An Israeli summit hosting Eastern European governments fell apart Monday after Israel’s top diplomat said Poles “suckled anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk,” the latest clash between two governments largely aligned except on where to apportion blame for the wartime murder of Jews.
Poland pulled out of the meeting, planned to take place in Jerusalem, after a series of comments by Jewish leaders regarding Poland’s participation in the Holocaust.
In solidarity with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic will hold bilateral meetings with Israeli leaders instead of attending the summit.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has aimed to cultivate ties with these right-leaning nations in a bid to drive a wedge between them and the rest of the European Union, which his government considers to be harshly critical of Israel in international forums. The dispute comes ahead of Israeli elections in April: Mr. Netanyahu is drawing on his ties to world leaders to pitch himself as being in another league and the best face for Israel on the world stage.
The Israeli leader himself provoked Polish ire in recent days. In Warsaw last week, Mr. Netanyahu told reporters that Poles cooperated with the Nazis during the Holocaust, in response to a question about a recently enacted Polish libel law against accusing Polish society of complicity in the Holocaust.
His remarks were misquoted in one Israeli outlet as referring to the Polish nation cooperating with the Nazis, rather than some Poles, which sparked outcry from the Polish government.
Poland responded by withdrawing their prime ministerial delegation to the summit and planned to send their foreign minister instead. But Israel’s acting foreign minister Yisrael Katz escalated tensions on Sunday by quoting a former Israeli prime minister on Poland and the Holocaust. “[Yitzhak] Shamir said the Poles suckled anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk. Nobody will tell us how to express ourselves and how to remember the fallen.”
Mr. Katz, who said he is the son of Holocaust survivors, told i24 News “we will never forgive and never forget, and there were many Poles who collaborated with the Nazis.”
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who also faces re-election this year, said the remarks pushed him to pull Poland out of the summit.
“They are unacceptable not only in diplomacy, but for me they are absolutely unacceptable in the public sphere,” Mr. Morawiecki said in a statement carried by government-owned broadcaster Telewizja Polska.
A spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry said Monday that the prime ministers from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia will still travel to Israel on Monday and hold meetings with Mr. Netanyahu the following day.
Many Israelis consider Polish complicity in the Holocaust a historical fact—and necessary to explain how German occupiers were able to murder 90% of the country’s Jews. However, many Poles feel that foreign accounts of Nazi rule overlook the murder of Christian Poles and that Jews are afforded an elevated status as victims compared with Poland’s non-Jewish war dead.
Both countries’ governments, led by nationalist, right-leaning parties, are otherwise like-minded on a number of issues and have grown close in recent years, each throwing vocal support behind U.S. President Trump. Following Washington and Israel’s lead, Poland has taken a tougher line on Iran than most European states. Last week, Warsaw, the Polish capital, hosted a two-day Middle East summit of Israeli, Arab, and Western governments, widely viewed as an attempt by the U.S. to use Poland as a neutral ground on which to shore up an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and other Arab states.