The politics of Holocaust remembrance

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN and Polish President Andrzej Duda. (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN and Polish President Andrzej Duda.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
There have been very mixed reactions to last week’s ingathering of world leaders, which included royals, governors-general, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, et al. from close to 50 countries. Depending on different media reports, the number of delegations varies, with the highest being 49. Most media outlets repeated information from press releases issued by the various organizations connected with events related to the Holocaust, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the combating of present-day antisemitism.
The main event was widely publicized as the largest Holocaust memorial event in the world. That’s not exactly a wise claim, taking into account attendance at previous milestone anniversaries in Poland of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which in Jewish communities around the world is considered to be Holocaust Remembrance Day, or this week’s state ceremony at Auschwitz on the actual anniversary of liberation.
An official Polish ceremony is held in what was the Warsaw Ghetto every year on the Gregorian calendar anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and memorial events are held in Israel and most Jewish communities in accordance with the Hebrew calendar date. In Israel the main ceremony is held in Yad Vashem’s Warsaw Ghetto Square, which is just as full as, if not fuller than, it was last week, with the exception that the foreign dignitaries are heads of diplomatic missions in Israel and not heads of state. In Poland this year, there were probably more heads of state than the number that came to Jerusalem.
One comment by Rabbi Yosef Ote of the capital’s Hazvi Yisrael Synagogue, in relation to the number of leaders who came to Jerusalem in response to an invitation from President Reuven Rivlin, was that so many of them came from countries that were not friendly to Israel in the past and whose Jewish communities suffered persecution.
Many Holocaust survivors, especially those who survived Auschwitz, were angry that they had not been invited. Even among those that were, there was anger that there was no Auschwitz survivor among the official speakers.
Auschwitz survivor Moshe Kravec, who wrote a diary as a 14-year-old boy and years ago put it away in a drawer where it gathered dust, suddenly felt the need to read it. In an interview on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet last Friday, he labeled the event at Yad Vashem a circus which for various political reasons had latched on to the milestone anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Kravec said that when he read his diary after such a long hiatus, he was shocked by the atrocities he had described as a boy. He didn’t want to burden his family with the preservation of the diary, so he donated it to the Ghetto Fighters’ House, where excerpts from it were read out this week by television hostess Hila Korach at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony that took place on Monday. Korach also interviewed Kravec about his Auschwitz experiences.
Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, interviewed on KAN 11 about his impressions of the event at Yad Vashem, termed it nothing more than a photo opportunity.
Among the more positive comments was one from veteran television, radio and print media journalist Yaakov Ahimeir, who for some years now has publicly empathized with the Armenian genocide.
While acknowledging that the Holocaust was the greatest tragedy in Jewish history, Ahimeir is well aware that Jews do not have a monopoly on being the victims of genocide. There have been other genocides before and since the Holocaust.
In the aftermath of last week’s event, Ahimeir proposed that a world genocide center recognizing all forms of genocide, xenophobia and racism be set up in Jerusalem, the City of Peace, so that people from various countries in which genocide has been perpetrated could sit together and work out strategies that might prevent such atrocities in the future.
■ AMONG THE leaders who came to Jerusalem was Armenian President Dr. Armen Sarkissian, who was in Israel for the first time, and who, in addition to attending the official events and meeting with Israeli leaders, also visited the Holon Institute of Technology, where he signed a memorandum of understanding for academic collaboration with HIT president Prof. Eduardo Yakubov.
While at HIT, Sarkissian said that Armenia and Israel share common history. “Both our nations share similar history, mourning and remembering the unbearable loss of millions in the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide.” In addition to the signing ceremony, Sarkissian delivered a lecture on “Geopolitical Reality in an Era of Artificial Intelligence.”
■ UPON THE engagement of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry, Reuters published a guideline on how to behave with royalty. The queen is untouchable unless she offers to shake hands. Similarly, “it is best not to initiate personal physical contact with any member of the royal family. Again, it may be that they offered to give you a hug or to put their arm around you, but usually wait and see what’s expected or what’s appropriate for the event.”
