Historical Truth Should not be a Political Bargaining Chip

It seems that negotiations with Israel and pressure from international organizations have paid off: Poland is “softening” its sixth-month old “Holocaust Law”, which criminalizes accusing the Polish nation of complicity in the Nazi crimes, mainly by tossing out the jail sentence it carries with it.  On Wednesday, Netanyahu and the Polish Prime Minister made a joint statement underlining the importance of the Israeli-Polish relationships, and the dangers of anti-Semitic, as well as anti-Polish, sentiments in the world.  Netanyahu further said that they established “task forces to reach a compromise acceptable to both countries” and thereby “stood for the truth and fulfilled our duty to ensure the historical truth about the Holocaust”.

Some criticize Netanyahu for minimizing the part that many Poles played in the Holocaust, and “clearly ‘yield[ing]’ to Poland, out of undisclosed diplomatic considerations” (Haaretz, 28/6/2018). But what do you expect when you make historical truth a political bargaining chip? You give a little, you get a little.

The “deal” with Poland may be a diplomatic victory for Israel, but it is a blow to the dignity of historical truth. Historical truths must (and can) be established only by historians based on historical evidence. Governmental agreements on versions of history that are “acceptable to both countries” not only discredit historical truths (by implying that they are a matter of agreement), but also endanger them.  Today it might be in Poland’s interest to have good relations with Israel, but tomorrow it may not be.  Tomorrow, when Poland decides that its relations with Arab countries are more important, it may decide to adopt a “compromise acceptable” to them.

This sort of politicization of historical truth is exactly what we have seen in the case of the Armenian genocide. Over the years, attempts to make the US officially recognize what happened in 1915 in Turkey as genocide failed because the US did not want to ruin its important relations with Turkey.  Israel itself helped Turkey lobby against the American recognition, because it did not want to ruin its relations with Turkey either (in the good old days when the two had good relations). And now that Israel’s relations with Turkey have soured, we are suddenly seeing more Israeli politicians waking up to the necessity of officially recognizing 1915 as genocide.

All such abuse of historical truth for political purposes is reprehensible.  It is not the business of parliaments, prime ministers, or diplomatic “task forces” to establish historical truth.  It is the job of historians.  If there is a historical crime, it is the job of courts to determine it.  The job of politicians is to create an environment in which historical and legal truths can flourish.  When the original Polish “Holocaust Law” passed, the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists objected to it by stating that governments should not “impose restrictions on freedom of expression regarding th[ese] sensitive and painful issue[s], which should be the subject of free and unlimited public discourse and academic research”. I agree.  But not only when it comes to Polish involvement in Nazi crimes, but in general, including discussions that we may find offensive or outright insane.  There will always be “Flat Earthers” and anti-Semites.  Criminalizing their speech only bolsters their opinions and takes us one step closer to “Ministry of Truth”.

About the Author
Melis is originally from Izmir, Turkey. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from New York University in 2013.
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