It was meant to be a rather small summit, but it turned into the largest diplomatic event in the history of the State of Israel.
When Israeli officials first started planning for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum to commemorate the 75th liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, they estimated that 10 or perhaps 15 world leaders or top dignitaries would attend, Harel Tubi, the director-general of the President’s Residence, recalled this week.
“We thought that number would be a success. But now we’re happy to welcome more than 45 leaders to Jerusalem.”
In fact, delegations from 49 countries, including 41 heads of state, are expected to attend the Forum this week, which will be secured by some 10,000 police. Israeli diplomats said that not even the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres drew groups of foreign dignitaries like the ones attending this week’s Holocaust commemoration.
US Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Britain’s Prince Charles and French President Emmanuel Macron are the most prominent names on the long list of attendees, which also includes four kings and many leaders from such countries as Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Ukraine and Argentina, as well as the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament.
“I welcome the leaders from around the world who are coming here, to Jerusalem, to mark — together with us — 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday afternoon, as the first VIPs arrived at Ben Gurion Airport.
“It is important that they remember where we came from, and it is important that they see where we have gone.”
I welcome the leaders from around the world who are coming here, to Jerusalem, to mark with us 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp.
It is important that they remember where we came from, and it is important that they see what we have achieved. pic.twitter.com/8kX9ubTejO
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) January 21, 2020
The event, headlined “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism,” is co-organized by the office of President Reuven Rivlin, 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.
The Forum consists of two main parts — a state dinner at Rivlin’s official residence on Wednesday night and the actual memorial ceremony at Yad Vashem on Thursday — but there are also various noteworthy side events attended by the prominent guests.
Honoring the memory of the Holocaust and vowing to combat the hatred of Jews are consensus issues, but an event of this magnitude also has its fair share of controversies: How come this ceremony is taking place in Jerusalem and not in Auschwitz? Why did organizers not allow the Polish president to speak? Will Putin use the occasion to further push his accusation that Poland collaborated with the Nazis? Will he announce the release of Israeli backpacker Naama Issachar from Russian prison? And why did Holocaust survivors get so few tickets?
Everything you need to know about the mega-event
Australia’s Governor General David Hurley on Monday became the first foreign head of state to land in Israel — exactly one week before the actual date of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.
Over the course of the next day, about a dozen more leaders arrived. All of them were greeted at the airport by Foreign Ministry officials and bouquets of blue and white flowers. Some headed straight to the President’s Residence for working meetings with Rivlin, including the presidents of Portugal, Romania, Georgia.
At around 11 p.m. Tuesday, France’s Macron touched down in Tel Aviv, where he was greeted by Foreign Minister Israel Katz.
The French president was scheduled to meet with Netanyahu and Rivlin on Wednesday morning. He will also sit with Israel’s unofficial opposition leader, Blue and White party head Benny Gantz.
Throughout Wednesday, the prime minister and the president will meet with a battery of foreign dignitaries. Particularly interesting could be Netanyahu’s chat with Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives.
הכנות במעון רה"מ לקראת פגישת ראש הממשלה נתניהו עם נשיא צרפת מקרון. pic.twitter.com/br2HiC3JJ3
— ראש ממשלת ישראל (@IsraeliPM_heb) January 22, 2020
Pelosi, who was instrumental in the impeachment of President Donald Trump, is arriving here with a self-declared bipartisan Congressional delegation, consisting of seven Democrats (including Elliot Engel, Nita Lowey, Ted Deutsch, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Brad Schneider) and a sole Republican (Joe Wilson, of South Carolina).
At 6:30 p.m., the world leaders will gather at the President’s Residence for an “official reception and dinner.” In all, 250 guests will attend the event, served by 200 waiters and staff.
For space reasons, the heads of the foreign delegations were asked to bring only one guest — in most cases, a chief of staff or a senior adviser — with no spouses allowed. The plus-ones will sit in a tent erected specifically for this purpose last week. The leaders’ security personnel will be hosted in a third tent.
In preparation of the dinner — which will be filmed by five cameras and broadcast live — 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.
The preparations at Beit HaNasi are well underway, and we are looking forward to welcoming you – kings, princes, presidents, prime ministers and honored guests.
— Reuven Rivlin (@PresidentRuvi) January 20, 2020
The dignitaries themselves will sit at a U-shaped table in the main reception hall, which has deen decorated with the flags of all the participating nations. They will be joined by Rivlin, Netanyahu, Gantz and other Israeli VIPs — such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi.
