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President Reuven Rivlin seen visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on February 4, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90 shows President Reuven Rivlin visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on February 4, 2019
Exclusive'Racist politicians have no place in the family of nations'

Don’t rehabilitate anti-Semitism, Rivlin warns as European, world leaders fly in

In interview with Times of Israel ahead of major Auschwitz commemoration, president says world must guarantee Jews can live full, free Jewish lives: ‘We will never settle for less’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Main image by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90 shows President Reuven Rivlin visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on February 4, 2019

Ahead of a historic gathering of nearly 50 world leaders from across the globe to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, President Reuven Rivlin issued a carefully worded rebuke of countries distorting the memory of the Holocaust, and a warning against rehabilitating anti-Semitism.

In an exclusive interview with The Times of Israel, Rivlin, 80, appeared to chastise Eastern and Central European governments that glorify Nazi collaborators as national heroes and downplay their citizens’ complicity in anti-Jewish atrocities. At the same time, he slammed populist right-wing politicians in Europe who campaign on xenophobic and anti-Semitic platforms, in an apparent reference to parties such as Austria’s Freedom Party and German’s AfD.

Asked how he planned to deal with the sensitivities involved in hosting some of the very leaders whose handling of these issues critics find troubling, Rivlin replied: “History — good and bad — must never be forgotten. Anti-Semitism — as it was then and as it is today — must not be rehabilitated or glorified.

“Nothing will ever justify indifference or hesitance in the face of anti-Semitism. Its supporters, including politicians who hold anti-Semitic, racist or neo-Nazi views, will never be welcome partners in the family of nations,” he added.

The president is holding a state dinner Wednesday for the dozens of leaders coming to Jerusalem for the World Holocaust Forum, which takes place under the motto “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism.”

The guest list includes US Vice President Mike Pence, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Britain’s Prince Charles, and many more leaders from Romania, Italy, Austria, Greece, Cyprus, Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Finland, Bosnia, Iceland, Armenia, Australia, Canada and other nations.

Some of the world leaders expected at this week’s commemorations represent the main perpetrators of what critics call Holocaust distortion or revisionism, including the presidents of Hungary, Latvia and Ukraine, and the speaker of the Lithuanian parliament

Praising them for their participation, Rivlin said, “This is a strong, brave statement that resonates deeply and cannot be open to misinterpretation. Leaders from around the world are coming to stand against anti-Semitism. It is an incredible event, where the whole world sends a warning to anti-Semites.”

This week’s event is being co-organized by Rivlin’s office, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center and the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, which was founded by Moscow-born philanthropist and Jewish activist Moshe Kantor.

Some of the world leaders expected at this week’s commemorations represent the main perpetrators of what critics call Holocaust distortion or revisionism, including the presidents of Hungary, Latvia and Ukraine (Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda was scheduled to attend but on Tuesday unexpectedly announced that he would be sending the speaker of the parliament instead).

But their neighbor, Polish President Andrzej Duda, is boycotting this week’s Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, partially because he was not allowed to address the event, as opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Warsaw and Moscow are currently engaged in a bitter war of words over the onset of World War II, with Putin accusing Poland of having collaborated with the Nazis and Polish leaders in response highlighting the Soviet Union’s 1939 Treaty of Non-Aggression with Germany (known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact).

This was the scene in Moscow, August 23, 1939, after representatives of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia signed a ten-year non-agression pact. Shown from left to right are: Vyachesloff Molotov, Joseph Stalin, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Friedrich Gaus. (AP Photo)

Rivlin, who was born in Jerusalem exactly one week after World War II started with the German invasion of Poland, avoided direct answers to several Times of Israel questions about Duda’s decision to skip the gathering. He merely said that the Polish president had been invited to this week’s events in Jerusalem, and noted that he, Rivlin, would travel to Poland next week to participate in a memorial ceremony at Auschwitz, where he is “looking forward to meeting” Duda.

A spokesperson for the Polish embassy in Tel Aviv rebuffed the idea that any particular effort had been made to convince him to come, telling The Times of Israel: “We are not aware of any official invitation from the office of President Rivlin for President Duda to speak.”