It’s not certain whether Rivlin’s British-born foreign media adviser was asked about protocol, or whether he may have said something about it without being asked, but several British expats were both horrified and mortified by Rivlin’s lack of protocol during his meeting with Prince Charles, who is first in line to the British throne. Rivlin laid a hand on the royal shoulder with similar effusiveness to that which he displayed with various heads of state, especially French President Emmanuel Macron, and during his conversation with the prince he made the very undiplomatic remark that he had been nine years old when the British flag came down and the Israeli flag went up. The prince, who was accompanied by Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, managed not to wince, and took it all in good spirit.
Rivlin is a touchy-feely individual, and even if he was vaguely aware of the physical contact protocol in relation to royals, there was perhaps too much going on for him to think about it. After all, he had met Charles before, as well as Prince William, not to mention a couple of royals from continental Europe, and no one had previously made a fuss about his breach of protocol.
As for Charles, some people noticed and were upset that his speech – though it contained several references to the Holocaust, and to his paternal grandmother, who has been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations – made absolutely no mention of antisemitism. The British royals do not overtly refer to politics, and antisemitism in Britain was and still is very much a political issue. Nonetheless, Charles could have said something about antisemitism around the globe. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had the courage and sorrow to say that he regretted that antisemitism is once again rearing its ugly head in Germany.
What was interesting was to see how the non-Jewish speakers included Hebrew in their speeches. Charles referred to the Shoah, and both US Vice President Mike Pence and Germany’s Steinmeier recited verses from Hebrew liturgy, though Steinmeier’s pronunciation was infinitely better.
■ ON MONDAY of this week, various members of the British royal family participated in International Holocaust Remembrance Day events. Thankfully, Harry was out of the loop. Otherwise, given the decline in his popularity since his announcement that he was stepping back from royal duties and moving to Canada, the British tabloids would have dredged up his enfant terrible days when he attended a fancy-dress party attired in the uniform of a Nazi officer replete with swastika armband.
On the local scene, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz had been scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the central Israel commemoration at the Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies on Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak, but he opted to go to Washington instead, even though his “cockpit” colleagues were none too happy about the idea.
■ AS REPORTED by JTA in an article published in The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, the highest-level delegation of Muslim spiritual leaders to visit Auschwitz arrived there last week as the outcome of a memorandum of understanding between David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, and Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa, a Muslim moderate, who is secretary-general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League and a former justice minister who is close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The article failed to mention Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Jerusalem-based director of interreligious affairs, who was part of a 24-member AJC group that traveled with the Muslim delegation, and that all the participants carried memorial candles. The Muslims prayed in Auschwitz in accordance with their traditions and stood respectfully, as Rosen recited kaddish in their presence.
“To be here, among the children of Holocaust survivors and members of the Jewish and Islamic communities, is both a sacred duty and a profound honor,” said Issa. “The unconscionable crimes to which we bear witness today are truly crimes against humanity: that is to say, a violation of us all, an affront to all of God’s children.”
The group then continued to Warsaw, where they were welcomed at the Nozyk Synagogue by Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, who said that Issa’s visit was a “moral act” by religious leaders at a time when elected officials were making politics around Auschwitz. The visit can “show the world that we can sit down normally around a table, be together, share a meal and discuss.”
The Nozyk Synagogue, which is more than 120 years old, is the only prewar synagogue in Warsaw that remained standing. The whole group was addressed on Friday night by both Rosen and Issa, and the Muslims committed themselves to combat antisemitism, Holocaust denial and all forms of hatred. Jews and Muslims then sat together for a Sabbath meal.
