Politics Somewhat Aside: World Leaders Attend Holocaust Commemoration in Jerusalem

January 23, 2020

Focus of the ceremony at Yad Vashem remained largely on point despite anticipated interjection of geopolitical issues

President Macron apologized for shouting at Israeli security forces after they entered a church in Jerusalem that under a past agreement is French sovereign territory before his own protective services.

President Putin made headlines by dangling the prospect of a pardon in a face-to-face with the mother of an Israeli jailed in Russia on charges of intent to distribute less than 10 grams of marijuana found in her checked luggage while she was on a stopover in Moscow en route home from India.

But Thursday afternoon, politics was meant to be put aside for three hours as some 50 world leaders attended the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

The event, titled “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Anti-Semitism,” marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi-run Auschwitz concentration camp.

It was the Jewish state’s largest-ever diplomatic gathering.

The messaging was on mark for most of the proceedings, with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin beginning by thanking global leaders for their “commitment to remembering the Shoah [the Hebrew term for Holocaust], for [the] commitment to the citizens of the world, to those who believe in the dignity of man.”

Hatred of all kinds, Rivlin continued, “is a malignant disease that dismantles peoples and countries, and no democracy and no society is immune to that.”

But only minutes later Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu broke the ice with a politically tinged suggestion that the world was again turning a blind eye toward a country that publicly vows to annihilate millions of Jews. Seizing the opportunity presented by an audience dotted with the most senior officials of the countries with whom he bitterly disagrees on issues relating to Iran, he expressed alarm that there existed no “unified stance against [Iran], the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet.

“Israel thanks [US] President [Donald] Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for confronting the tyrants of Tehran who threaten the stability of the Middle East and the entire world,” Netanyahu affirmed, before calling “on all governments to make any effort to confront Iran.”

Taking the podium shortly thereafter, Pence echoed the sentiment: “We must also stand strong against… the one government in the world that denies the Holocaust as a matter of state policy and calls to wipe Israel off the map. The world must stand strong against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pence said.

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin – while reinforcing that “this [Holocaust] remembrance is our shared responsibility to the past and the future,” and while arguing that Russia had “paid the highest price” in vanquishing Hitler’s Germany – stated that “these death camps were operated not just by Nazis but by their henchmen in various countries.”

The latter comments were construed as another shot at Poland, with which Moscow has been engaged in a bitter war-of-words over alleged World War II revisionism.

But the central theme of remembrance, and to invoke its lessons so as not to repeat the past, was the thread that bound all the speeches together.

In this respect, a regretful President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that Germans needed, in perpetuity, to internalize that it was their country that had perpetrated the Holocaust, while repeatedly invoking the phrase, “Never Again.”

“Here at Yad Vashem burns the Eternal Flame in remembrance of the victims the Shoah. This place reminds us of their suffering. The suffering of millions. And it reminds us of their lives – each individual life,” Steinmeier began.

“Germans deported them,” he then stressed. “Germans burned numbers on their forearms. Germans tried to dehumanize them … to erase all memory of them in the extermination camps.

“They did not succeed.”

Indeed, this message was front and center on Thursday: that the Jewish people, despite facing extinction only a few generations ago, and amid a global resurgence in anti-Semitism, has built a powerhouse state in their ancestral homeland.

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