World Leaders Rally in Jerusalem 01/23 06:22
Dozens of world leaders descended upon Jerusalem on Thursday for the
largest-ever gathering focused on commemorating the Holocaust and combating
rising modern-day anti-Semitism -- a politically charged event that has been
clouded by rival national interpretations of the genocide.
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Dozens of world leaders descended upon Jerusalem on
Thursday for the largest-ever gathering focused on commemorating the Holocaust
and combating rising modern-day anti-Semitism --- a politically charged event
that has been clouded by rival national interpretations of the genocide.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron,
Britain's Prince Charles, Vice President Mike Pence and the presidents of
Germany, Italy and Austria were among the more than 40 dignitaries attending
the World Holocaust Forum, which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the
liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
The three-hour-long ceremony at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial
--- called "Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism" --- looks to
project a united front in commemorating the genocide of European Jewry amid a
global spike in anti-Jewish violence.
But the unresolved remnants of World War II's politics have permeated the
solemn assembly over the differing historical narratives of various players.
Poland's president, who's been criticized for his own wartime revisionism, has
boycotted the gathering since he wasn't invited to speak. Putin was granted a
central role even as he leads a campaign to play down the Soviet Union's
pre-war pact with the Nazis and shift responsibility for the war's outbreak on
Poland, which was invaded in 1939 to start the fighting.
On the eve of the gathering, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin implored
visiting dignitaries to "leave history for the historians."
"The role of political leaders, of all of us, is to shape the future," he
But Putin quickly ventured into the sensitive terrain shortly after his
arrival Thursday, claiming that 40% of Jewish Holocaust victims were Soviet.
Of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis, historians say about 1 million
were Soviet. Putin's controversial figure appears to include an additional 1.5
million Jewish victims from eastern European areas occupied by the Soviets
under their pact with the Nazis.
"When it comes to the tragedy of the Holocaust, 40% of tortured and killed
Jews were Soviet Union Jews. So this is our common tragedy in the fullest sense
of the word," he said during a meeting with Rivlin.
Arkadi Zeltser, a Yad Vashem historian, said the accuracy of the statement
depended on rival "definitions" of when the war began. Yad Vashem, along with
all other reputable institutions, considers the war to have been sparked on
Sept. 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland. The Soviets generally consider their
"Great Patriotic War" to have started two years later, when Germany invaded the
It was the latest chapter in a bitter dispute over Soviet actions in World
War II. Putin has been leading a campaign to play down the Soviet Union's
pre-war pact with the Nazis and focus instead on its role in defeating them.
Israel has given Putin a warm welcome, hosting him for the dedication of a
monument honoring the nearly 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad. The city, now
known as St. Petersburg, is Putin's hometown.
The event marks one of the largest political gatherings in Israeli history,
as a cascade of delegations including European presidents, prime ministers and
royals, as well as American, Canadian and Australian representatives, arrived
at Ben-Gurion Airport. More than 10,000 police officers were deployed in
Jerusalem and major highways leading to it. Large parts of the city were shut
down ahead of the event.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it offered another opportunity to
solidify Israel's diplomatic standing and boost his profile as he seeks
re-election on March 2. He was hoping to use his meetings with world leaders to
bolster his tough line toward Iran and rally opposition to a looming war crimes
case against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
For historians, though, the main message is one of education amid growing
signs of ignorance and indifference to the Holocaust. A comprehensive survey
released this week by the Claims Conference, a Jewish organization responsible
for negotiating compensation for victims of Nazi persecution, found that most
people in France did not know that 6 million Jews were killed during World War
II. Among millennials, 45% said they were unaware of French collaboration with
the Nazi regime and 25% said they weren't even sure they had heard of the
The World Holocaust Forum is the brainchild of Moshe Kantor, the president
of the European Jewish Congress, an umbrella group representing Jewish
communities across Europe. The group recently reported that 80% of European
Jews feel unsafe in the continent.
Kantor established the World Holocaust Forum Foundation in 2005 and it has
held forums before in Auschwitz, the killing fields of Babi Yar in Ukraine and
at the former concentration camp Terezin. Thursday's event is the first time it
is convening in Israel. The official commemoration marking the 75th anniversary
of Auschwitz's liberation will be held next week at the site itself in southern
Organizers of the Jerusalem event have come under criticism for not
including enough Holocaust survivors and instead focusing on the panoply of
visiting dignitaries and the festival-like atmosphere surrounding it. In
response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted on Thursday that his
delegation was giving up its seats to allow more survivors to attend.
Yad Vashem called the decision "odd" since about 100 survivors were expected
to be among the 780 attendees and it was too late to make any adjustments in
"It's a shame he took such a step," the memorial said in a statement.
The gathering comes amid an uptick in anti-Semitic violence. Tel Aviv
University researchers reported last year that violent attacks against Jews
grew significantly in 2018, with the largest reported number of Jews killed in
anti-Semitic acts in decades. They recorded 400 cases, with the spike most
dramatic in western Europe. In Germany, for instance, there was a 70% increase
in anti-Semitic violence. In addition to the shooting attacks, assaults and
vandalism, the research also noted increased anti-Semitic vitriol online and in
newspapers, as extremist political parties grew in power in several countries,
raising shock and concern among aging survivors.
In advance of the forum, an anthology of statements from world leaders
sending delegations to Jerusalem was published to project a newfound commitment
to quelling a climate some said was reminiscent of that before World War II.
"I express my fervent hope that by continued vigilance and positive
education, the iniquities perpetrated during one of the darkest periods in our
history will be eliminated from the face of the earth," Pope Francis wrote.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically mentioned "the scourge
of antisemitism and hatred that is becoming all too common once again."
"The murder of six million Jews by the brutal and antisemitic Nazi regime
started with a slow erosion of rights, and the normalization of
discrimination," he wrote. "We cannot permit the passage of time to diminish
our resolve never to allow such horrors to happen again."