The President’s Residence has yet to release the seating arrangements. But no, there is no chance that Putin will sit next to Pence; in fact, neither will be present at the dinner, because both are only arriving Thursday morning.
The US will be represented by Pelosi and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. For Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is set to attend.
There will only be three speakers at the dinner: Rivlin himself will welcome his guests; Spanish King Felipe will speak on behalf of the world leaders; and leading Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer will deliver an 11-minute lecture on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust (for a preview of his remarks, see our recent interview with him here).
What’s on the menu? Rivlin’s aides merely said that guests will be treated to “typical Israeli dishes that have been specially adapted for the event and will bring the best of Israeli produce to the table.” In fact, the first course will be sea bream and the main course will be a beef dish (although Rivlin himself is a vegetarian).
There will also be musical interludes. Israeli singers David D’Or, Miri Mesika and Amir Benayoun will perform “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 will perform a special arrangement of “Dance Me to the End of Love,” by Leonard Cohen, accompanied by Vladimir Reider of the Israeli Chamber Orchestra, who will be playing a violin that survived the Holocaust.
After dessert, the world leaders will take a group picture and head back to their hotels.
On Thursday morning, less than an hour apart, Putin and Pence are set to land at Ben Gurion.
The Russian president — who is the only world leader whose trip, short though it may be, is formally considered a “bilateral visit” and not merely a visit to attend the Holocaust Forum — will head straight to Jerusalem for quick meetings with Rivlin and Netanyahu.
All three of them are then set to attend a dedication ceremony for the “Monument in Memory of the Heroism and the Soldiers and Residents who were Killed During the Siege of Leningrad in WWII,” in the capital’s Sacher Park.
The monument was created by a team of artists from Israel and Russia, architect Udi Kasif, sculptor Adam Peretz, architect Anatoly Wlada Chernov and Ladislav Manchinski.
It is 8.5 meters tall, made of copper and cast bronze “to represent the flame of the candle,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement issued Tuesday.
“The movement of the flame finds expression in the form of a lit spiral at night to create the special effect of a perpetual flame.”
Several artists will perform songs for the approximately 600 people expected to attend the event, in Russian and Hebrew, including the St. Petersburg Opera choir, opera singer Vassily Geralo and a choir of Israeli Red Army veterans.
About 100 Russian journalists are traveling to Israel to cover the monument’s unveiling and Putin’s speech.
The other world leaders are spending their free time with various activities.
Macron, for instance, will first attend a ceremony at the memorial to Jews deported from France in Moshav Roglit and then host a reception for French citizens living in Israel at Jerusalem’s International Conference Center.
Prince Charles will plant an English oak tree in the garden of the President’s Residence. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, meanwhile, is meeting senior Israel Electric Corporation official Yosi Shneck and, separately, a group of Czech Holocaust survivors.
At 1:15 p.m. Thursday, the main memorial ceremony starts at Yad Vashem Warsaw Ghetto Square. As opposed to the dinner the night before, the list of speakers is long and controversial. In addition to Netanyahu and Rivlin, Macron, Putin, Pence, Prince Charles and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will address the gathering. (The seating arrangement has not been published, but it’s indeed possible that the Russian president will sit in close proximity to the American VP.)
Over 45 world leaders are to convene at Yad Vashem under the banner "Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism"
23 January 2020
06:30 EDT pic.twitter.com/VaUCsMid9J
— Yad Vashem (@yadvashem) January 19, 2020
Much ink has been spilled over the decision of Polish President Andrzej Duda to boycott the event because Putin was invited to speak and he wasn’t. After all, Duda argued, Auschwitz was located in occupied Poland, and Poles were, after Jews, the people who suffered most in the death camp.
Furthermore, Duda said he was unwilling to listen to Putin — who is currently pushing a particularly anti-Polish narrative of World War II — without being given the opportunity to respond.
Duda’s criticism of the event’s format, which grants Russia a major stage to advance its version of events, angered other states in the region as well. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, for instance, on Tuesday canceled his trip to Jerusalem on short notice, sending the head of the country’s parliament instead. Nauseda will, however, attend next week’s commemoration in Poland, he declared.
