Falling out among history’s thieves and gatekeepers

An interesting little spat has developed between two very right-wing governments over who gets to say what in narratives about the Holocaust.
Poland’s ruling Law and (in)Justice Party are getting hot under the collar about negative references to the behaviour of Poland and its (non-Jewish) population during the Nazi genocide, and are trying to pass a law criminalising references to “Polish Death Camps”.
They have a point on that – the camps were set up on Polish soil by Nazi occupying forces. Only, they want to go further and silence people who claim that any Poles collaborated with the Nazi forces, which undoubtedly a number did.
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Two of the most powerful books I’ve read by left-wing Jewish resistance workers and survivors, The Stars Bear Witness by Bernard Goldstein and On Both Sides of the Wall by Vladka Meed, are replete with tales of courageous solidarity from non-Jewish Poles at great personal risk, but also many tales of betrayal.
Then there is the well-known case of Jedwabne, Poland, in 1941 where hundreds of Jews were rounded up by their non-Jewish neighbours, forced into a barn and then the barn was set on fire. Although previous generations of Polish politicians have acknowledged and apologised for this massacre, the newly ascendant right-wingers are trying to muddy the historical waters by asserting either that it was the Nazis who did it, or who encouraged the local people to do this, or they make an even worse excuse saying that this was some kind of local revenge for the Jews being too friendly to communists.
When you consider the scale of the slaughter of Poland’s Jews – 90% of a population of 3.3 million, spread over many areas, it is inconceivable that a total this high could have been reached without the active cooperation of local elements or, at best, the passive acceptance and lack of serious resistance from the non-Jewish Polish population in many places.
The Law and Justice Party’s motives are not clean, but they are not alone. Similar attempts to revise the accepted histories – and even to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators – continue apace in Lithuania and Ukraine, where there was clearly considerable cooperation with the Nazis against the Jews.
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Irena Sendlerowa

What Poland can rightly claim is that, across the whole territory of western, central and eastern Europe, though there were remarkable efforts to help Jews in Denmark, it was only in Holland and Poland that specific organisations among non-Jews were set up to assist the Jews in their time of greatest need. In Poland it was ZEGOTA, in which Irena Sendlerowa was very active.
But the moves by Law and justice in Poland have come under fire from another very right-wing  government; one that practices racism, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanisation on a daily basis.  This is Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel, which oppresses Palestinians, especially in the Occupied Territories, but also inside the Green Line, at the same time as it falsely presents itself as the legitimate guardian and gatekeeper of Holocaust memory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah

Netanyahu, of course, comes from the Jabotinskyite Zionist political tradition that was very influenced by, and friendly to, the concept of fascism in the 1930s. It had members seeking to make deals with the Nazis on the basis of common ultra-nationalist and anti-British sentiment in the 1940s.  Netanyahu would happily damn almost all Poles today as antisemites (one of his late associates – Itzhak Shamir – did just that, claiming that Poles imbibe antisemitism with their mothers’ milk), although Netanyahu would surely make exceptions for  very right wing Poles who praise Israel.

One of his big fans here, Stephen Pollard, editor of the increasingly dreadful Jewish Chronicle, got himself in hot water a few years back with his fulsome praise of the Law and Justice politician, Michal Kaminski. Kaminski had condemned the Polish president at the time for apologising over Jedwabne, saying there was nothing to apologise for – at least not until Jews apologised for the role  Jewish partisans and Jewish communists had played in this period alongside the Red Army. Kaminski had earlier been involved with Fringe far-right groups beyond Law and Justive, but was pro-Israel.

Israel’s claim to being the legitimate spokespersons on the Holocaust predates

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Eichmann on trial, 1961

Netanyahu and the Israeli-right wing’s hold on power. The Israeli Labour Party which held power from 1948-1977 assumed this role and offered their own distorted narrative about the Holocaust.  in the 1950s Israeli educators, supported by their government, propagated the lie that during the Holocaust, Jews had ‘gone like lambs to the slaughter’ – a slap in the face to the dead as well as survivors who had performed incredible acts of resistance. The story of resistance did come out, partly at the Eichmann trial of 1961 but a new lie was built – that it was the Zionists alone who were responsible for resistance and they did so because they could see a future; they had a dream of building a Jewish future in Palestine.

An anti-Zionist, Polish Jewish socialist, Marek Edelman, one of the surviving commanders of the Uprising in Warsaw, Poland’s largest ghetto, had written The Ghetto Fights –  the most searing, heart-wrenching description of the three-week long resistance there in the most unequal of battles – in Polish, in 1945. It was translated and then published in Yiddish and English in 1946. The Israeli state did not even invite Edelman to give evidence in Israel to the Eichmann trial. He was treated as persona non-grata because he  remained true to his anti-Zionist principles.

It is disgraceful that the proceedings of the Eichmann trial were translated into dozens of languages, but not Yiddish – the main language of the victims of Eichmann and his fellow Nazis and their local helpers. Shamefully, The Ghetto Fights remained untranslated into Hebrew for 56 years, finally getting published in Hebrew in 2001, even though Edelman had made rights available to all.

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Edelman’s book gave the lie to the Zionist narratives and claims about ghetto resistance both in terms of who was involved (anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Bundists and Communists as well as socialist Zionists) and what they believed they were fighting for. In an  interview recorded in a later book, Edelman said  “We fought for dignity and freedom. Not for a territory, nor for a national identity.”

