World leaders gather in Jerusalem for Holocaust memorial, but Poland absent after diplomatic spat

Israel has said Thursday's gathering to mark 75th anniversary of liberation of Auschwitz is its largest-ever political event

Bel Trew
Thursday 23 January 2020 09:45 GMT
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (front L) looks behind him as he stands next to (L to R) French President Emmanuel Macron (front-2nd L), his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin, and German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as they pose with other heads of state
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (front L) looks behind him as he stands next to (L to R) French President Emmanuel Macron (front-2nd L), his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin, and German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as they pose with other heads of state

Dozens of world leaders, including Prince Charles, President Vladimir Putin and US Vice President Mike Pence, gathered in Jerusalem on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp in what Israel has billed as its biggest ever international event.

Delegations from nearly 50 countries, including 41 heads of states, congregated Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre for the fifth World Holocaust Forum to remember more than one million people, most of them Jews, who were held and murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

There Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the attendees and the world to help battle a rising tide of anti-semitism. Mr Netanyahu used his speech to highlight the Iranian leadership, calling it "the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet" and "the tyrants of Tehran".

Prince Charles was among those who spoke alongside Mr Putin, Mr Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. His attendance is the highest-level official visit by a member of the British monarchy to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Paying homage to his grandmother, Princess Alice who sheltered Jews in Nazi-occupied Greece, Prince Charles warned that "hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart", but society must remain "resolute in resisting words and acts of violence".

​Notably absent from the proceedings however is Andrzej Duda, the president of Poland, where Auschwitz-Birkenau was built during the Nazi occupation of the country.

Mr Duda declined an invite amid disputes with both Russia and more recently Israel.

In an interview with The Times of Israel Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum also accused the forum’s organisers of trying to replace an annual ceremony in Poland.

Poland will host its own commemorative event at the Museum on 27 January.

Nazi Germany systematically murdered more than a million people in Auschwitz. Located in German-occupied Poland it was the largest of the Nazi death camps holding over 1 million Jews and 200,000 Poles, Russians and others.

Despite the diplomatic tensions, President Israeli President Reuven Rivlin pressed ahead with the events, hosting visiting leaders on Wednesday evening at his official residence where he raised the issue of rising anti-semitism in the US and Europe.

He reiterated those words in his speech on Thursday.

Calling anti-Semitism and racism a "malignant disease,' he added that "no democracy is immune."

US Vice President Mike Pence echoed Mr Netanyahu's speech and in an emotional speech called on world leaders to confront Iran.

"In that same spirit, we must also stand strong against the leading state purveyor of anti-Semitism, against the one government in the world that denies the Holocaust as a matter of state policy and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The world must stand strong against the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said.

The German president Steinmeier expressed his "deepest sorrow" for the Holocaust while warning that the "spirits of evil" are re-emerging in the form of modern anti-Semitism.

"I wish I could say that we Germans have learnt from history once and for all. But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading."

A global survey by the US-based Anti-Defamation League in November found that global anti-semitic attitudes had increased, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe, over the last several years.

The damning report also found that large percentages of people in many European countries think the Jewish population talk too much about the Holocaust.

Among the sombre events which took place on Thursday was the dedication of a monument honouring the veterans and victims of the siege of Leningrad.

The presidents of Italy and Ukraine were in attendance alongside the Kings of Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Some 10,000 Israeli police officers were deployed to the streets Thursday morning with swathes of the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv closed as world leaders touched down.

The event has, however, dredged up unresolved issues from the Second World War as well as tensions within the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Duda turned down an invitation to the conference, expressing anger that Poland would not be permitted to speak alongside the representatives of Russia, France, Britain, the United States and Germany.

Israeli organisers had said only the four World War Two allies, and Germany, would address the gathering.

Comments Mr Putin made last month suggesting Poland shared responsibility for the war have also angered the Polish leadership.

The Polish government have argued that Poland was a victim of World War Two: 90 per cent of Polish Jews were killed by the Nazi occupiers.

US Vice President Mike Pence (L) and his wife Karen disembark from a plane upon their arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport to attend the World Holocaust memorial

"Above all, we are asking that the memory of the Holocaust, that terrible crime, the memory of its victims, is not exploited for political reasons," Poland's deputy foreign minister, Szymon Szynkowski vel SÄk, said on Tuesday. “That would be vile."

Meanwhile, President Rivlin has alluded to an upcoming probe by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into alleged war crimes committed within the occupied Palestinian Territories during events surrounding the forum.

In public remarks at a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on 22 January, President Rivlin said Israel “will not accept claims against the implementation of our right and duty to protect ourselves,” an apparent reference to the ICC war-crimes complaint.

In Jerusalem, Israeli media speculated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would also use several planned meetings to raise the same issue.

Left-leaning daily Haaretz reported that Netanyahu intended to urge state leaders to back Israeli efforts to prevent the ICC probe taking place as well as to take a tougher stand against arch-enemy Iran.

Mr Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival after he was indicted on corruption charges just ahead of a 2 March election, Israel’s third ballot in less than a year.

Some Israeli commentators therefore, criticised the forum, saying the political dimension and lavishness of the gatherings “cheapened” and “exploited” the horrific events of the Holocaust.

In a column in Israel’s largest daily Yediot Ahronot, Shoshana Chen, the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, slammed the gala dinner at the presidential residence, citing the reports of skeletal survivors liberated at the concentration camps.

Other writers referenced a cocktail and live music event that mayor of Jerusalem, Moshe Lion, organised for foreign journalists covering the Holocaust commemoration which included an “after-party” at a tourist site in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem

Writing in Haaretz, columnist Uri Misgav said, “World leaders are flown here… and between the cocktails and after-party and lip-service to the memory of the Holocaust, an attempt is made to recruit them for the struggle against the ICC in the Hague.”

Several leaders including Prince Charles used their trips to visit both Israel and the Palestinian leadership.

French President Emmanuel Macron met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday and discussed the prospect of peace in the Middle East. He also met Mr Netanyahu and discussed the region.

Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that runs Gaza, was quick to slam the event saying that world leaders will attend the Holocaust memorial ceremony “while the Israeli occupation has been inflicting all forms of racism and committing heinous crimes against the Palestinian people".

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