JERUSALEM – Dozens of presidents, premiers and potentates descended on the Holy City on Wednesday in an extraordinary show of collective resolve to fight anti-Semitism, and a 95-year-old Holocaust scholar warned them that such hatred threatened their countries with a “deadly cancer.”
The gathering in Jerusalem, timed ahead of Monday’s 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, was orchestrated to focus even more on the present day, with anti-Jewish violence and rhetoric spreading across Europe and North America.
At a state dinner the likes of which Israel has never seen, King Felipe VI of Spain — whose inherited titles include the Crusader-era King of Jerusalem — urged other world leaders to show an “unyielding commitment to fighting the ignorant intolerance, hatred and the total lack of human empathy that permitted and gave birth to the Holocaust.”
“There is no room for indifference in the presence of racism, xenophobia, hate speech and anti-Semitism,” he said.
Yehuda Bauer, at 95 considered the dean of Holocaust experts, told the assembled monarchs and chiefs of state that of the 35 million people killed in World War II, “some 29 million were non-Jews” who died “in large part because of the hatred of Jews.”
“Anti-Semitism is not a Jewish illness, but a non-Jewish one,” he said pointedly. “It is a cancer that kills and destroys your nations and your societies and your countries. So there are, my friends, 29 million reasons for you to fight anti-Semitism.”
The focal point for the Jerusalem gathering is a commemoration Thursday at the campus of Yad Vashem, the hillside Holocaust memorial and research institute, which will feature addresses by representatives from four of the main Allied powers: Vice President Mike Pence, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Prince Charles and President Emmanuel Macron of France. Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has called World War II a “German crime” and apologized for the Holocaust, will also speak.
The actual anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where 1.1 million people were slaughtered, most of them Jews, will be observed in Poland on Monday at the site of the infamous death camp near the town of Oswiecim.
For Israel, the participation of so many world leaders is a point of pride. Dampening that sense of international single-mindedness, however, was a noisy row between Russia and Poland over their roles in the start of World War II, now playing out on Israeli turf.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, was invited to the Jerusalem gathering but declined to attend over a perceived snub: He was not given a speaking slot, though Putin was.
The two have been engaged in a bitter dispute for months, with each accusing the other of trying to rewrite — and weaponize — history. Putin has sought to portray the Soviet Union as having saved the world from Nazism and to ignore its own 1939 nonaggression pact with Germany, framing Poland as more a perpetrator than a victim of the Holocaust. Duda argues that the Soviet agreement with Germany paved the way to war and that Putin is reviving Stalinist propaganda as a modern-day cudgel.
“I am sorry to say this, but President Putin is knowingly spreading historical lies,” Duda said in an interview with Israeli public television that aired Tuesday. The Lithuanian president, Gitanas Nauseda, who has made similar accusations against Putin, pulled out of the Jerusalem event Tuesday.
Fueling speculation that the gathering in Israel was being given a pro-Russian tilt was that its main organizer was Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor, a Russian-Jewish billionaire with close ties to Putin who leads the World Holocaust Forum Foundation. But Yad Vashem’s chairman, Avner Shalev, said in an interview that Kantor had not exerted any such influence.
Shalev acknowledged that the Russia-Poland crossfire had caused a headache. “We’re in the business of historical truth,” he added. “We don’t want to play any political game.”
President Reuven Rivlin urged that the point of the Holocaust forum not be lost in the noise of such nationalist-tinged disputes. “I hope and pray that from this room, the message will go out to every country on Earth: that the leaders of the world will stand united, will stand united together in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and extremism,” Rivlin said. “In defending democracy and democratic values. This is the call of our time.”
Not everything went smoothly: Macron shouted at Israeli security officers on a stop at a church in the Old City that France considers to be its sovereign territory, but tensions were quickly smoothed over on the spot.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who is awaiting trial on corruption charges, made the most of the chance to show himself meeting with heads of state and pressing the interests of Israelis and Jews. He posted a video after his meeting with Macron, saying he had urged the French president to “deal with” the murder of Sarah Halimi, 65, a French Jew who was killed and thrown from her Paris window in 2017. A French court ruled in December that the killer was “not criminally responsible” for his actions. French Jews are a small but growing constituency in Israel.
Some Holocaust survivors and their offspring took umbrage at the parade of dignitaries and the breathlessness with which their appearances were being covered in the Israeli news media.
Shoshana Chen, a survivor’s daughter, said in a radio interview that world leaders needed to do more than give lip service to fighting violence against Jews. “It’s not enough to say never again,” she said, adding: “The honorable Mr. Macron, what exactly is he doing to root out anti-Semitism in his country? Paris Jews are afraid to walk in the street.”