Poland and the Nazi Death Camps and Fake News

Agnon - Das Buch der Polnischen JudenThe News has been full of reports that Poland is criminalizing any mention of Poles being involved in the Nazi Holocaust during World War II.

According to Ha’aretz, “Polish Parliament’s Lower House Votes to Criminalize Mention of Polish Crimes in the Holocaust” (28 January 2018). According to the Times of Israel (27 January 2018), Yad Vashem protested that “restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion” of the Holocaust. The same report records Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as responding with the quip, “History cannot be re-written. The Holocaust cannot be denied.” Netanyahu later added that Israel had “no tolerance for the distortion of the truth, the rewriting of history and the denial of the Holocaust” (The Telegraph, UK, 29 January 2018).

But all of these statements are highly misleading. The Polish legislation does nothing to stop people discussing the role of individual Poles in the Holocaust. The amendment is restricted to prohibit calling the actions of Nazi Germany in the Holocaust as actions of the “Polish State” or “Polish Nation”.

The legislation (Druk nr 806) introduces amendments to the Institute of National Remembrance Act (Instytucie Pamięci Narodowej). Article 55A(1) introduces a fine or prison sentence for anyone who

“ascribes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich”.

So the amendment does not apply to those who blame individual Poles for individual acts of collaboration with the Nazis. The scale of the involvement of Poles in the Holocaust is a matter of ongoing historical debate. Polish authorities tend to emphasize the role of those who assisted Jews during the German occupation, and minimize the role of those Poles who were complicit. Others have less favourable opinions of Polish involvement in the Nazi Holocaust. Yet this debate will still be allowed under the legislation, as the legislative amendments don’t apply to this debate. In addition, there is an explicit exemption even for attributing it to the Polish Nation or State, for “artistic or academic activity” (Article 55A(3)).

What the Polish legislation does deal with is the false attribution of the German Holocaust to the Polish Nation or State. This is beyond doubt, as the Polish State did not in fact exist after the German takeover during WWII, except in exile. Poles have been understandably upset that the German death camps have been regularly, but misleadingly, referred to as “Polish death camps” – including in a 2012 speech by the US President Barack Obama. They are especially aggrieved given the fact that 6 million Poles died at the hands of the German Nazis, including 3 million Jewish Poles and 3 million non-Jewish Poles.

As recently as 29 June 2017, Israel agreed that the description “Polish death camps” was incorrect. On that date, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (of which Israel is a member) adopted a statement that the use of the terms “Polish camps” and “Polish death camps” was “historically unsupportable”.

So Israel last year agreed that the term “Polish Death Camps” contravenes the Stockholm Declaration’s requirement to tell the truth of the Holocaust and to avoid denial and distortion. But now that Poland has made the very phrase “Polish Death Camps” illegal, Israel has taken the opposite stance, interpreting the Polish legislation as itself being a “denial of the Holocaust”.

The Israeli response is, at least, a badly judged response based on poor news reporting. I have read dozens of news reports on the controversy which has arisen in the last few days. None of them quote the actual legislation at the heart of the matter. That journalistic failure has led directly to Israel’s misguided opposition to the Polish legislation.


Benjamin Netanyahu claims historical basis to Abraham’s purchase of Tomb of Patriarchs. But forgets that the Giants owned it.

At the beginning of his weekly cabinet meeting, on 9 July 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu read from Genesis 23.16, 19-20. This passage narrates the story of Abraham’s purchase of a tomb for the burial of his wife, near the city of Hebron.

16 Abraham agreed with Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants…. 19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.

Hebron is a city in Palestine which is currently under military occupation by Israel.

On 7 July 2017, UNESCO voted to recognize the Mamluk-era Old Town of Hebron (Al-Khalil), including its first-century CE Tomb of the Patriarchs (the Ibrahimi mosque), as a protected World Heritage site.

In response, Netanyahu argued, based on the legendary account in Genesis 23, that Hebron was Jewish. “The connection between the Jewish people and Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs is one of purchase and of history which may be without parallel in the history of peoples.” Netanyahu also had a bit of a tantrum, and said that he wouldn’t pay $1 million from Israel’s United Nations membership dues, but would instead transfer the funds to the establishment of The Museum of the Heritage of the Jewish People in Kiryat Arba and Hebron.

But did Abraham really buy the tomb?

According to Genesis 23, Abraham bought the tomb from a Hittite man named Ephron. However, Abraham’s legal title to the land is highly questionable, in light of the rival account in the Torah, in Numbers 13. Here, the city of Hebron clearly belongs to three Giants (Anakim), named Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai. It doesn’t belong to Hittites at all. So on the basis of Numbers 13, we have to question whether the Hittite Ephron ever had a good legal title to give to Abraham. Hebron, according to this account, belonged to Giants.

Therefore, under the legal principle of Nemo dat quod non habet (a person cannot grant a better title than they have), Abraham never legally bought the land. He could only have bought it from its legal owners, the Giants. If we treat the Torah as history, we must respect the legal ownership of Hebron by ancient Giants.

… unless, of course, both Genesis 23 and Numbers 13 are just legends, and neither should be cited as “history” by a modern Prime Minister.