Netanyahu’s government has also been doing pretty much what it accuses the Polish government of doing, with regard to Palestinian perspectives on history. It has written its own laws regarding “acceptable” historical memory. Since 2011  Israeli legislation has made mourning the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) publicly difficult for Palestinians and others in Israel. It authorises Israel’s Finance Minister to revoke funding from institutions that mark the country’s Independence Day as a day of mourning. Everything is done to make organisations fearful of doing so. I guess, with Netanyahu we should not be especially surprised at his hypocrisy.

While these two very obnoxious right-wing governments argue head to head, perhaps, in the 75th anniversary year of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, grass-roots activists should plan for how we can honour the memories of those who stood up to hatred, fascism and authoritarianism. How we can remember those who wanted to build, instead, a world of social justice, that respected freedom and equal rights for all. How we can link them to struggles for freedom in other places at other times, and how we can use use their specific struggle as an inspiration for our battles today.

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Which side are you on?

Here is an interesting list of people:
Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Austrian Far Right Freedom Party, now entering government; Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far right Party for Freedom. He is perhaps best known for his openly Islamophobic comments; Nicolas Bay, General Secretary of France’s Front National since 2014 and leader of its youth wing from 1992 when it was led by the more openly antisemitic and fascist Jean Marie Le Pen; Tommy Robinson, who in recent years has led a number of far right groups in Britain, notably the English Defence League, famed for its provocative and threatening marches to push its Islamophobic and ultra-nationalist agendas.  Before forming the EDL, Robinson was a member of the British National Party. Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister for the very right wing BJP and longstanding member of its parent organisation the RSS; Jair Bolsonaro, described as “the Donald Trump of Brazil”, and that is not meant as a compliment. Bolsonaro is well-known for his pro-dictatorship statements.

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Tommy Robinson

Not the kind of group I feel inclined to invite to a tea party. They all definitely have something in common. But before you say, “they all subscribe to modern-day far right political philosophies, and some of them, at least, have more than a little liking for some older far-right philosophies”, I will interrupt you and say, no, that’s far too obvious. I’ll throw in one more, that might help: Csanad Szegedi. 

Szegedi was one of the founders of the Hungarian Guard, an extreme nationalist group whose members wear black uniforms and see themselves as worthy descendants of the “Arrow Cross”, a Hungarian fascist party, which happily collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. The Hungarian Guard have operated as a para-military auxiliary to the far right Jobbik party, which has targeted its hatred and violence mainly towards Roma Gypsies,  Jews and refugees.

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Hungarian Guard on the streets

But Szegedi found out something acutely embarrassing a couple of years ago: not only that his grandparents on his mother’s side were actually Jewish, but his grandmother had been incarcerated in Auschwitz. He began learning about Judaism, observing Shobbos (the Sabbath), keeping kosher, and going to synagogue. Oh, and he quit all his office posts in Jobbik, though he said that was nothing to do with discovering his Jewish roots, but because of some corruption scandal in the party. Whatever. Later he announced his intention to settle in Israel.

And Israel, currently led by its most far-right government, is the connection. The Israeli government, which in the tradition of Zionism, still talks of the “ingathering of the exiles” (It treats Jews who are happily living in the diaspora as “exiles”) published its own list yesterday, of those it does not want to “gather” in its homeland. It was essentially a list of organisations that have been prominent in supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign – a campaign utilising peaceful, grassroots activism from around the globe, among people as consumers, tourists, professionals, academics, artists and musicians, and more, to pressurise Israel to meet its human rights obligations, to end its repression in the Occupied Territories, and end discrimination.

Having casually dismissed BDS campaigners as marginal and ineffective, Israel’s government has now just paid them the biggest compliment possible. Most of the organisations listed were American, and one particularly stood out in the list: Jewish Voice for Peace – one of the fastest growing Jewish groups in America among different generations, but especially among young people. They support BDS and other non-violent actions aimed at achieving peace with justice for the Palestinians. As far as the Israeli Government is concerned they are definitely not welcome. But what about the “ingathering…”? Never mind that. From Netanyahu’s standpoint there are “good Jews” and bad Jews. The joke is that he think he is a good one.

Some British groups also made the list – the Palestine Solidarity campaign, (I think Netanyahu probably didn’t like the name), and also the  highly respected charity, War on Want, which focuses on human rights and the roots of global poverty. They have addressed Israel’s daily human rights abuses in imaginative and sustained ways. The Israeli government denies such abuses take place. There is a simple way they could prove it – allow groups in to monitor the situation. But that is why they have banned them. There is way too much to hide.

But, hold on, what about my list at the top of this blog? Keep those names in particular, and the values they stand for in mind, whenever you hear Israeli politicians discussing the list of groups Israel has excluded, because my list contains purveyors of hatred, discrimination, and division. It contains who have indulged in racism against several differnt groups including Jews. These are people who, in recent years, have not only visited Israel, but in most cases have been enthusiastically invited to come by its government. Shameful.

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Architect of apartheid Vorster, with shimon Peres, left, and Yitzhak Rabin , right

Back in 1976, when the Prime Minister of apartheid South Africa was invited to Israel by its “labour” government, there was uproar both in Israel and the diaspora. These days, hardly a murmur in the mainstream. Now that Israel’s current excuse  for a government has become more explicit about who can come through the door and walk on a red carpet,  and who gets turned away, the spotlight ought to to be shone brightly on its rogues gallery of welcomed guests  I look forward to the comments about them by the Board of Deputies, Labour Friends of Israel, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish News. I won’t hold my breath though.