Almost 50 world leaders gathered in Jerusalem Thursday for the fifth World Holocaust Forum, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
The vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, was here. So, too, France’s President Emmanuel Macron. Prince Charles was in attendance, the heir to the British throne making his first official visit to Israel — a trip that, at any other time, would have dominated local headlines. Dozens of others leaders — kings, prime ministers, presidents et al — took their seats, too, for the Forum’s main event at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum.
And yet there was no doubting which international dignitary had the most formidable and dominant presence: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
Before the main event, Putin had already spoken at length, alongside Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a ceremony inaugurating a memorial to the up to 1.5 million soldiers and civilians who died in the nearly 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad, Putin’s hometown (now St. Petersburg). One of those victims was his own older brother, who died as a baby of disease.
From that ceremony in Sacher Park, at a memorial funded by two oligarchs from the former Soviet Union, the Israeli and Russian leaders made their journey through streets closed off for them to the main gathering at Yad Vashem, underwritten by the Russian billionaire Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress and driving force behind the World Holocaust Forum. But while Rivlin and Netanyahu took their seats before the proceedings began, Putin arrived a few minutes later, was introduced separately to the audience — and was escorted by Rivlin to his seat, where the other world leaders were waiting patiently.
The presidents of Poland and Lithuania had decided to stay away from the entire Forum: Poland’s Andrjez Duda was furious that he had not been invited to speak, and his Lithuanian counterpart Gitanas Nauseda was evidently of similar mind. Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky came to Jerusalem but skipped the Yad Vashem event, despite having assured this writer only a few days ago that he would attend, utilizing the transparent pretext that he and his delegation were giving up their seats for Holocaust survivors.
All three presidents were apparently wary that Putin would use the occasion to set out his Russian narrative of World War II and Holocaust responsibility, at their countries’ expense. With good reason.
Duda got his retaliation in first, in an op-ed he wrote on Thursday that blamed the war’s eve Nazi-Soviet partnership for the descent into horror: “We must also not forget that the last, decisive step leading towards World War II, the war without which there would have been no tragedy of the Holocaust, was the secret pact between Hitler and Stalin of August 23, 1939,” wrote Duda. “The agreement meant that Central and Eastern Europe were deprived of its freedom and sovereignty, and the ensuing close cooperation between the two totalitarian regimes lasted until the very last hours before the attack, which Nazi Germany launched on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The truth about the Holocaust must not die. It must not be distorted or used for any purpose.”
And, indeed, Putin did speak in terms that would have those leaders squirming uncomfortably and helplessly in their seats had they been in attendance. While highlighting the genocidal targeting of Jews in Hitler’s Final Solution, the imperative to remember, and the urgent need to counter the current soaring revival of anti-Semitism, Russia’s president also took time to declare that the brutal, genocidal Nazis “had accomplices whose cruelty often surpassed that of their masters.” He noted that “those death factories and concentration camps were operated not just by the Nazis but by their henchmen… from many European countries.” And he offered figures for the numbers of Jewish dead in several of those countries.
Only the Red Army put a stop to all those crimes, at the unthinkable cost, Putin said, of 20 million Soviet citizens’ lives lost.
Putin ended his speech with good wishes to all, including the citizens of Israel. He had been similarly gracious at the end of his Sacher Park address, putting his notes aside to express his personal appreciation for the way in which Israel had organized that ceremony.
Days of headlines
Not only did Putin dominate Thursday’s ceremonies, but he had also dominated the days before and will likely dominate the days after.
Israel is seeking the release of an American-Israeli woman, Na’ama Issachar, sentenced by Russia to a staggering 7.5 years after being found with 10 grams of marijuana in her backpack during a stopover in Moscow.
Hebrew media has been full of reports in recent days concerning the terms Israel may or may not have worked out with Russia for her release. A global gathering intended to honor six million Jewish Holocaust victims, and to work coherently to counter reviving anti-Semitism worldwide, has — however unthinkable this may sound — been largely overshadowed in much of Israel’s media coverage in the past week or two by reports on the fate of Issachar, and Putin’s willingness to resolve it.
On Thursday morning, he met with her mother Yaffa, and assured her that “everything will be okay.” The assumption is that Issachar will be released shortly, possibly pardoned, from a jail term to which she should self-evidently not have been sentenced in the first place — thanks to Putin’s munificent intervention.
The longer question is whether Putin’s centrality to Thursday’s events in Jerusalem will extend all the way to our third election inside 12 months, on March 2.
There can be no doubt that this unprecedented gathering of dozens of world leaders represents a boost for Israel’s legally embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His speech at Thursday’s Yad Vashem ceremony was characteristically powerful and articulate — an indictment of the world’s abandonment of the Jews in the Nazi era, and a stirring assertion of modern Israel’s need and ability to protect the Jewish people today.
The ease with which Netanyahu circulates among the world’s leaders is widely admired in Israel. The confidence with which he sets out Israel’s cause and case is widely appreciated.
Through Wednesday and Thursday, Netanyahu was to be seen in the company of the global leadership, addressing them formally, chatting with them lightly, and winning plaudits from many, notably including Putin.
By stark contrast, the man whose party actually outscored Netanyahu’s Likud in September, Benny Gantz, was a marginal presence, condemned to the sidelines — and, exactly like the president of Poland, denied the opportunity to address the Yad Vashem event.
That Vladimir Putin is the region’s new superstar — at center stage in Israel, and pulling strings in Lebanon, Syria, Iran and quite possibly Gaza too — was confirmed at Yad Vashem on Thursday.
Whether anything substantial will come of this gathering in terms of battling anti-Semitism, we may start to see in the weeks or months ahead.
Whether his warm embrace of Netanyahu will help the prime minister achieve what he narrowly failed to achieve last April and September, and decisively win an election, we will discover in less than six weeks’ time.