President Reuven Rivlin expressed criticism of the state for failing to care for the needs of Holocaust survivors, in his speech at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem on Wednesday night.
The issue requires “soul-searching” by the country, and Holocaust survivors have not received the respect they deserve, the president said.
“Even to the present day, the State of Israel does not take every measure it can in order to take care of the Holocaust survivors,” said Rivlin.
“My brothers and sisters, survivors, the heroes of Israel’s revival, I came here today on my own behalf, and on behalf of the people of Israel, on behalf of the State of Israel, and I ask each one of you, before it is too late, for forgiveness.
We did not understand, we did not want to understand, and we have not done enough.”
Approximately 189,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel, of whom 45,000 live under the poverty line, according to data released by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Survivors.
Rivlin said the Holocaust demonstrated the need for the Jewish people to be in charge of its own fate, and that it should never outsource its security, although adding that the State of Israel “is not, under any circumstances, compensation for the Holocaust.”
He said, however, that the scourge of anti-Semitism still persists, referencing the “British Left,” currently embroiled in a crisis over the prevalence in the UK Labor Party of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, which are widespread also in Europe as a whole and in the Arab world.
“The State of Israel will deal with this anti-Semitism by ensuring, first and foremost, a national home and a Jewish army that protects this nation of survival,” the president declared.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also spoke at the ceremony.
He said he agreed that not enough has been done for Holocaust survivors, and that the government would do more to provide for their needs.
Along with the president and the prime minister were numerous dignitaries, including government ministers, MKs, the two chief rabbis – David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef – and foreign ambassadors.
This year, the ceremony was given the theme of “The Struggle to Maintain the Human Spirit during the Holocaust,” by Yad Vashem.
And, as in every year, six Holocaust survivors lit six torches commemorating the six million Jews murdered in the Nazi genocide. Yad Vashem produced short videos of each of their stories, on what they experienced during the Holocaust and their survival, which were broadcast to the assembled audience.
One of the torch-lighters was Joseph Labi, a Libyan Jew born in Benghazi in 1928, who like thousands of Jews in North Africa was subjected to anti-Jewish racial laws and deported to forced-labor camps established in the region.
Labi, and between 300 and 400 other Libyan Jews, was subsequently deported from the Jado labor camp where he and his family had been sent, to Italy, and eventually in 1944 he was deported to the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
While in the camp, one of the religious Jewish prisoners proposed that Labi have a bar mitzva ceremony.
“I put on tefillin
,” said Labi. “He asked me to share food with those present, but I had only a small potato.
Fortunately, a woman secured some perfume. I poured some on everyone’s hand and that was my bar mitzva.”
Labi survived and eventually made his way to Mandatory Palestine. He was smuggled into the country, volunteered for the Palmah and fought in the War of Independence.
He and his wife, Yvonne, have a son and daughter, seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. He still has the tallit
that he received at his bar mitzva ceremony in Bergen-Belsen.