The new law in Poland that criminalizes references to incontrovertible facts about Poles being involved in the killing of Jews during the Holocaust suggests a reprehensible form of Holocaust denial. So wrote Rabbi Dow Marmur, Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple and a Polish-born Holocaust survivor.
The evidence of polish complicity in the Nazis atrocities is well documented. In fact, one of the foremost scholars on the subject is Polish émigré Jan Grabowski of the University of Ottawa. His work is so renowned that were he to visit his native country, he might be put on trial for defaming the Polish state and the Polish people.
There is no shortage of adjectives that would describe this heinous anti-Jewish, anti-intellectual law. In fact, shortly after passing this law, the Polish parliament began debating a law that would outlaw kosher slaughtering, an enterprise that seems to provide significant economic benefit to the Polish economy. All Jews and all who believe in the value of historical accuracy are incensed by these political actions. Yet the rewriting of history for nationalistic purpose is not restricted to the Poles.
Today, there are many instances in North America where new-found national and social priorities lead to the revision of history. In the United States, the events of the Civil War have once again become a battlefield for historical reinterpretation. The commander of the Confederacy troops, Robert E. Lee, has been reviled as a racist. Long forgotten is the fact that he was first asked to command the troops of Abraham Lincoln. His refusal was based on his loyalty to Virginia, not slavery.
Judah P. Benjamin, the first Jew elected to the U.S. senate who did not renounce his faith, served in three cabinet positions for the Confederacy. He was a wealthy slave holder and an eloquent supporter of slavery. He advocated arming slaves and allowing them to fight for the Confederacy.
His suggestion was not accepted until it was too late to be impactful. He escaped at the end of the war to Britain and was welcomed into Anglo Jewish society. His support of slavery was much more virulent than that of Robert E. Lee, but we rarely condemn him or ask that he be removed from textbooks on great Jewish Americans.
In Canada, we continue to question how we should respond to historical injustices against aboriginal people. There is no doubt that aboriginal people have good reason to demand a reconsideration of behaviours that once might have been acceptable, but are no longer. There are of course many Canadians who claim that past is past and that we cannot judge it by our own standards.
I wonder what the Polish parliament would say about our ongoing desire to alter historical perspectives. Of course there is a difference between altering facts and altering perspectives, but the nuances of that distinction are not readily appreciated by many.
During the past year, while we celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, even Jews were tempted to rewrite history. We celebrated the declaration as if there was unanimity of agreement as to its value. We conveniently ignored the fact that many high-profile Jews in Great Britain were ardent opponents of the declaration.
Edwin Montagu, the highest-ranking Jew in the British cabinet, argued that “when the Jew has a national home, surely it follows that the impetus to deprive us of the rights of British citizenship must be enormously increased.” And he added a very powerful sentence: “Palestine will become the world’s ghetto.”
In fact, a paragraph concerning “the political rights and status enjoyed by Jews in other countries” was included to assuage his concerns.
In addition, we ignored the fact that the Balfour Declaration allowed the British to renege on earlier promises to France regarding Palestine (Sykes-Picot Agreement). We ignore the fact that the declaration was used to extract from the League of Nations a mandate for Palestine, which was not favourable to the Jews during and after the Second World War. We ignore the fact that its existence was used to help protect the Suez Canal and played not an insignificant role in enticing Israel to participate in the 1956 war.
As we condemn the vile declaration of the Polish government, we would be well advised that historical blinders and temptations to rewrite history can infect all peoples, even our own.