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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 
said. 

   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 
Soviet Union.

   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 
Holocaust.

   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 
Poland.

   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 
any case.

   "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."


(KR)

 
 
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