But then, might the Israeli government have to admit that the notion of modern Israel’s right to “Greater Israel” (Kol Yisrael) might itself be based on legends?


Keith Whitelam on Obama’s Speeches in Israel

Following Remnant of Giants‘ examination of Obama’s opening speech in Israel as buying into Israeli and biblical founding myths, Keith Whitelam comments on what Obama has been saying about Israelis, and what he hasn’t been saying about Palestinians:

Keith Whitelam - Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine's PastThe references to ‘our ancient homeland’, ‘our ancient capital’, the story of the exodus, ‘the promised land’ or the use of the Dead Sea Scrolls as a title deed to the land in the speeches of Obama, Peres and Netanyahu show why it is so important to challenge this biblical view of history. It is constantly used to justify Israel’s claim to the land and resonates powerful with Israeli, American and western audiences. It is used to deny Palestine’s connection to the past and undermines any claims to the present.

There is no mention in Obama’s speeches to Palestine’s past. The cultural struggle for an alternative history of Palestine that shows how the past is connected to the present is crucial in countering the biblical view of history.

– Keith W. Whitelam, Keith W. Whitelam Facebook page, 22 March 2013

Whitelam is a former biblical studies professor at the University of Sheffield and, most recently, the author of  Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past (BenBlackBooks, 2013) – which was reviewed by Remnant of Giants here.

H/t: Jim West, “Keith Whitelam: Right on Obama’s Visit to Israel

Obama’s Opening Speech in Israel Sounds Strangely Familiar – Oh yes, remember Bibi Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in the US?

Obama at Ben Gurion Airport

No sooner had US President Barack Obama touched the ground at Ben Gurion Airport, than he commenced this speech:


President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and most of all, to the people of Israel, thank you for this incredibly warm welcome. This is my third visit to Israel so let me just say tov lihiyot shuv ba’aretz.

I’m so honored to be here as you prepare to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a free and independent State of Israel. Yet I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.

Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be “masters of their own fate” in “their own sovereign state.” And just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.

– Barack Obama, in “Full text of Obama’s speech on arrival in Israel”, The Times of Israel, 20 March 2013

Now, there is much in here that a critical biblical scholar might take issue with.

Have “the Jewish people” really lived in the region for “more than 3,000 years”? No. A people known as Judeans did live in the land from perhaps the early part of the first millennium BC to the early Common Era. And they did so alongside many other peoples, many of whom have come and gone, including the Philistines (or residents of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath), the Edomites/Idumaeans, Romans, and Arabs (including Nabataeans). Moreover, the Judeans never occupied all the region now occupied by the modern state of Israel, including Tel Aviv, where Obama delivered his speech.

Did “the Jewish people” pray to God there for more than 3000 years? No. Not if you mean by God, with a capital letter, or the monotheistic concept of later Jews. In the early period of Judean settlement of the southern hill country and northern Negev, the inscriptions from various sites and the Elephantine correspondence (around 400 BC), written before much of the Bible was written, show that Judeans worshipped a number of gods and goddesses. Before this, even Yahweh (later identified as the monotheistic “God”) was worshipped alongside his divine consort or wife, named Asherah.

Are “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah” fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be ‘masters of their own fate’ in ‘their own sovereign state'”. No. Almost everything is wrong with this. First, no Abraham or Sarah ever existed, except in legendary tales. Second, if you’ve read the Bible, you might note that “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah” comprises a much more inclusive group than the Jews of the “Jewish State of Israel”. The sons of Abraham and daughters of Sarah include, for example, Ishmael (Abraham’s first son), the alleged ancestor of all Arabs. Given that the Bible makes Ishmael older than Judah (the eponymous ancestor of the Jews), why haven’t their “dreams of the ages” to have “their own sovereign state” been fulfilled? Third, the “dream” of a sovereign Jewish state is not “the dream of the ages”. It was only a dream of some Jews in the nineteenth century onwards, under the influence of European concepts of national sovereignty and Christian concepts of divine election and manifest destiny. And many Jews today still oppose the idea of a sovereign state in Palestine.

But this propaganda sounds all very familiar. Oh yes – remember the speech by Bibi Netanyahu to Congress in the US in 2011?

We’re not the British in India. We’re not the Belgians in the Congo. This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one god, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw his vision of eternal peace.
– Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, in Jonathan Lis, “The facts and fictions of Netanyahu’s address to Congress”Ha’aretz, 26 May 2011

I guess when you’re planning a war against Iran “to preserve our freedom” (as Obama alludes to the Bush Doctrine in his speech) the facts will only get in the way of shoring up political alliances.

Did you know? The First Mention of “Arabs” in the Bible involves Jews building a wall around Jerusalem

Yes indeed:

But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry.
– Nehemiah 4:7

Uncanny, isn’t it?

“Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana

The Sunday Times recently published a cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall on top of Palestinians, using their blood as cement.

