World leaders gather in Jerusalem to unite against antisemitism

Previous global conferences on antisemitism in Jerusalem have drawn an impressive number of international delegations, but nowhere near as many heads of state.

US Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen (center), stand alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem in 2018. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
US Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen (center), stand alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem in 2018.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
There’s never been a gathering like this since the death of Shimon Peres, say many of the people involved with the arrangements for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum under the banner “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism.”
In fact there is no precedent for a gathering like this in Jerusalem, period.
Two previous gatherings that brought world leaders and international delegations to Jerusalem were the respective funerals of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and former president Shimon Peres, each a Nobel Prize Laureate and legendary during their own lives.
Actually, the funerals drew more world leaders and foreign delegations than will be arriving in Israel on January 21 and 22. In contrast, accepting the invitation to attend a conference – even in a milestone year and even if coming at the behest of the president of the State of Israel – is quite different. Previous global conferences on antisemitism in Jerusalem have drawn an impressive number of international delegations, but nowhere near as many heads of state.
Some of the guests will be in Israel for less than 24 hours, arriving on the morning of the conference, heading straight from the airport to the Warsaw Ghetto Plaza at Yad Vashem, and leaving the same evening, the briefest possible time.
Others, such as Australian Governor General David Hurley (former chief of the Australian Defense Forces) and his wife, Linda, have arrived a few days prior to the official gathering. The Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on Mount Scopus is on their itinerary, where 17 Australian soldiers who fought in the Palestine Campaign during the World War I are buried. Not his first time here, Hurley also included the Australian Landing Pad for business initiatives in Tel Aviv.
Australian expatriates celebrated Australia Day in Jerusalem – if a bit early – with Hurley, a special event only observed at their embassies when a governor general, prime minister or foreign minister is in town.
Hurley was invited to be a dinner guest at President Reuven Rivlin’s official residence prior to the forum convening at Yad Vashem. Reversing roles, Hurley will be hosting President Rivlin next month during his long-delayed state visit to Australia.
The forum has not been free of political controversy. Polish President Andrzej Duda canceled his participation due to not being included among the leaders addressing it, whereas Russian President Vladimir Putin – whom Duda claims distorted history – will be speaking. Duda’s withdrawal aside, Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski told The Jerusalem Post that he will attend as the Polish representative.
Putin has been hosted by earlier presidents of Israel. Former president Moshe Katsav, hosted him during Passover 2005, when the Russian leader partook of matzoh, the bread of affliction. In 2012, Shimon Peres entertained Putin with a Gesher Theater performance. The troop is largely comprised of former Soviet Union immigrants. Then Putin inaugurated a monument in Netanya honoring Soviet soldiers who fought against the Nazis in World War II.
On this third occasion, Putin – with the Jerusalem Municipality – will dedicate a monument to the Siege of Leningrad, which took approximately 800,000 civilians lives.
Prince Charles, head of the British delegation, will also be on his third visit here but the first that is designated as official, perhaps signifying a new chapter in Israeli-British relations. Charles’s elder son, Prince William, came to Israel on an official visit in 2018, the first member of the British royal family to do so.
Prince Charles is scheduled to visit Bethlehem where he will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In Jerusalem, he will lay a wreath at Yad Vashem on behalf of the United Kingdom and will be one of the speakers at the forum. Before leaving Israel, the prince will attend a reception at the Ramat Gan residence of British Ambassador Neil Wigan.
Since his inauguration in May 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has exceeded 100 presidential visits to 52 countries. Though having visited elsewhere in the region, he will be visiting Israel for the first time during the forum.
German President Frank Walter Steinmeier is no stranger to Israel, having twice served his country as foreign minister. He is slated to be among the speakers. This has caused some people uneasiness, despite that the Germany of today is so different from the Germany of the 1930s and beginning of the 1940s.
Founder and president of the World Holocaust Forum Dr. Moshe Kantor is also President of the European Jewish Congress. He has underwritten a major part of the cost of the event, and will, naturally, be among those addressing the gathering. He has consistently warned of the dangers of rising antisemitism in Europe and knows the most recent data.
Missing from the Forum will be Auschwitz survivor and journalist Noah Kliger who died in December 2018. Kliger wrote extensively about the Holocaust and accompanied Israeli dignatories to Poland providing them with first-hand information about what transpired. He participated annually in the March of the Living – with increasing physical difficulty – lecturing to youth groups and often accompanying them.
Kliger worked for Yediot Aharonot for more than sixty years. He was a living reminder of the worst period in Jewish history. Kantor and Yediot Aharonot – with Rivlin’s blessing – established the Jewish People’s Noah Kliger medal, to be awarded annually to the person displaying the greatest courage and creativity in battling against antisemitism.
Israeli speakers at the Forum will include Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council Rabbi Israel Meir Lau (who was a child survivor of Buchenwald) and Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev.
The Forum will conclude with a memorial ceremony at which Holocaust survivors Rose Moskowitz from the US, and Colette Avital – chair of the Central Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel – will light a memorial beacon to commemorate Holocaust victims.
For those unable to attend due to space and security limitations, all may receive live broadcasts via satellite feed worldwide, as well as on Yad Vashem’s website, with simultaneous translations in English, Hebrew, French, German, Russian and Spanish.
Though the Forum gathering was announced only in November 2019, preparations for it began months earlier. Sheldon Ritz, the Dan Hotels chain’s director of sales for embassies and government ministries, was in touch with embassies as early as March. For Ritz, it was very important to anticipate delegation sizes in order to book rooms in each hotel. Most of the heads of state will be staying at the King David Hotel – the closest Jerusalem equivalent to Blair House – while other dignitaries will be staying in all the major hotels in the capital. Correspondent journalists and lower ranking members of delegations will suffice with less luxurious hotels.
Ritz also coordinated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which determines protocol, the Israel Security Service, which will be on duty around the clock, and the police. All three groups will be based at the King David while the heads of state are guests there.
Prince Charles will have more royal company. Others include the King of the Netherlands Willem Alexander; HRH Henri, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg; and the Crown Prince of Norway, Prince Haakon. By the same token, Hurley, as Governor General will be joined by Canada’s Governor General Julie Payette.
The presidents who confirmed their attendance include the heads of state of Albania, Armenia, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Finland, Georgia, Hellenic Republic, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine. Some delegations will be led by prime ministers or speakers of parliament.
For Jerusalemites who pass within a five minute radius of Jerusalem’s main hotel belt or the President’s Residence, January 21-24 will be a nightmare because so many streets will be closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
Temporary inconvenience notwithstanding, it is an honor to remember those whose lives were cut short by the Holocaust and for Israel to link arms with world leaders in the global effort to combat antisemitism.