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Polish president to sign Holocaust bill despite international concerns

Poland’s president, Andrzej Dudaannounced that he would sign a highly controversial bill Tuesday that will ban most Holocaust accusations against Poles as well as descriptions of Nazi death camps as Polish — likely raising tensions with the United States and Israel, which have criticized the measure.

An ally of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party who occasionally has been willing to buck the party’s will, Duda also announced that he would ask the country’s Constitutional Tribunal to review the bill to check whether it complies with Poland’s fundamental rights, such as the freedom of speech.

But the law is expected to take effect before the tribunal would be able to issue any clarifications, and the independence of the tribunal itself has recently been questioned after the Law and Justice Party passed reform plans that critics condemned as an “assault” on the  judiciary.

“The constitutional tribunal in its current composition serves the goals of the ruling party … It is definitely not independent,” said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“But referring the bill to the tribunal was probably still the best-available option to the Polish president,” he added. “To the international audience, especially the U.S. and Israel, it signals that the Polish side sees the seriousness of the case and is perhaps ready for some changes. But it also signals to the ruling party’s most conservative domestic supporters that the government is not ready to back down.”

But by refusing to veto the bill, Duda dashed any possibility of political negotiations, which Israel and the United States had still hoped for in recent days. Instead, the bill to come into force within the next two weeks, even as the constitutional tribunal reviews the legislation. The tribunal is now the only institution that could still reverse the law.

The bill’s international critics — which include the U.S. State Departmentand the Israeli government — argue that it will violate freedom of expression. Once in effect, it will essentially ban accusations that some Poles were complicit in the Nazi crimes committed on Polish soil, including in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, where more than 1.1 million people died. Germany operated six camps in Poland where Jews and others that the Nazis considered enemies were killed. Once the legislation is signed into law, anyone convicted under the law will face fines or up to three years in jail.

The State Department said in a statement last week that the phrase “Polish death camps” was “inaccurate, misleading, and hurtful.” But it also said the proposed legislation “could undermine free speech and academic discourse.” The department’s statement warned that if the legislation is implemented, it could have “repercussions” for “Poland’s strategic interests and relationships.”

In Israel, the reaction was fierce, too. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement last week. Israel’s housing minister, Yoav Galant, condemned the bill last Thursday after it was passed by Poland’s Senate, tweeting that it constituted “Holocaust denial.”

Netanyahu and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki spoke on the phone 10 days ago, but despite appearing to agree to a diplomatic dialogue, the Polish government stood by the bill last week and pursued Senate approval.

Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki later referred to Israeli reactions as “proof of how necessary this bill is.”

In a speech on Tuesday, Polish president Duda adopted less provocative rhetoric. “[We] do not deny that there were cases of huge wickedness” in which Poles denounced Jews, he said, according to the Associated Press. But the president also stressed that “there was no systemic way in which Poles took part in” Nazi crimes.

Poland was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939, but unlike in other European countries, there was no collaborationist Polish government. Approximately 6 million Polish citizens were killed during World War II, about half of them Jews.

Throughout years of Nazi occupation between 1939 and 1945, a number of Polish underground movements resisted the Nazis. It is that chapter of history that the Law and Justice Party wants to emphasize. But historians have long argued that it’s not the full story: Some Poles, they say, were complicit in the Nazi crimes.

Historians have pointed to incidents, including a 1941 atrocity in the town of Jedwabne, in which Poles rounded up and killed their Jewish neighbors.

The ruling party’s critics say that the new draft legislation is mainly intended to fuel nationalistic sentiments in the country. “This is all about nationalism really, and about the imposition of a nationalist historic narrative,” said political scientist Rafal Pankowski in an interview last week. The Law and Justice party’s emphasis on Poland’s heroic past has proved an effective domestic electoral strategy, even as it has faced a damaging international backlash after accusations of having emboldened the far right itself.

But apart from causing rifts with close allies and drawing international condemnation, the debate about the bill has also resulted in an intense focus on the very questions of complicity that nationalist Poles were hoping to sweep aside once and for all.

“The government achieved exactly the opposite of what it wanted,” said Warsaw-based analyst Buras, in an interview last week. “The unintended consequences and the international damage have been huge.”

Source: Washington Post

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