World leaders converge on Jerusalem to send a message against antisemitism

Next week’s arrival of leaders from 46 countries aims to send a powerful message against antisemitism. But will it be clouded by current events and long-standing feuds?

PREPARING THE flags at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem for next week’s arrival of world leaders.  (photo credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM)
PREPARING THE flags at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem for next week’s arrival of world leaders.
(photo credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM)
They’ll start arriving on Monday.
One after the other, kings, presidents, prime ministers and other leaders of 46 different countries will land at Ben-Gurion Airport’s Terminal 1, which will be closed to commercial flights, and head to their hotels in the capital.
This unprecedented number of high-level foreign delegations will be in Jerusalem to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, as part of the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, in an event titled “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism,” hosted by President Reuven Rivlin and Yad Vashem.
It’s “the biggest event since the establishment of the state,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a video message on Thursday.
Yad Vashem invited every country that was under Nazi occupation, every country that was an Allied power, plus Germany.
President’s Residence director-general Harel Tubi says the numbers went beyond what he had expected, which was perhaps a dozen leaders. Tubi credited personal letters from Rivlin to all of the heads of state for bringing in nearly everyone invited.
According to Tubi, the value of the event goes beyond the amount of visitors; it’s the message that matters. The theme of the event ties remembering the past, the Holocaust, with a mission for the present and future, fighting antisemitism, he said.
“Everyone is uniting around the message of fighting antisemitism,” Tubi stated. “It shows that this is not just a problem for Jews and Israel, but one of the society in which it is developing; and therefore, when countries come here and show concern about this phenomenon,” it sends a message to their home populations.
Tubi also said the event will send an important message to Jewish communities that are “dealing with a great crisis” of antisemitism: “We care about your fate and what you’re experiencing. It is of great significance to us.”
But the sheer number of world leaders expected to be in Jerusalem next week is significant as well.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat explained that “every visitor increases the power of the event,” pointing to “some of the most important people in the world” who are expected to attend.
Among those are Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Israel for a bilateral visit, not just the event; French President Emmanuel Macron; Prince Charles of the United Kingdom; German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier; as well as US Vice President Mike Pence, with a delegation from the US Congress that will be bipartisan, “which is very important to us,” Haiat said.
The massive number of visitors “opens bilateral ties with our central partners beyond the multilateral event,” Haiat said.
Rivlin is expected to meet with almost every leader for half an hour each, and plans to discuss the relations between Israel and their countries, as well as issues important to each country’s Jewish community.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not plan to meet with all of the leaders, but he is likely to meet with Putin, Macron and Pence.
Rivlin plans to ask Putin to release Naama Issachar, the Israeli-American serving a seven-year prison sentence for allegedly possessing 9.5 grams of marijuana, and Netanyahu is expected to bring her up as well.
THE PRESIDENT and his staff have made clear to all the delegations that they “will not let anyone else discuss issues that are not at the core of the event – the Holocaust and antisemitism,” Tubi said. “This is not a time for leaders to discuss other things. This and only this is the topic. We want maximum transparency from the embassies and leaders’ offices. We don’t want any surprises.”
While Tubi would not specify where he might be expecting surprises, the President’s Residence and Yad Vashem have probably been warily eying the ongoing row between Poland and Germany over the history of World War II.
The European Parliament, at Poland’s initiative last year, marked the anniversary of the nonaggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which included an annex that divided Poland between them, as what sparked World War II. Putin then made remarks saying that the Soviet Union made that agreement only because Western Europe had appeased Hitler, and went on to imply that Poland welcomed the Nazis by quoting pro-Hitler and antisemitic comments by the country’s ambassador to Germany at the time.
This has turned into a diplomatic dispute between Poland and Russia, and one of the reasons that Polish President Andrzej Duda ultimately decided not to attend the World Holocaust Forum. Duda very publicly argued that he should be able to speak in the name of victims of the Nazis, because millions of them were Polish, and that not allowing him to address the event would be a distortion of history. He also said he was “shocked” when he learned of the Jerusalem event, because the official memorial should be held only at Auschwitz, in Poland.
