The new Polish Restitution law approved in August has triggered a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Poland. Subsequently, both Israel and the United States called on President Andrzej Duda to veto the bill or refer it to the country’s constitutional tribunal. The Polish government, ignoring their pleas, stated that the law ends an era of legal chaos related to complex confiscation claims.
Previously, the Polish parliament (Sejm) had amended an existing law by introducing a 30-year time limit on filing of claims for restitution of the value of confiscated property, including artworks, and ending outstanding claims for the return of seized property that have not reached a final decision in the 30 years’ timeframe.
Jewish organizations around the world and Israel believe that this law will disproportionately harm Holocaust survivors and their descendants and prevent them from regaining property seized during the Nazi occupation of Poland and retained by the communist government.
Jewish property was seized or looted, and after the war, this property was nationalized by the Polish communist authorities.
Before the Second World War, more than 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland, but more than 90 percent of them were killed by Nazi Germans in the Holocaust. Their property was seized or looted, and after the war, this property was nationalized by the Polish communist authorities.
The fall of the communist regime in Poland offered a chance to resolve the issue, but attempts to address demands for restitution and compensation have largely failed, as the process has been mired in corruption forcing claimants to battle their way through Poland’s inefficient court system.
The controversial law sparked a war of words between the two countries. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett condemned it as “shameful” and said it shows “disgraceful contempt for the Holocaust’s memory.” Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called the law immoral and anti-Semitic, claiming it “borders on Holocaust denial.” He also tweeted, “the State of Israel will not compromise on a single comma when it comes to the memory of the Holocaust.”
Poland rejected Israel’s accusations of anti-semitism, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that Israeli rhetoric would “increase hatred towards Poland.”
As the rift deepened, Israel recalled its Chargé d’Affaires from Warsaw, and announced that the new Israeli ambassador to Poland would not travel to his new post in Warsaw. It also “recommended” that the Polish Ambassador to Israel extend his vacation and not return to Tel Aviv.
The row has brought Israeli-Polish relations to a historic low. While the countries have experienced turbulence in the past, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had fostered close relations with the Polish far right-wing government, as a part of his diplomatic offensive in Eastern Europe. He established friendly relations with Visegrád Group of states (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) and their ruling populist parties. Besides sharing ideological similarities with his right-wing Eastern European counterparts, Netanyahu’s may have aimed at weakening the EU block and its criticism of Israeli practices in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Lapid erroneously considers the State of Israel to be a liberal democracy and a part of European culture.”
In an interview with Inside Arabia, Shir Hever, a board member of the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, observed that the new Israeli government is pursuing a new direction in foreign policy, trying to strengthen ties with Western European nations, the Democratic Party in the US, and Jewish communities within these countries. Consequently, Hever is convinced that the close ties that the former Netanyahu administration cultivated with far-right and prejudiced governments in Brazil, India, Hungary, and Poland are weakening. But, Hever said, “Unlike Netanyahu, who understood the common interest of racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic governments, Lapid erroneously considers the State of Israel to be a liberal democracy and a part of European culture.”
Although Israel and the US called on Poland not to implement the new law, observers are convinced that foreign pressure will not alter the situation. This is also true in the case of the EU. Dr Maya Sion-Tzidkiyahu, Director of the Program on Israel-Europe relations at Mitvim Institute, told Inside Arabia, that she does not expect the EU to interfere in what is an internal domestic law of Poland given it has enough troubles with Warsaw as it is, and she doesn’t see it fighting Israel’s wars. Indeed, EU-Polish relations have dramatically deteriorated of late, with a host of accumulated issues between the 27-member block and Poland.
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Hever believes that the position of the EU on this issue is a cause for concern. “The EU Commission appointed Katharina von Schnurbein as the Commission Coordinator for combating anti-semitism. She has dedicated her work to silencing Jewish organizations that are not pro-Israeli and invited Israeli officials to EU events to speak about anti-semitism.” He explained that although many Jewish European citizens have lost property in Poland because of the policies of the Polish government and the recent law, the EU refuses to speak for its own Jewish citizens and demand justice for them, instead considering this to be the responsibility of the State of Israel. “It effectively tells European Jews, that if they have a problem, they should call the Israeli government, not their own governments in Europe.”
Dr Sion-Tzidkiyahu thinks that the ongoing row between the two countries is unnecessary and exaggerated and that Foreign Minister Lapid is mistaken in calling the Polish restitution law “antisemitic.” Speaking to Inside Arabia, she said, “The law may be populistic in some respects, but it is not anti-Semitic.” She agrees with those who argue that the law is intended to establish legal certainty after 32 years in which Poland is no longer under the Communist rule and more than 75 years after the end of WWII.
Only 15 percent of the confiscated properties belonged to the Jewish population in Poland, while 85 percent belonged to non-Jewish Poles.
