For the first time in its history, the United Nations allowed a prayer service on its premises. But perhaps even more surprising was the prayer itself — the Jewish hymn for martyrs — followed by the Israeli national anthem. Sandwiched between a special U.N. General Assembly session marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the launch of an in-house exhibit commemorating that liberation, the prayer signaled the lengths to which the international body has gone this year to mark the Holocaust.
“The tragedy of the Jewish people was unique,” U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said at the special session Monday morning, leading a slew of speeches from diplomats and dignitaries.
“We must be on the watch for any revival of anti-Semitism and ready to act against the new forms of it that are happening today,” Annan said, warning against “all ideologies based on hatred and exclusion.”
Israeli and Jewish officials lauded the session and hoped that it would prove to be a watershed in the world body’s traditionally anti-Israel attitude.
“This is an historic day,” said Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York.
“What will happen next we will wait and see,” he said. “I hope that this is a turning point.”
Annan took a leading role in lobbying for Monday’s session, which Israel had requested. He is the first U.N. secretary-general to place the Holocaust in a Jewish context, said Eve Epstein, vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
A movement is afoot to have a permanent Holocaust memorial at the United Nations, Epstein said.
Monday’s session comes after the United Nations held its first major conference to address growing worldwide anti-Semitism in June.
At that time Annan addressed a crowd composed mostly of Jews and vowed to fight anti-Semitism. His resolve was bolstered by the principle that the United Nations — like Israel — was formed out of the ashes of World War II and the Holocaust.
For some in attendance, Monday’s General Assembly session demonstrates the progress the United Nations has made since June. The session won written support from 152 of the United Nation’s 191 member states and the room was roughly half full for the session, with most countries represented.
But others wonder whether a lasting connection will be made between the anti-Semitism of the past and what many consider a present-day manifestation in the form of intense anti-Zionism.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom used his speech Monday to connect the issues, as did an Italian representative.
“The question is will Kofi Annan take the next step” and support a resolution when the victims of anti-Semitism are Israeli, asked Anne Bayefsky, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and visiting professor at Touro and Metropolitan Colleges in New York.
Bayefsky wondered about the session’s lasting impact, given the lack of any formal declaration or resolution. Still, she noted, “It’s important that in the depths of the United Nations, people remember the Holocaust.”
Jewish officials and Holocaust survivors in the audience Monday were hopeful and inspired.
“For me today, to be here at the United Nations, essentially representing my parents, who are no longer alive, and the murdered members of my family, is a tremendously emotional moment,” said Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Holocaust Survivors.
“We are at a critical stage of history, because this is a moment of the transfer of memory” from one generation to the next, he added.
Documenting the Holocaust in the halls of the United Nations is a major victory against those who deny that the massacre happened, he said.
“It’s about time the U.N. will stand against evil,” said Gila Almagor, an Israeli actress and author who attended the event as a guest of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Almagor’s mother survived the Holocaust but spent her life in and out of mental institutions. Consumed with guilt that she survived while her 13 siblings all perished, Almagor’s mother constantly wrote numbers on her arms, simulating the tattoos burned into the forearms of concentration camp victims.
U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, also played a role in bringing about Monday’s session by lobbying for Annan’s support.
After the morning session and before speaking to a B’nai B’rith-sponsored panel on the Holocaust, Lantos spoke with JTA.
“I am delighted with this session because it enables countries that wanted to focus attention on this issue to have a forum,” and draws attention to discrimination against Jews and the Jewish state, said Lantos, who wrote legislation requiring the U.S. government to report incidents of anti-Semitism.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel prize laureate Elie Wiesel also addressed the session.
“Sixty years later you may ask, why so late?” Wiesel said. “It’s not too late for today’s children. It is for their sake alone that we bear witness.”
“I imagine you know what it would have meant to many of us in those years to realize that the world listened.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.