Bibi's wall

The current injustice that is Israeli displacement of Palestinians in occupied Palestine is precisely why we should never forget the horrors of the past.

h/t for the Bibi cartoon: Jim West

Dancing on “The Tomb of Caleb” – The Facts Under the Ground

According to Numbers 13-14, Moses sent a group of spies to spy out the promised land. The spies returned to the whole assembly of Israel, and discouraged them from entering into the land, claiming that they had seen giants there. But Caleb, along with Joshua, encouraged the Israelites to kill all the prior inhabitants of the land and settle in their place. For this, Caleb was praised for “fully following after” the Israelite god, Yahweh.

Orthodox Jewish men dance near the alleged tomb of the biblical figure Caleb in the Palestinian town of Kifl Hareth in the West Bank. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
Orthodox Jewish men dance near the alleged tomb of the biblical figure Caleb in the Palestinian town of Kifl Hareth in the West Bank. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Earlier this year [2010], a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to add two West Bank shrines to a list of Israeli heritage sites set off weeks of clashes between stone-throwing Palestinians and Israeli troops in the biblical city of Hebron. Both of those sites, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, hold great significance for Muslims and Jews.

No clashes were reported during the pilgrimage to Kifl Hares, which began late Thursday and ended early Friday. The Palestinian mayor, however, called it “a serious bother.”

Israeli soldiers, some using glow sticks to direct traffic in the darkness, imposed a curfew on the Palestinian residents. The Jewish visitors, some carrying children or pushing strollers, walked the village’s narrow streets. Near the tombs, groups of ultra-Orthodox men with sidelocks and black hats recited prayers, sang and danced in circles.

Some devout Jews claim biblical Joshua, along with his father, Nun, and companion Caleb are buried in Kifl Hares.

– Ben Hubbard, “Thousands of Jews visit disputed West Bank tombs”, Boston.com, 9 April 2010

This is causing some bother:

Thousands of Jewish settlers raided Friday the West Bank town of Kifl Hares north of Salfit to perform traditional prayers at what they have claimed is the tomb of Joshua the son of Nun.
Israeli Radio put the number of settlers that raided the site from Thursday night to Friday morning at 15,000. They were protected by Israel occupation forces (IOF).

Uprooted Palestinians, “Jewish settlers raid Kifl Hares in bid to claim shrine”, 30 April 2011

The tomb of Caleb at Kifl Hares
The tomb of Caleb at Kifl Hares

Ahmed Bouzia, the mayor of Kifl Hares, called the most recent visit “a serious bother” and said many villagers worry Israel will try to take the sites away from them.

“All three are Islamic graves,” Bouzia said, adding that one contains the remains of an ancestor. “Anyone who uses his eyes and head can see that these are Islamic graves.”

– Ben Hubbard, “Thousands of Jews visit disputed West Bank tombs”, Boston.com, 9 April 2010

So right now, in Israel, a tradition is being invented about the tomb of Caleb.

According to a fresh report by the PIC, there are three Islamic shrines in Kifl Hares, Dhul-Kifl, Dhul-Nun, and a shrine built by Sultan Saladin, which Israelis wish to convert into a biblical site, naming it the shrine of Joshua, who led Moses’ army into Palestine from Jericho.
Palestinians fear Israel wants to hijack the shrine in the center of the village and add it to the alleged Jewish heritage list, as was done with Ibrahimi and Bilal Ben Rabah mosques.
Uprooted Palestinians, “Jewish settlers raid Kifl Hares in bid to claim shrine”, 30 April 2011

Raiding Jewish Settlers at Kifl Hares
Raiding Jewish Settlers at Kifl Hares

Netanyahu: The Land of Our Forefathers… or not

Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and Barack Obama (Steve Bell)
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and Barack Obama (Steve Bell)

In today’s Ha’aretz, Jonathan Lis sorts out the truth from the lies in Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. Congress on Tuesday:

[Netanyahu:] “We’re not the British in India. We’re not the Belgians in the Congo. This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one god, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw his vision of eternal peace.”

[Lis:] Netanyahu was trying to show Congress how close West Bank lands are to the hearts of the Israeli people. “In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers,” the prime minister told Congress. He used the story of David and Goliath to illustrate the bond between the people of Israel and the territories. However, the biblical battle took place in the Ella Valley, which is near Beit Shemesh – well within the Green Line.

– Jonathan Lis, “The facts and fictions of Netanyahu’s address to Congress”, Ha’aretz, 26 May 2011

So as it happens, the land “where David set out to confront Goliath” (the Valley of Ella/Elah) is in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory – territory which Netanyahu refuses to give back, based on an imagined community with other peoples who lived there 3000 years beforehand!

“…We’re not the British in India. We’re not the Belgians in the Congo…”

If colonialism, as Nicholas Dirks has argued, “transformed domination into a variety of effects that masked both conquest and rule” [Colonialism and Culture (1992), p. 7], the most important of those effects in Palestine was to efface Zionism’s colonial dimension, at least from the perspective of those building and supporting the Jewish state. It was to erase the question of “Palestine” from the history of the Israeli state and society, which had become, quite simply, the nation-state of and for the Jewish people.

– Nadia Abu El-Haj, Facts on The Ground: Archaeological practice and territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society (University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 5.

Read the whole Ha’aretz article here.