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, left, and Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, center, walk in the March of the Living, a yearly Holocaust remembrance march between the former death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, on Thursday, April 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Earlier this month, Duda said that he had been “astounded” to be invited to Jerusalem for an event to commemorate the 75th liberation of Auschwitz, and that the site of the former death camp was the fitting venue for such an event

“Deep within my soul I believe that this is the appropriate place, the best one,” he told Jewish leaders in Warsaw. “I believe that one must not deprive this place of its remembrance by transferring it somewhere else and by stressing somewhere else what happened more than 75 years ago and what took place over that period.”

Why is the event in Jerusalem and not in Auschwitz?

In the interview, which was conducted via email, Rivlin addressed at considerable length his reasoning behind organizing a massive ceremony commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz in the Israeli capital.

It is a fallacy to believe that the Jewish state derives its legitimacy from the Holocaust, he argued. “My ancestors, who came from Lithuania in 1809 with the blessing of the Gaon of Vilna, did not do so from fear of persecution but from love of Israel.”

Rather, he elaborated, “The connection between Auschwitz of 1945 and Israel of 2020 is the connection between remembrance and promise.”

He went on, “It is a promise to look forward, to learn the bitter lessons of history and to work together to fight the anti-Semitism, racism and hatred that threaten to erode our democratic foundations today.”

This is our demand — protect the Jews, fight anti-Semitism and invest in education

Today, global Jew-hatred is on the rise, the president said. “We see its sights and we hear its voices in synagogues, on the streets, online and in parliamentary chambers. We must be aware of its danger. This is the reason that the 5th World Holocaust Forum is meeting in Jerusalem.”

The idea behind holding the event in the Israeli capital is to advance the fight against anti-Semitism and to encourage discussions of the Holocaust — “not to replace established ceremonies and traditions,” he stressed.

Rivlin further said he hoped this week’s events would lead the foreign dignitaries in attendance to adopt the anti-Semitism definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, which includes the targeting of Israel.

“We expect that countries will invest in educating their young people, and in concrete and active steps to ensure full and free Jewish life,” Rivlin said. “This is our demand — protect the Jews, fight anti-Semitism and invest in education. It is also important that countries join IHRA, adopt its definition of anti-Semitism and make efforts to work according to it.”

A Jewish emergency crew and police officers at the site of the mass shooting at the Tree Of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 28, 2018 (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images via JTA)

Rivlin also affirmed Israel’s abiding commitment to Diaspora Jews, but stressed that it was their home countries that need to ensure their physical safety.

“We stand with the global Jewish community. They are our brothers and sisters; we are family,” he said.

“Their safety and security are first and foremost the responsibility of their home countries, which must ensure that they are able to live full and free Jewish lives. This is what we demand of leaders around the world. We will never compromise on this and we will never settle for less.”

Here is a full transcript of our interview:

The Times of Israel: Mr. President, more than 40 top officials from across the world, including dozens of heads of state and a few kings, are coming to Jerusalem for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at your invitation. Were you surprised at the overwhelming response to your call?

President Reuven Rivlin: We gather together to honor the memories of the victims of the Holocaust, still scarcely able to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy. We also stand together to confront anti-Semitism today and to ensure future generations will stand together, united in the common goal of ensuring humanity never again turns its fury and hatred on us or any other community.

It is an honor to host so many leaders here in Jerusalem and I thank them from the bottom of my heart for their solidarity.

Preparations under way at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on January 20, 2020, for a state dinner for world leaders attending the World Holocaust Forum events marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. (Courtesy: Alon Fargo)

But, in truth, a leaders’ forum is only one aspect of the work ahead. It takes place in schools and on university campuses, in churches, mosques and synagogues, among historians and community workers, between men and women, young and old, everywhere and in every setting.

The Zionist movement existed long before the Holocaust; Israeli officials often say the Nazi genocide of European Jews should not be seen as the basis for Israel’s right to exist. Why did you think it was appropriate to have the main ceremony for this year’s anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz take place in Jerusalem, and not where it actually happened?

There are those who think, in error, that the State of Israel is a kind of compensation for the Holocaust. No mistake could be more grievous. The State of Israel was established by right, based in love and yearning for our ancient homeland, and by the realization of a dream. Its roots are not the threat of extermination, and not the hatred of others.

