World Leaders Gather in Jerusalem for Massive Shoah Forum, But Some Can’t Leave Politics Behind


Never before has Israel seen such a chorus saying “never again.”

Presidents, prime ministers, princes and kings are arriving by private jet in order to stand at Yad Vashem this week and mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.

Vice President Mike Pence was chosen to represent the U.S. Britain dispatched Prince Charles. Russia, France and Germany all sent their presidents.

With these and around 40 other world leaders choosing to mark the anniversary at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, which begins Thursday, Israel has taken a central role in the Auschwitz commemoration that, owing to the age of survivors, few expected to take place.

On Monday, Jan. 27, on the site of the former death camp, Poland will host what it considers the 75th anniversary’s main commemoration at the site of the former death camp, and is expected to attract big names. But while Pence is attending the forum in Israel, America is sending Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin to Poland.   

Prince Charles, first in line to the British throne, went to Jerusalem, but only his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, is slated to go to Poland. Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is going from Jerusalem to Auschwitz, as is Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin. By contrast, France’s President Emmanuel Macron will skip Poland after the forum in Jerusalem, and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe will go instead.

Delighted by their guest list, organizers of the Jerusalem event expect that it will be remembered as a watershed moment that changed attitudes towards anti-Semitism.

“We are building a global coalition of leaders who can send a strong message that will resonate around the world that anti-Semitism, in all its forms, is absolutely unacceptable,” said Moshe Kantor, the Jewish activist who has been the driving force behind the Jerusalem event.

Kantor, president of the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, said that the world needs a “holistic roadmap” to combat hate against Jews, “which is at its highest levels since the Holocaust and is causing many Jewish communities to fear for their future.”

The scenes in Jerusalem are sure to be remarkable. The visit of a single world leader can turn this city upside down and bring traffic to a standstill. Yet now, dozens will be arriving together.

So much disagreement is focused on this country, but so many leaders are meeting here to show consensus on a key moral issue of the present moment: anti-Semitism. And they are doing so after a year that has seen haunting anti-Semitic attacks, including the synagogue shootings in Poway, Calif., and Halle, Germany, and which has seen many anti-Semites invoke criticism of Israel to justify their claims.

The Holocaust Forum Foundation, a partnership of several Jewish defense and Holocaust commemoration groups that is organizing the event, has been reaching out to ensure its efforts have a wide impact. It mobilized more than 100 top celebrities with millions of Instagram followers to spread its message. It got the likes of rappers Snoop Dogg and Ludacris to post Instagram messages saying that anti-Semitism has gone on for too long and asking people to “stop this story.”

Bollywood star Vishal Singh, Iranian rapper Tohi and American sex therapist Ruth Westheimer joined the campaign. Westheimer took part in a video that used special effects to show how anti-Semitism continued long after she survived the Holocaust, and throughout her life.

Poland vs. Putin

But as well as highlighting widespread consensus on Holocaust commemoration and fighting anti-Semitism, the Jerusalem event also tells a story of disagreement — and how Israel can get caught in the crossfire when other countries fight.

Russia and Poland are at loggerheads over the Holocaust. Last month, Putin accused Poland of cooperating with Adolf Hitler and of anti-Semitism. “Essentially they colluded with Hitler,” he said, touching one of the rawest nerves possible in the Polish political establishment.

Poland has long been furious about Russia’s narrative over the Second World War, and its Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki hit back saying that the Nazis would not have taken control of Europe “without Stalin’s complicity in the partition of Poland.”

Israel found itself in a peculiar situation. The fact that Putin wasn’t welcome in Poland increased his interest in Jerusalem-based commemorations, boosting the profile of events being planned for Yad Vashem. On the other hand, Israel was stuck in the middle between Putin and Poland, and couldn’t manage to remain neutral as decisions needed to be made about who would speak. Putin got a spot on the list, but Polish President Andrzej Duda didn’t — and responded by cancelling his trip to Jerusalem.

Duda then proceeded to take a dig at the Jerusalem event, suggesting that the Polish-run commemoration event at Auschwitz on Monday — the anniversary of liberation — is the only legitimate event.

He said: “I think, and I have always thought, that these events marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day have to be at Auschwitz, and that is the place where it is most important to honor and commemorate Holocaust victims.”

These frictions are raising eyebrows among some Holocaust experts. Manuela Consonni told me that we are witnessing “a politicization of the memory of Auschwitz, more strongly than ever before.”

Consonni, director of Hebrew University’s Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study for Anti-Semitism, said of the commemoration season: “There’s no doubt this is meaningful; my question is whether it is related to memory as opposed to politics.”

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.