitism is endemic; for Poland, it means seeing Polish anti-Semitism as episodic. But this is not a real fight over history. It is a rival ‘memory’ in the service of a similar politics.”

On the day of the forum, a group of sixty-two Muslims from twenty-eight countries, including twenty-five religious leaders—and the head of the Muslim World League, Mohammed al-Issa, from Saudi Arabia—visited Auschwitz and were called to prayer. Issa is a former Saudi Justice Minister, and would not likely have gone without clearance from the royal family. He said that it was a crime to “falsify history,” especially “the most atrocious crime in the history of mankind.” It may be just a coincidence that a Saudi official made this gesture right before Trump’s impending announcement of his deal. But it’s obvious that the Trump Administration assumes that it will need the Saudis to reassure Israelis that the region will accept the plan, while pressuring the Palestinians to accept much less than what they have expected in the past. The Saudis assume the need for protection from Iran. Another remembrance shadowed by another national interest.

Perhaps such uses of memory are unavoidable. Ilona Karmel flinched at them, even if she had become resigned to them. She once told me that the Płaszów death camp had provided her with a moment of clarity that she had not experienced since. “It was the only time in my life,” she said, “that I knew, absolutely, the difference between right and wrong.”

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