My ancestors, who came from Lithuania in 1809 with the blessing of the Gaon of Vilna, did not do so from fear of persecution but from love of Israel. The connection between Auschwitz of 1945 and Israel of 2020 is the connection between remembrance and promise.

It is a promise to look forward to learn the bitter lessons of history and to work together to fight the anti-Semitism, racism and hatred that threaten to erode our democratic foundations today.

A society that fails to fight the anti-Semitism within it, including allocating the required resources to ensure safe Jewish life, is a sick society

To our great regret, we see anti-Semitism raise its head once again around the world. We see its sights and we hear its voices in synagogues, on the streets, online and in parliamentary chambers. We must be aware of its danger. This is the reason that the 5th World Holocaust Forum is meeting in Jerusalem.

Its aim is to advance the fight against anti-Semitism and to encourage discussion of the Holocaust — not to replace established ceremonies and traditions. The State of Israel and the Jewish people will always honor the International Holocaust Remembrance Day events held in Poland, and I will participate in them this year as president of Israel.

This photograph taken on December 15, 2019, in Oswiecim, Poland, shows an aerial view of the railway entrance to former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz II – Birkenau with its SS guards tower. (Pablo GONZALEZ / AFP)

This year’s World Holocaust Forum is entitled “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism.” What exactly do you expect to come out of the event, in terms of concrete policy measures? Will you urge participating countries to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, or to advance legislation to ban the anti-Israel boycott movement, to declare that anti-Zionism is a form of Jew hatred, to outlaw Hezbollah, or anything of the sort? Will organizers attempt to issue a joint statement on the topic of Holocaust remembrance after the event?

The fact that they are here is a powerful statement in itself. Beyond that, it is education, education and education that will make a difference. We expect that countries will invest in educating their young people, and in concrete and active steps to ensure full and free Jewish life.

This is our demand — protect the Jews, fight anti-Semitism and invest in education. It is also important that countries join IHRA, adopt its definition of anti-Semitism and make efforts to work according to it.

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda announced that he is skipping the forum because, as opposed to leaders from the US, Russia, France, the UK and Germany, he was not allowed to speak. How worried are you that his well-publicized absence — some called it a boycott — will dominate the headlines from the event?

President Duda of Poland was invited to this week’s events. Next week, I will be traveling to Poland and participating in the ceremony at Auschwitz, where he will be speaking, which marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And I am looking forward to meeting him.

[At this point, the president declined to answer two follow-up questions on the matter of the Polish controversy.]

Holocaust survivor Edward Mossberg (left) with Polish president Andrzej Duda (center) and Israeli president Reuven Rivlin (right) at a ceremony in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, as Israel marked annual Holocaust Memorial Day, on April 12, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Some governments in Central and Eastern Europe have in recent years engaged in what critics call Holocaust distortion. Some of the leaders you are going to welcome in Jerusalem have glorified Nazi collaborators as national heroes and are denying or downplaying their own citizens’ complicity in anti-Jewish atrocities. How do you plan to address this sensitive issue?

History — good and bad — must never be forgotten. Anti-Semitism — as it was then and as it is today — must not be rehabilitated or glorified. Nothing will ever justify indifference or hesitance in the face of antisemitism. Its supporters, including politicians, who hold antisemitic, racist or neo-Nazi views will never be welcome partners in the family of nations.

I would like to express my appreciation to those who have come here. This is a strong, brave, statement that resonates deeply and cannot be open to misinterpretation.

Leaders from around the world are coming to stand against anti-Semitism. It is an incredible event, where the whole world sends a warning to anti-Semites.

Illustrative image of neo-Nazi graffiti in Dresden, Germany. (CC BY Kalispera Dell, Wikimedia commons)

Israeli Jews understandably feel a deep solidarity with their co-religionists in the Diaspora who are confronted with rising anti-Semitism. To what extent do you think the Israeli government is responsible for supporting them in their fight against Jew hatred, given that Jerusalem has limited resources and very tangible threats on its doorstep?

We stand with the global Jewish community. They are our brothers and sisters; we are family. Their safety and security are first and foremost the responsibility of their home countries, which must ensure that they are able to live full and free Jewish lives.

This is what we demand of leaders around the world. We will never compromise on this and we will never settle for less. This is reinforced by my belief that anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem alone.

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