No sooner was Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu gone than his successors have ripped into Poland over a newly passed Polish restitution law. And the Biden administration supports the Israeli moves. What is it all about?
Six years ago Poland’s Constitutional Court obligated the government of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the Parliament (Sejm) to pass a law on restitution. The PiS administration dillydallied, also to avoid any controversy.
Finally, under a deadline, the Sejm voted a statue of limitations of 30 years to property restitution claims. The measure applies equally to all plaintiffs, domestic and foreign.
The new Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett and his foreign minister Yair Lapid ripped into Poland. The latter called the restitution law “a disgrace.”
However, even the liberal Israeli paper The Haaretz opined that “In Row Over Holocaust Property Restitution, Poles Have a Point Too” (30 June 2021). It has been 76 years since the end of the Second World War: too late for total restoration. Also, if you return the properties to all Polish and Jewish claimants, what about the German plaintiffs? Half of Poland used to be Germany.
Replevin law in Poland allows for 25 years of stewardship of a property to claim it as one’s own. Elsewhere the time lapse is even shorter. For example, New York City has a replevin law that dictates that anyone who pays property taxes for 10 years acquires the said property.
Further, as far as Jewish property claims in Poland, there are four categories of cases. First, there is communal religious property: synagogues, ritual baths, and so forth. All has been returned to Jewish religious communities.
Second, likewise, all Jewish secular communal properties have reverted to the successor Jewish organizations: libraries, clubs, etc. Third, there are individual claimants, the heirs to Holocaust survivors, who have been overwhelmingly restored to their properties provided they presented appropriate proof of ownership before the court of law.
The fourth category is the bone of contention in the recent spat. It concerns the so-called “heirless property.” By Roman law, which applies virtually everywhere on the Old Continent (and in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), all property belonging to persons deceased who have no living heirs accrues to the state of their citizenship. According to Roman (and Polish) law, then, Israel is not a party to the dispute. Nor are any international organizations advancing claims to “heirless property.”
Poland so far has refused to yield. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki responded to the Biden administration threats and Israeli anger as follows: “So long as I am prime minister, Poland will pay not a dollar, euro, or zloty for the German crimes.” His point: Poland is not responsible for the Holocaust.
Some believe that the new Israeli government’s temper tantrum directed at Warsaw was just a ploy to deflect the world’s attention from Gaza. Israeli critics of the Bennet cabinet also point out the domestic dimension of the bruhaha: the infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood inside the Israeli leadership. The more the spotlight shines on Warsaw the less light falls on Jerusalem’s internal issues.
An Israeli authority on property issues, Menachem Kaiser, is torn. He freely admits to liking Poland and the Poles, and sharing their concerns. Yet, he is also confused:
“All this moral waffling, I’ll be honest, runs counter to how I was raised, to the tenet I received if not explicitly (but often explicitly) then by osmosis: the Poles were (are) our enemies… My father tells me that my grandparents hated the Poles more than the Germans. That they routinely referred to the country as a country of filth and murder, to its citizens as brutes and scum. … This was a received truth among my relatives.”
Obviously, much needs to be worked out in Polish-Israeli relations. A logical step would be to proceed with the current government like with the previous one.
Netanyahu knew that, as soon as they regained freedom, the Poles facilitated the escape of over 40,000 of Jews from the crumbling Soviet Union and invariably supported Israel on the international forum (unlike most of the European Union). So, building on that, private feelers went out first in America, which eventually facilitated a Polish deal with Bibi.
Let the dust settle on the current spat now, and try again. Both Israel and Poland need friends, including on energy issues. And Joe Biden should help with that.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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