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Behind the Headlines on Holocaust Memorial Day, at Least, Israel Feels Popular at the U.N.


Israel’s United Nations delegation usually visits the towering General Assembly hall en masse only to fend off the latest accusation of wrongdoing.

So it must have felt bizarre for Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman to have to pause for applause more than a half-dozen times in the course of an address.

But Monday was no ordinary business day at U.N. headquarters. Hundreds of Holocaust survivors and their families gathered at the world body for its second annual day commemorating victims of the Shoah.

"I vow that as long as there is an Israel and I vow that forever there will be an Israel you are not alone," Gillerman told survivors, his voice rising. "You are safe. And today, here in this hall and around the world, the whole of the civilized world is vowing this vow together with you."

"As long as there is a United Nations, Israel is not alone," responded the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for communications and public information, Shashi Tharoor, who presided over Monday’s event.

The reversal of normal U.N. proceedings was near total. Where most deliberations are conducted with excessive formality in a half-empty chamber, Monday’s highly emotional commemoration was filled beyond capacity and featured musical selections by a local yeshiva choir and the recitation of El Moleh Rachamim and the Mourner’s Kaddish by a noted New York cantor.

Many men wore yarmulkes, wisps of Yiddish and Hebrew could be heard above the din, and a bearded Chabad rabbi roamed the hall searching for men willing to don tefillin.

Survivors sat at the central tables normally reserved for U.N. ambassadors, while the envoys filled seats around the perimeter designated for non-voting observers. A Jewish nongovernmental organization occupied the space reserved for the Palestinian delegation.

"The Holocaust was a unique and undeniable tragedy," said the new U.N. secretary-general, South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon, in videotaped remarks.

Ban was en route to Addis Ababa for a summit of the African Union where, he said, ending the violence in Darfur would be high on the agenda a comment that drew applause from the survivors.

For those on hand Monday, the event was more proof of the U.N.’s growing recognition of the significance of the Holocaust. But it also provided fodder for critics of the United Nations who charge that the organization is more comfortable honoring dead Jews than with protecting live ones.

Speakers invoked the various themes typical of Holocaust memorials: the duty to remember, the condemnation of Holocaust denial, the importance of education and the vows of "Never again."

Efforts were made as well to broaden the memorial to include other victims of the Nazis, including homosexuals, gypsies and the disabled.

Thomas Schindlmayr, who works on disability issues for the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, told the assembly that the disabled still suffer at the hands of societies that deem them less worthy than their more able-bodied peers.

Representatives of the Roma and Sinti, gypsy communities who with 12 million members make up Europe’s largest minority, held a press conference at U.N. headquarters to condemn the discrimination they face, particularly in Eastern Europe.

But the central theme of the day was the fate of the Jews, whose mass murder was noted in the 2005 General Assembly resolution establishing the Holocaust commemoration.

Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and first president of the European Parliament, in her keynote address recalled how she survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

Marie Noel, a student at St. Elizabeth College in New Jersey, described her recent visit to concentration camps in Poland.

"I saw, I smelled, I touched and I felt," she said.

At a side event on Holocaust denial organized by B’nai B’rith International, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) lashed out at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Hastings called for Ahmadinejad to speak with Holocaust survivors and visit Israel’s national Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.

"We should not tolerate this fool, and we should all call him out, in the vernacular of today’s young people," Hastings said. "It offends me personally, as it should the rest of society."

The International Day of Commemoration of the Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust was established in November 2005 by the U.N. General Assembly.

This year’s commemoration, observed two days after the designated date of Jan. 27, is the centerpiece of a weeklong series of events that includes an art exhibition, a lecture, two film screenings and the publication of a discussion paper by Yale University professor Ben Kiernan.

It also comes on the heels of a resolution, introduced by the United States and co-sponsored by 103 nations, calling on countries "unreservedly to reject any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part, or any activities to this end."

The measure was adopted last Friday by consensus, with only Iran disassociating itself, calling the move a "hypocritical political exercise" intended to deflect attention from Israel’s "atrocious" crimes.

While most speakers that day did not name Iran as the inspiration for the resolution, Israel’s representative was not as circumspect.

Four paragraphs into his prepared remarks, Gillerman noted that while the international community had recognized the universality of the Holocaust, some countries remained intent on denying it.

"While the nations of the world gather here to affirm the historicity of the Holocaust with the intent of never again allowing genocide, a member of this assembly is acquiring the capabilities to carry out its own," Gillerman said.

"The president of Iran is in fact saying: ‘There really was no Holocaust, but just in case, we shall finish the job.’ "

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