UN chief to sit out Park East Synagogue Holocaust event for first time in 10 years

Spokesman says that ‘following the October 7 terror attacks and subsequent rise of antisemitism, service will be focused on healing and testimony of survivors’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a news conference at the COP28 UN Climate Summit, Monday, December 11, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a news conference at the COP28 UN Climate Summit, Monday, December 11, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

New York Jewish Week, via JTA — United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will not make his usual appearance at a prominent New York City synagogue’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day event this year.

Guterres and his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, have been featured guests at the annual event at Park East Synagogue for at least the past decade. But this year, Guterres said he would sit the event out because it should be centered on survivors, as well as the “pain” of the Jewish community as it contends with antisemitism amid the Israel-Hamas war.

“Following the terror attacks by Hamas on 7 October, and the subsequent rise of antisemitism and the continued pain of the community, the Saturday service at Park East Synagogue will be focused on healing and the testimony of survivors,” a spokesperson for Guterres told the New York Jewish Week via email. “It will not [be] an event for the diplomatic community so, therefore, the Secretary-General will not be attending.”

It was unclear if the decision to exclude Guterres from the ceremony was made by the synagogue or the secretary-general, or mutually. It will be held at the Upper East Side Orthodox congregation on Saturday, Jan. 27, a date designated by the UN General Assembly in 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In response to an inquiry, Park East said via email that this year’s event “will focus on the Shoah and the barbaric attack on Israel on October 7th, the kidnapped, the rise of worldwide antisemitism, and internal pain.”

Israel’s acting consul general in New York, Aviv Ezra, will attend the event, alongside the synagogue’s rabbi, Arthur Schneier, and the families of Holocaust survivors. The event will include testimony from a former Gaza hostage and from the brother and sister of a hostage still held by Hamas, the synagogue said.

Guterres’s absence from the event will come as he has faced heavy criticism from Israel and its supporters for his response to the war. He has condemned Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, but on Oct. 25, he incensed Israelis by saying that the Hamas attack “did not happen in a vacuum,” linking the terrorist atrocities to occupation, settlements and economic woes. That statement led Gilad Erdan, Israel’s UN ambassador, to call for Guterres’s resignation.

Guterres is also not expected to attend a Holocaust Remembrance Day event hosted by the Israeli mission to the UN on Wednesday, the mission said. The UN chief will attend a Friday memorial ceremony at UN headquarters that will be attended by Erdan and the State Department’s antisemitism envoy, Deborah Lipstadt, according to the UNschedule.

Israeli advocates have pressed Guterres to speak out more forcefully in support of the Hamas hostages, with weekly protests outside his Sutton Place home. The protesters have formed a relationship with the UN chief but still believe he should do more to support the captives by speaking out unequivocally, and without accompanying condemnation of Hamas with criticism of Israel.

One of the leaders of the protest group, Shany Granot-Lubaton, said Guterres not appearing at the Park East Synagogue event is a “missed opportunity.”

“This year, after the Jewish people have suffered the worst massacre since the Holocaust, when a sadistic and cruel terrorist organization murdered, raped, abused, kidnapped, and burned entire families —Guterres’s presence at a synagogue would send a crucial message to the world,” she said, adding that the protest group would invite Guterres to other Holocaust memorial ceremonies with Jewish community members.

“We hope he chooses to go and show his support,” Granot-Lubaton said.

Guterres has delivered a speech at Park East for International Holocaust Remembrance Day each year since he assumed office in 2017. Last year, Guterres said it was “an enormous privilege” to speak at the event.

“The Holocaust did not happen as a ‘lesson’ for humanity. But, it did happen. And because it happened, it may happen again,” he said. “We must be forever vigilant. Antisemitism has been described as the canary in the coal mine of freedom. Throughout millennia, the persecution of Jews was a mark of rotten societies.”

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