The citizenships of the victims of Auschwitz have no bearing on the choice of leaders who will address the World Holocaust Forum
Who exactly was responsible for the selection of speakers remains somewhat unclear, with organizers saying Yad Vashem, Rivlin’s office and Kantor’s World Holocaust Forum Foundation formulated the lineup together.
“Out of more than 40 leaders who will attend the Forum, all the partners decided, months ago, that the protocol would be that only five leaders would speak at the event at Yad Vashem, from the four Allied countries and Germany,” a spokesperson for the Foundation told The Times of Israel.
A spokesperson for Yad Vashem said it was “especially appropriate that the leaders addressing this event represent the four main powers of the Allied forces, which liberated Europe and the world from the murderous tyranny of Nazi Germany.”
Most of the 1.5 million people killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau were Jews, the spokesperson added. “The citizenships of the victims of Auschwitz have no bearing on the choice of leaders who will address the World Holocaust Forum.”
Another bone of contention was the very location of the event, with Polish authorities saying the main memorial for the liberation of Auschwitz should be at the site of the death camp and not in Israel.
“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,” Duda said earlier this month.
The director of the Auschwitz Museum, Piotr Cywinski, accused organizers of the World Holocaust Forum as trying to create an “alternative commemorative event” to the annual January 27 gathering in Oswiecim he hosts.
“It is simply so provocative and immature that I do not find the words to comment on it,” he told the Times of Israel in an exclusive interview this week.
Will Putin push his controversial narrative of World War II?
The organizers of the Jerusalem event did not see the leaders’ speeches in advance, raising some concern that Putin could use the stage not only to praise the Soviet Army for liberating Auschwitz but also to advance his current campaign to badmouth the Poles for allegedly having collaborated with the Nazis.
While reports indicate that Putin will ultimately pardon Naama Issachar, the Israeli tourist who has begun to serve a seven-and-a-half-year sentence in Russian prison for marijuana charges, it seems unlikely that he would address the matter in one of his speeches while in the Holy Land.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu, according to various reports, may use his speech to endorse to some extent Putin’s narrative of World War II in the hope of helping liberate Issachar, and to recruit world leaders to speak out against the International Criminal Court, which is weighing a possible pursuit of war crimes charges against Israel.
Ahead of International Leaders Forum in Jerusalem on January 23 President of Russia Vladimir #Putin stresses the need for joint efforts to fight against Antisemitism worldwide pic.twitter.com/LBr8ArJk63
— Russia???????? in Israel (@israel_mid_ru) January 21, 2020
Besides the politicians and Kantor, there will be two other speakers: former chief rabbi and Holocaust survivor Israel Meir Lau and Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev.
In between the speeches, short clips about the Holocaust and contemporary anti-Semitism will be shown and an orchestra and several choirs will provide musical interludes.
Holocaust survivors Rose Moskowitz and Colette Avital are set to light a memorial torch, and the world leaders will lay wreaths at the base of Nathan Rappaport’s Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument. IDF cantor Shai Abramson will recite the El Maleh Rahamim memorial prayer and Holocaust survivor Naftali “Tuli” Deutsch will say Kaddish, the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer, before the ceremony concludes with the playing of Hatikva.
To the chagrin of some, only 30 out of 800 tickets for the event were reserved for Holocaust survivors.
Yad Vashem explained that the event “is not a public ceremony but rather a gathering of leaders.” Some 100,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel and it would have been impossible to invite even a fraction of them, a spokesman said.
In light of the public outcry, however, a handful of cabinet ministers decided to give up their seats for survivors.
Pence visits Western Wall, Putin prefers Bethlehem
After the event, Rivlin and Netanyahu will continue to conduct bilateral meetings with world leaders. The prime minister will join Pence and and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the US Embassy in Jerusalem. During his short stay, the vice president is also expected to visit the Western Wall before taking off for DC on Thursday evening.
Putin, meanwhile, will travel to Bethlehem for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before heading back to Moscow late Thursday evening. Macron, Prince Charles, and Australian Governor General Hurley will also meet Abbas.
While in Bethlehem, Charles — who is on his first official visit to Israel — also plans to tour the Church of the Nativity, a site revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. As opposed to his son William, who visited Israel and the Palestinian territories last year, the Prince of Wales is not scheduled to visit any holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City.
On Friday, Netanyahu and Rivlin will continue to hold bilateral meetings with foreign leaders, until about an hour before Shabbat starts and the biggest diplomatic event in Israel’s history comes to a close.