Poland’s president signs controversial Holocaust bill into law

Poland's President Andrzej Duda gives a press conference on February 6, 2018 in Warsaw to announce that he will sign into law a controversial Holocaust bill which has sparked tensions with Israel, the US and Ukraine. (AFP)
Updated 06 February 2018

Poland’s president signs controversial Holocaust bill into law

WARSAW: President Andrzej Duda on Tuesday signed into law a controversial Holocaust bill intended to safeguard Poland’s image abroad but which has instead triggered an unprecedented diplomatic row with Israel and tensions with the US and Ukraine.
Duda also said he would send the legislation, which now comes into force, to the Constitutional Tribunal to rule on whether it conforms with guarantees for freedom of speech.
The law sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone ascribing “responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich — or other crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
The main aim is to prevent people from erroneously describing Nazi German death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau as Polish, simply due to their geographical location.
Israel has expressed deep concerns that the legislation could open the door to prosecuting Holocaust survivors for their testimony should it concern the involvement of individual Poles for allegedly killing or giving up Jews to the Germans.
But Duda and other Polish leaders insist the law does not limit freedom of speech on Holocaust issues that are based in historical fact.
“I have decided to sign the law but also to send it to the Constitutional Tribunal,” Duda told reporters in Warsaw on Tuesday.
He said the decision “preserves the interests of Poland, our dignity and the historical truth” and also “takes into account the sensitivity of those for whom the question of historical memory of the Holocaust remains exceptionally important, especially those who have survived and who, as long as they can, should tell the world about this past and their experience.”
Israel said Tuesday it still hoped that “we will manage to agree on changes and corrections,” adding that it “continues to communicate with the Polish authorities.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared last week Israel had “no tolerance for the distortion of the truth and rewriting history or denying the Holocaust.”
Israel’s Ambassador to Poland Anna Azari said Monday that after Poland’s Senate adopted the bill last Thursday she “had signals” she may be withdrawn.
Analysts say that the legislation has isolated Poland from Israel, a key ally of the United States and neighboring Ukraine.
The US State Department warned last week that the bill could have “repercussions” on “Poland’s strategic interests and relationships — including with the United States and Israel.”
According to Polish security analyst Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas the statement was the “strongest” made by the US toward Poland since the Cold War.
He told the Gazeta Wyborcza daily the tensions could potentially affect Warsaw’s talks with the US on an unprecedented multi-billion dollar defense purchase of a US-made Patriot anti-missile defense system.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has described the tensions as a “temporary weakening of relations with Israel and the USA” but added that he hoped for an improvement soon after Poland explained its position.
Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said Monday that Poland was open to amending the law but insisted that Israel’s criticism was “due to a misunderstanding” and “over-interpretation.”
Jewish organizations from across the globe have also expressed deep concern.
European Jewish Association Chairman Rabbi Menachem Margolin said in a statement Tuesday his organization would challenge what he described as the “flawed” law in Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal.
“It seems inconceivable that an EU member state can be permitted to whitewash history by imposing draconian legislation that can imprison people for holding an alternative view on what happened during Europe’s darkest days,” Margolin added.
Ukraine has also slammed the law with President Petro Poroshenko protesting against “absolutely biased and categorically unacceptable” articles that allow for the prosecution of anyone denying the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists committed between 1925 and 1950.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said “there is not the slightest doubt about who is responsible for the extermination camps, who made them work to kill millions of European Jews: namely the Germans.
“It was our country that organized these mass murders and no one else. The existence of certain collaborators does not change anything,” Gabriel said.
“Poland can be certain that any distortion of history such as the notion of ‘Polish concentration camps’ will be clearly rejected and firmly condemned.”


School trip hijab clash sparks new secularism row in France

Updated 25 min 5 sec ago

School trip hijab clash sparks new secularism row in France

  • Far-right politician Julien Odoul asked a woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip to a regional parliament to remove her headscarf
  • The issue has divided politicians and citizens in a country that often struggles with finding a balance between individual religious freedom and constitutionally-guaranteed secularism

PARIS: A new row over secularism and the wearing of the Islamic hijab in public buildings has erupted in France after a far-right politician asked a woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip to remove her headscarf.
The issue has divided politicians and citizens in a country that often struggles with finding a balance between individual religious freedom and constitutionally-guaranteed secularism in the public sector, including schools.
Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage when he posted a video on Twitter of him confronting a woman who accompanied pupils last Friday to the regional parliament in Bourgogne-Franche-Comte in eastern France.
Citing “secular principles” in the wake of the killings in Paris this month of four police staff by a radicalized convert to Islam, he insisted the woman, whose son was among the group, remove her headscarf.
Members of the RN then walked out of the chamber before issuing a press statement denouncing “an Islamist provocation.”
But many, including regional parliament speaker Marie-Guite Dufay, criticized Odoul’s actions, saying neither the law of the country nor the rules of the chamber prohibited a member of the public wearing a headscarf.
Dufay denounced a “surge of hatred” and what she described as “undignified behavior” on the part of a lawmaker.
With the RN playing up the issue, the controversy has exposed divisions within the centrist ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron which is keenly aware Marine Le Pen’s faction is its chief political foe.
Even the country’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer seemed unable to pick a side, stressing Sunday that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children,” while saying “the headscarf itself is not desirable in our society” because of “what it says about the status of women, what it says about our values.”
Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye also weighed in, saying it was important to allow space for exchanges between women who wear headscarves and those who do not, as this promoted “inclusivity.”
But Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire came to the defense of “a culture in which religion remains in the intimate, private sphere and does not have a place in (the) public sphere.”
And Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin added: “I would prefer that women in the Republic, in France, do not wear a headscarf.”
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament he was opposed to any kind of new law specifically targeting what should be worn on school trips.
The controversy is the latest in France over face and body-covering garments which many perceive as inappropriate in a secular country while others argue the garments allow Muslim women to be active participants in French society.
The French state and church were officially separated by law in 1905 to give form to the concept of secularism rooted in the 1789 French Revolution.
In 2004, the government prohibited the wearing of conspicuous religions symbols in public schools and banned the hijab — a garment that covers a woman’s hair but leaves her face exposed — from classrooms and government offices.
The country with Europe’s largest Muslim population is also deeply divided over the body-concealing “burkini” swimsuit, with opposition to the garment forcing the closure of some swimming pools earlier this year in the midst of a heatwave.
Also this year, French sports retailer Decathlon was forced by public pressure to back down from a plan to sell a runner’s hijab in France.
An opinion poll released on Monday found that two in three French people are in favor of prohibiting parents accompanying kids on school trips from wearing visible religious symbols.
France does not officially collect data on religious affiliation but is believed to have a Muslim population of just under 10 percent. Not all are observant.
A study published in September by the IFOP polling group found that more than half of Muslim men questioned said they went to the mosque every Friday, compared to about one in five women.
The upper house of parliament, the Senate, will discuss the subject as early as next week, with a committee examining a draft law seeking to “ensure the religious neutrality of people who contribute to the public service of education.”