How to Respond to Poland’s New Law Censoring Discussion of the Holocaust

A law recently passed by the Polish parliament declares it illegal to use the phrase “Polish death camps” to refer to the factories of mass-murder built by Germany on Polish soil during World War II. More ominously, the law also states that “whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich . . . shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years.” While calling the law “foolish,” Jonathan Tobin also urges Jews to be circumspect in their response:

[The law] is an attempt to deny the long history of Polish antisemitism, the fact that some Poles helped the Germans kill Jews, and the hostile and sometimes violent reception Jewish survivors got when they tried to return to their homes after the war. . . .

But as wrongheaded as this bill is, this is a moment for Jews to stop and think about the meaning of history and its implications for our lives today. . . . Jewish attitudes toward Poles are still more the product of historical memories than of the generally good relations that exist today between Israel and Poland. Jew-hatred was widespread in the independent Polish republic that was destroyed by a German invasion in 1939. [Beginning in the 1930s], it was also officially sanctioned by the government and rooted in centuries of religious prejudice whipped up by many in the Catholic Church. . . .

[Yet], as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has noted, talk of “Polish death camps” is inaccurate. The phrase shifts blame from the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust to the invaded nation where the bulk of the murders took place. The Holocaust was the fault of its German perpetrators and their collaborators, not the Poles. The fact that the death camps were located in Poland was a function of logistics, not a belief that that Poles would help the Nazis kill Jews. . . .

Jews and Poles don’t need to be enemies anymore. To the contrary, given Poland’s delicate strategic situation and the ongoing attacks on Israel, they have much in common. So rather than engaging in mutual condemnations, Jewish critics of the new law should speak with the same understanding and compassion for Polish suffering and sensibilities that they demand for their own history.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Holocaust, Poland, Politics & Current Affairs

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays