'Liberty, equality, justice, peace -- these are our values'

Herzog says Israel committed to ‘equality,’ as EU parliament leader sounds warning

President delivers speech in Brussels ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day as bitter political fight brews at home; Metsola cautions that democratic values can’t be taken for granted

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

President Isaac Herzog addresses Europe's parliament in Brussels, in a session marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 26, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog addresses Europe's parliament in Brussels, in a session marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 26, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)

BRUSSELS — President Isaac Herzog declared Israel’s commitment to equality and justice in a speech Thursday to the EU lawmakers, after the president of the European Parliament stressed that those shared democratic values cannot be “taken for granted.”

“Liberty, equality, justice, peace — these are the fundamental values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, which we shall uphold and defend at any cost,” the president pledged.

Standing next to Herzog shortly before he delivered his speech, EU Parliament President Roberta Metsola said in a statement to the press that “the European Union and Israel are tied by a close friendship based on the shared history and common values: democracy, open society, rule of law — values which can never be taken for granted.”

“We will never be silent when it comes to standing up for freedom, peace, and equality,” added Metsola in her statement. “Not when it comes to fighting hate and discrimination.”

In his address, Herzog said that Israel has established “a resilient and democratic society, composed of an unparalleled human mosaic of Jews and Arabs, people of every religion and faith.”

He said that he prays for the day Israel can reach peace with the Palestinians.

The statements come with Herzog sounding warnings that Israel is on course to tear itself apart amid the government’s planned radical shakeup of the judicial system and mounting public opposition.

President Isaac Herzog(L) shakes hands with EU Parliament President Roberta Metsola ahead of a special session marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 26, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Herzog also exhorted leaders to wake up to growing antisemitism on the continent and to more forcefully combat it.

“Do not stand by,” said Herzog in his Hebrew-language address. “You must read the warning signs, detect the symptoms of the pandemic of antisemitism, and fight it at all costs.”

The president called on the EU member states to “instill the understanding across Europe” that the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is “sacred.”

Herzog also called denying Israel’s right to exist “antisemitism in the full sense of the word, and it must be thoroughly uprooted.”

Illustrative: Two men visit the snow-covered Holocaust Memorial at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Berlin, January 27, 2014. (AP Photo/ Markus Schreiber/ File)

The parliamentary session marked International Holocaust Memorial Day, which is observed on Friday.

As the parliamentarians and guests in the chamber rose, Herzog placed a yarmulke on his head and said the “El Maleh Rachamim” prayer for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

The distance between a Facebook post and the smashing of headstones in a cemetery is shorter than we would think.

Herzog called for more vigilant efforts to monitor antisemitism on social media, and argued that if Europe has learned the lessons of the Holocaust, it must work with Israel to stop Iran’s attempts to destroy the Jewish state.

Tehran, said the president, “not only publicly calls for the complete annihilation of my country but is also murdering its own countrymen and women, who are demanding liberty and human and civil rights.”

He also accused the Islamic Republic of “stoking civil wars throughout the Middle East, playing an active and lethal role in the war in Ukraine, and developing weapons of mass destruction on the way to dramatically threatening the stability of the entire globe.”

Iran has been selling lethal drones to Russia to support its almost year-long invasion of Ukraine. These weapons have been used in Russian strikes on Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure sites.

A young Iranian woman crosses a street without wearing her mandatory Islamic headscarf in Tehran, Nov. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Herzog landed in Brussels on Wednesday, and met first with King Philippe of Belgians in the Royal Palace of Brussels.

Herzog also visited Athénée Ganenou, one of the two Jewish schools in the city, where he was greeted by hundreds of Jewish children wearing white and waving Israeli flags.

Answering questions from high school students in the gymnasium, Herzog discussed his attempts to mediate in the growing fight over judicial reform in Israel.

“In the current crisis in Israel,” said the president, “I am making a supreme effort to create a dialogue between all sides. This is an important presidential role, to try and do good for the people of Israel.”

Jewish schoolchildren at Athénée Ganenou in Brussels await the arrival of President Isaac Herzog, January 25, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Local sources told The Times of Israel that Herzog’s visit was empowering for the community, as anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism grow in the country’s schools.

Belgium and Israel enjoy a robust trade relationship, but Belgian NGOs and universities are hotbeds of anti-Israel sentiment.

Most of Herzog’s visit focuses on Israel-EU ties. He is slated to visit NATO headquarters later Thursday as well, where he will meet NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg,

President Isaac Herzog (R) and Belgium’s King Philippe walk into the king’s private office in the Royal Palace of Brussels, January 25, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Herzog also met European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Herzog said in his short statement before departure from Israel that in all these encounters, he will “raise the enormous challenge facing us and the whole Middle East, as Iran presses forward in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, unleashes terror all over the Middle East, and provides weapons that are used against the Ukrainian people.”

Herzog said will also discuss the plight of the Israeli captives in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and call for their immediate release by the Palestinian terror group. Hamas is holding captive two Israeli men and the remains of two soldiers killed during Israel’s war with Gaza-based fighters in the summer of 2014. Israeli authorities have been quietly engaged in fruitless negotiations for their release for years.

A day before his departure, the president said in a statement that the upcoming address on Thursday to European parliamentarians and Holocaust survivors “fills me with a sense of sacred trepidation.”

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