by: Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President
When work began on the Fifth World Holocaust Forum to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz–Birkenau death camp, organizers planned for 10 world leaders to be in attendance, 15 if the heavens smiled down on the event. Yet on January 23, 2020, delegations from 49 countries converged on Jerusalem for the biggest diplomatic gathering in Israel’s history. Even the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres paled in comparison to this assembly of foreign dignitaries.
The landmark event, titled “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-semitism,” was organized by the World Holocaust Forum Foundation in cooperation with Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust history museum in Jerusalem) and under the auspices of the president of the State of Israel. In a speech leading up to the event, President Reuven Rivlin spoke about the importance of the gathering, declaring, “We will come together to think about how to pass on Holocaust remembrance to generations who will live in a world without survivors, and what steps we must take to ensure the safety and security of Jews—all around the world.”
The group of foreign dignitaries comprised 41 heads of state, including US Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Britain’s Prince Charles and French President Emmanuel Macron. The list also included four kings and a few princes as well as leaders from Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Ukraine and Argentina and presidents of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament, to name a few.
As encouraging as the turnout of world leaders was, the logistics were more than a little challenging. Israeli officials worked frantically to cope with the demands of the event, closing the airport and highways as well as streets for motorcades, setting no fly zones over hotels and key venues and calling up retired diplomatic personnel to help manage what existing protocol officers were too overwhelmed to deal with.
The King David Hotel was completely booked for the event, decked out with the flags of every country on the reservation list. Hotel employees saw to the needs of three kings and two crown princes, six presidents and a governor-general as well as their senior aides, bodyguards and tasters. They were charged with making sure such esteemed guests were comfortable and well fed while hosting at least twenty separate events for various delegations. Those who waited too long to confirm—like the US delegation—found themselves roughing it at David’s Citadel or the Crowne Plaza. All the while, some 29,000 Israeli police and security personnel made sure that every delegate was, above all, safe.
The event began with a state dinner, the likes of which have never been seen or perhaps even imagined in Israel. King Felipe VI of Spain opened the evening with an address in which he challenged world leaders to show an “unyielding commitment to fighting the ignorant intolerance, hatred and the total lack of 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.”
The evening included remarks from Israel’s foremost Holocaust authority, 95-year-old Yehuda Bauer. He challenged the assembled leaders with a view of history that should inform the present in order to secure the future. “The war…caused some 35 million dead in Europe alone, of whom some 5.6 to 5.7 million were Jews…But some 29 million were non-Jews from Europe and North America who died, in large part, because of the hatred of Jews.”*
“Anti-Semitism is not a Jewish illness,” Bauer continued, “but a non-Jewish one. 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. Not because of the Jews, but to protect your societies from this deadly cancer.” To a standing ovation Bauer concluded, “Don’t you think that 29 million reasons are enough?”
The following day, a three-hour memorial ceremony at Yad Vashem saw the leaders gathered again to hear from such dignitaries as Rivlin, Macron, Pence, Prince Charles, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeir, Putin, former Chief Rabbi and Holocaust survivor Israel Meir Lau and Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev. Interspersed with other speeches, musical interludes and short clips about the Holocaust, memorial torches were lit, wreathes were laid and Kaddish (ancient Jewish prayer of affirmation of faith in God recited by mourners) was said, with the event coming to a close with the playing of the Jewish national anthem, Hatikvah (“The Hope”).
After the event, meetings abounded. Prime Minster Netanyahu met with Pence at the US embassy in Jerusalem, followed by a meeting with Putin, who then headed to Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Prince Charles planted a tree at the president’s residence before making his way to Bethlehem as well. Macron met with French citizens living in Israel, and the Australian governor-general also used the occasion to meet with Abbas.
So as the dust settles, the question remains: was all the pomp and circumstance really worth it? Many say yes. Never has Israel experienced such support from and solidarity with the international community, and never before has the world heard such a united global voice against the evil of anti-Semitism. Great Britain, Germany, France and the US have all taken firm, legislative action against anti-Semitism as a hate crime and against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Although statistics make it clear that anti-Semitism is on the rise virtually everywhere and polls show that in many countries it has become normalized, such a convergence of world leaders gives hope that change just might be possible.
President Rivlin expressed such optimism in his closing remarks: “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 together in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and extremism in defending our democracies and democratic values. This is the call of our time.” From his lips to God’s ears.
*The death toll for World War II varies, with some experts estimating the number of casualties in Europe as high as 50 million.
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