Welcoming a host of world leaders to his Jerusalem residence, President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday evening stressed the need to fight anti-Semitism and racism, and warned against meddling with the memory of the Holocaust.
Spain’s king told the gathering that “remembrance alone is unfortunately not enough” and “that barbarism can grow when least expected.” And a leading Israeli Holocaust historian underlined to the assembled dignitaries that anti-Semitism should not be viewed as a threat to Jews, but to Europe itself.
“Historical research should be left to historians,” Rivlin said at a state dinner attended by some 40 leaders from across the globe, who came to Israel to attend the World Holocaust Forum marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. “The role of political leaders is to shape the future.
“At a time when more and more survivors are leaving us, this gathering is an expression of our shared commitment, to pass on the historical facts and lessons of the Shoah, to the next generation,” he went on.
Rivlin’s remarks could be understood as a criticism of some Central and Eastern European governments, who have been engaged in what critics call Holocaust distortion. Some countries, such as Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine, have been accused of glorifying Nazi collaborators as national heroes, and of downplaying the role their citizens played in anti-Jewish atrocities.
His comments could also be seen as a jab at the recent spat between Russia and Poland, in which the countries have accused each other of partial responsibility for the war. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin claimed repeatedly in recent days that Poland’s wartime government sided with the Nazis and had a role in starting World War II. Poland’s President Duda canceled his participation in the forum in Israel this week, after his request to deliver an address alongside Putin’s address at Yad Vashem on Thursday was rejected.
Rivlin said the event he hosted was not only dedicated to the memory of victims of the Holocaust and World War II, but also marked “victory of freedom and human dignity.
“This is a historic gathering, not only for Israel and the Jewish people, but for all humanity,” he declared.
Addressing the gathered world leaders, who sat around a large U-shaped table, the president said that the future “lies in the choices we make” as countries and nations.
“I hope and pray that from this room, the message will go out to every country on earth that the leaders of the world will stand united in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and extremism, in defending democracy and democratic values. This is the call of our time. This is our challenge,”he added. “This is our choice.”
Leading Israeli Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer also addressed the event.
Bauer told the assembled leaders that anti-Semitism is not a threat to the Jews, but to Europe itself. He argued that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler embarked on World War II because of his belief that the Jews were controlling the world and had to be stopped.
In addition to the roughly six million Jewish dead, Bauer said, some 29 million European non-Jews were killed by the Nazi war machine. Anti-Semitism was not about the Jews, he concluded.
“There are 29 million reasons” to fight anti-Semitism, he said. “Don’t you think 29 million reasons are enough?”
Bauer made the same case in an interview with the Times of Israel published last week.
Spanish King Felipe addressed the gathering on behalf of the gathered world leaders.
“Forgetting the Shoah would not only dishonor the memory of millions of victims, but would also be extremely dangerous,” he said. The Spanish monarch warned that “remembrance alone is unfortunately not enough” and “that barbarism can grow when least expected.”
“We are never fully safe from it, and in different degrees, we still see it today hitting hard in different parts of our world,” he said.
Noting growing anti-Semitism in numerous countries, King Felipe said world leaders were not in Jerusalem only to honor those who survived the Holocaust.
“We are also here — perhaps primarily — to show our unyielding commitment in bringing all the necessary efforts of our respective countries in order to fight the ignorant intolerance, hatred, and the total lack of human empathy that permitted and gave birth to the Holocaust,” he said.
“Never again,” he said, repeating the phrase in Hebrew: “Le’olam lo od.”
Beside world leaders, the dinner was attended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, de-facto opposition leader Benny Gantz and other Israeli VIPs — such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi.
Netanyahu sat next to King Felipe and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Before the gathering began, Netanyahu chatted with a number of world leaders, including about Israel’s ongoing political deadlock.
“Three elections in one year. But I think I can do it,” he told Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen.
For space reasons, the heads of the foreign delegations were asked to bring only one guest each — in most cases, a chief of staff or a senior adviser — with no spouses allowed. The plus-ones sat in a tent erected specifically for that purpose.
In preparation for the dinner, 150 steel and wooden beams, 400 square meters of flooring, 240 items of furniture, 800 candles and countless heaters were installed throughout the highly secured premises.
In between courses, Israeli singers David D’Or, Miri Mesika, and Amir Benayoun performed “The Last Survivor,” a song written by Moshe Klughaft and composed several years ago by Amir Benayoun on the occasion of a Knesset delegation to Auschwitz.
Shlomi Shaban performed a special arrangement of “Dance Me to the End of Love,” by Leonard Cohen, accompanied by Vladimir Reider of the Israeli Chamber Orchestra, who played a violin that survived the Holocaust.
After dessert, the world leaders took a group picture and headed back to their respective hotels.