Yad Vashem responded that the only speakers will be the heads of the Allied powers and Germany, as well as Israeli leaders and event organizers. In addition, Yad Vashem noted that “out of 1.5 million victims of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, some 1.1 million were Jews who were murdered simply because they were Jewish, unrelated to the countries of origin. Hence, the nationalities of the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau have no bearing on the identity of leaders who will address the Fifth World Holocaust Forum.”
Yet Duda’s concern – that he would have to sit in the audience and listen to Putin give an anti-Polish distortion of historic events that erases Stalin’s embrace of Hitler – is not unfounded.
Putin seemed to have signaled his intentions on Thursday, in a Kremlin readout following his phone call with Netanyahu. While the Israeli statement focused on efforts to release Issachar, the Russian side said: “Both sides emphasized the importance of preserving the historical truth about the events of the Second World War and the inadmissibility of revising its events.”
It is also worth noting that the World Holocaust Forum is funded by billionaire Russian-Jewish oligarch Moshe Kantor, who is very close with Putin, and that Yad Vashem has not commented on the Russia-Poland spat. Yad Vashem could easily say the dispute is about the war and not about the Holocaust, which, thankfully, no one involved in this matter has denied was Germany’s fault.
The potential for awkward diplomatic situations goes beyond the speeches.
On Tuesday night, Rivlin will hold a dinner for all the delegations at the President’s Residence, with Israeli musical artists performing a song in memory of the Holocaust, and King Felipe VI of Spain making remarks in the name of the visitors.
Tubi said that the seating arrangements for the event have proven to be complex, with Foreign Ministry involvement, with “risks for embarrassment” and a need for “sensitivity for every detail.”
Some countries have made requests, he said, once again not specifying which. But it’s likely that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wouldn’t want to be seated with Putin, due to the Russian occupation of Crimea, to give one example.
THE LOGISTICS for such a massive event are a major challenge as well.
Each head of state arriving will be met by Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem and a cabinet minister. While ministers often have to be implored to perform such tasks, Haiat said that this time there are plenty of volunteers, especially to meet one of the four kings or two princes arriving.
Terminal 1 will be shut down to commercial flights, and every time a leader leaves the airport to his or her hotel, Highway 1 will be closed to traffic. Repeated road closures are expected throughout Jerusalem next week as well, such as when the leaders go from their hotels to the President’s Residence and back on Tuesday evening, or to the Yad Vashem event and back on Wednesday.
“This is not a week to be in Jerusalem if you don’t have to be,” one Foreign Ministry source remarked.
The President’s Residence will be “stretched to its maximum capacity” for next week’s event, Tubi said.
The president’s office and residence, built in 1972, do not have the infrastructure to handle such a massive event.
“We’re building four VIP tents around the main hall of the President’s Residence,” Tubi explained. “We will welcome [visitors] in the historic hall, and will create new spaces to support it.”
The President’s Residence has a budget of about NIS 30 million for the event, which was not easy to appropriate in the middle of a historic political crisis when there is no state budget and a third election in a year on the way.
“Our challenge at the President’s Residence was to bring in the resources for this event and create a work process to make this happen in the best way possible,” Tubi said, recounting negotiations with the Treasury.
Money also had to go to the Foreign Ministry, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Airports Authority and the police to handle the visits.
“The whole system had to be moved during election time. It wasn’t easy,” Tubi said.
Despite all the challenges, it’s clear that political leaders are looking forward to a momentous event.
“Dozens of state leaders will come to us in Jerusalem to mark 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and send a clear message about antisemitism,” Katz said in his video message to the Israeli public.
Katz invited the public to “be part of this important effort to memorialize the Holocaust,” and added that “as the son of Holocaust survivors, I see a great privilege and true responsibility to fight antisemitism of every kind.”