Dr Sion-Tzidkiyahu explained that only 15 percent of the confiscated properties belonged to the Jewish population in Poland, while 85 percent belonged to non-Jewish Poles. In her opinion, the law Lapid would have been right to oppose is the “Act on the Institute of National Remembrance,” a 2018 law that penalizes speech that attributes responsibility for the Holocaust to Poland. She believes that Lapid is fighting the lesser-evil of the restitution law of 2021 with the “wrong weapons.”
Both Poland and Israel may be guilty of hypocrisy and double standards when it comes to their own policies on restitution issues. Poland has been very active in demanding the return of property it asserts was removed or stolen from Poland during the war. Israel, on the other hand, has its own version of the “Polish law” on its books.
Since 1950, Israel has been applying the Absentees’ Property Law (APL) which “defines all persons who were expelled, fled, or who left the country after 29 November 1947, mainly due to the war, as well as their movable and immovable property (mainly land, houses and bank accounts etc.), as ‘absentee.” More than 700,000 Palestinians became refugees as a direct result of the war in 1948, which led to the creation of Israel, and almost none of them ever received compensation or were allowed to return back to their homes.
Palestinian property was “placed under the control of the State of Israel with the Custodian for Absentees’ properties,” but many observers suggest that the law instead of providing management allowed permanent expropriation of the property of dispossessed Palestinians, including those who remained within Israel and fall under the paradoxical legal category of “present absentee.”
Israel has expropriated 60 percent of all the fertile land in the country, which was then transferred to the Jewish National Fund.
The property of absentees became “absentee property” and could be expropriated by the state without compensation. According to historian Shira Robinson, through the Absentees’ Property Law, Israel has expropriated 60 percent of all the fertile land in the country, which was then transferred to the Jewish National Fund. The same logic was applied to justify expropriations of Palestinian property after the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel annexed East Jerusalem.
Besides coming into possession of large chunks of land, the Absentees Property Law also prevented the return of refugees and displaced persons back to their homes, therefore ensuring the demographic majority of the Jewish population in Israel.
The Israeli and Polish laws are so similar in effect that some experts believe the Polish law may have been inspired by the Israeli law. In Shir Hever’s opinion, “It is obvious that the Polish parliament drew inspiration from the Israeli Absentee Property Law which disappropriates Palestinians when it drew its own law, and the Polish authorities can say that if the EU tolerates Israeli racist laws, why should it treat Polish racist laws differently?”
“It is obvious that the Polish parliament drew inspiration from the Israeli Absentee Property Law which disappropriates Palestinians.”
Hever recalls the ongoing case of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah where some 300 Palestinian residents face eviction to make way for Jewish settlers, which made it all the way to Israel’s Supreme Court. “The Israeli courts are struggling with the case over Sheikh Jarrah property because Israeli law forces them to rule based on the ethnicity of residents and those who claim ownership and is therefore offering a compromise to the residents to try to avoid making a ruling that exposes the Israeli apartheid legal system.”
Just as the subject of Holocaust restitution has been highly unpopular among Poles, the Palestinian” right of return” has always been an extremely sensitive topic for Israeli and diaspora Jews. The issue hits the very foundation of the Israeli state, and the controversial policies towards Palestinians that followed.
Both Poles and Israelis have acted like bulls in a china shop. As the controversial Polish law certainly affects the Holocaust survivors and their relatives, bringing back the painful memory of the Holocaust, one of the darkest chapters of human history, Polish political elites have shown a lack of wisdom and empathy towards this affected group. They could easily have included exceptions and thereby avoided international criticism.
“The Absentees’ Property Law… allows the state to legally steal all the assets of war victims. [The] law is also more sophisticated than the primitive Polish law. Because in [Israel] even people who are present can be considered ‘absent’ for the purpose of stealing [their] property.”
Similarly, as Israel continues to pursue abusive and discriminatory policies towards Palestinians, it slowly but surely loses international support especially among human rights advocacy groups. Even for some Israelis, its arguments have become less convincing. B. Michael, a columnist at the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, wrote that the Israeli reaction to the Polish law could be suffixed with “Look who’s talking.” Criticizing Lapid, Michael went on to say: “Because Israel, the country in which the foreign minister is also the alternate prime minister, has for 71 years operated under a ‘Polish law’ of its own. It’s called the Absentees’ Property Law, and it allows the state to legally steal all the assets of war victims. Our law is also more sophisticated than the primitive Polish law. Because in our country even people who are present can be considered ‘absent’ for the purpose of stealing [their] property.”
The ongoing argument between the two countries is an opportunity to open dark chapters that have been sealed for too long. By addressing the past and present of dispossession, both Poland and Israel can stop living in denial and, for the sake of future generations, determine not to repeat the crimes of their predecessors.