French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday awarded the Legion of Honor – the country’s highest accolade – to Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Meir Lau for his efforts to promote interfaith dialogue, at a ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

“The tragedy of the Holocaust should be etched onto our consciousness, as it is onto our hearts,” Sarkozy said at the event.

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The ceremony took place on the anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, where the rabbi was imprisoned during the war.

Speaking on the phone from France, Lau said on Thursday that he was initially surprised when he heard France had decided to bestow the award on him.

“At first I didn’t understand why they had decided to award me, but then I was told my autobiography was translated to French and widely read,” he said. “One of those who read it apparently told the president about me and my efforts to make peace among religions and peoples, and I was selected.”

Lau was born in Poland in 1937, and was one of the few members of his family who survived the war. He made aliya in 1945 and went on to become Israel’s chief rabbi between 1993 and 2003. Lau is now chairman of the board of directors of Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

During the German occupation, tens of thousands of French Jews were sent to their deaths with the cooperation of the French authorities.

However, Lau said France’s ties with Israel have gone a long way towards bridging the rift left by World War II.


“During the 1950s all of the Israel Defense Forces ammunition was French,” he said. “Not for nothing did [former IDF chief, and later politician] Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres receive the Legion of Honour before me,” he said.

“Peres even received it twice. Sarkozy does not bear any resemblance to Petain, nor to De Gaulle. There are today 5 million Muslims in France, and yet here is a president who invited me, and kisses me on both cheeks, and that I see as a novelty.”

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