The British-born Rosen has been involved in interfaith work for more than 40 years. Before his aliyah, he served as rabbi to the largest Orthodox congregation in South Africa, and was subsequently chief rabbi of Ireland. These two experiences made him acutely aware of racial and religious tensions, and also prepared him for his life’s work in bringing people of different faiths together in mutual respect, harmony and understanding.
Rosen is a walking encyclopedia, not only of the Jewish faith but also of Catholicism, Islam and several other religions. He is the only Orthodox rabbi who has been conferred with a papal knighthood. In addition to his work in interfaith and educational spheres, he is also involved in mediation, peace building and multi-religious engagement on ecological matters. The recipient of many awards in recognition of his important contribution to reconciliation among people of different beliefs, nationalities and ethnicities, he is particularly proud not only of the papal knighthood conferred on him in 2005 for his contribution to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation, but also of the Commander of the British Empire title conferred on him in 2010 for his work in promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation. He is a member of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, and serves on the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, and on the board of directors of the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. He also sits on the executive boards of several other global interfaith and intercultural organizations.
In line with the ancient belief that no prophet is heard in his own country, Rosen has yet to receive the Israel Prize for doing more toward peace than any politician.
■ IT HARDLY comes as a surprise that World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder was one of the key funders of the journeys of the large representation of Auschwitz survivors from around the world at the on-site commemoration this week of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Through his Lauder Foundation, the WJC president has been engaged for more than 30 years in funding the revival of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. In Poland, he started with the Lauder Kindergarten in Warsaw in 1989, followed by the Lauder Morasha School in 1994. This was the first Jewish-owned and Jewish-run school in Warsaw since 1949. Lauder opened other educational facilities in Poland, including weekend retreats where Jewish adults with no or minimal background in Jewish religion learned the basics, and also learned how to follow a synagogue service and how to celebrate Shabbat.
Today, several other foundations also operate in Poland, and while Jewish life will never be what it was before the Second World War, it is increasingly vibrant and diverse.
When he visited Auschwitz for the first time, Lauder realized that unless something was done to preserve what was left, everything would disintegrate, and there would be no evidence left for future generations. So he helped to raise $40 million to ensure preservation.
In bringing Auschwitz survivors back to the scene of the most traumatic experiences in their lives, Lauder wanted not only to prove the resilience of the Jewish spirit, but also wanted survivors to give testimony. Just as they had settled in different parts of the world, they had been deported to Auschwitz not only from different parts of Poland, but different parts of Europe, in addition to which they came from diverse backgrounds. But the common denominator was the sadistic, inhuman experience to which they had all been subjected, and Lauder believed that it was extremely important for their voices to be heard. Unlike what took place in Jerusalem last week, this was not an exercise in politics or public diplomacy, but a genuine effort to honor the survivors as well as the memories of those who were murdered or who perished.
Lauder, who is also chairman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, did his best to prevent Monday’s commemoration from becoming a political event, but it was almost impossible. Lauder himself had not participated in the gathering of world leaders in Jerusalem, and Russian-Israeli billionaire Moshe Kantor, who is president of the European Jewish Congress, and who underwrote the cost of the Jerusalem event, did not continue on to Poland.
Likewise, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his delegation gave up their seats in Yad Vashem in favor of Holocaust survivors who had not been invited, that was not the sole reason. They did not want to be in the audience when Russian President Vladimir Putin was speaking.
And, of course, the absence of Polish President Andrzej Duda, also due to Putin’s presence, was unmistakably political. Still, despite a little tension, there were no hard feelings, and Rivlin went to Poland this week and had a working meeting with Duda and other Polish officials.
The gathering at Auschwitz was somewhat upstaged by the “Deal of the Century,” individual meetings between US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White wannabe prime minister Gantz, despite the fact that at this moment in time, the deal does not look as if it will come to fruition. Before anything positive can develop, we have to ask ourselves how we can make peace with the Palestinians while we are still fighting the wars of the Jews.
■ APROPOS POLAND’s relations with Israel, the fourth Polish-Israeli Foreign Policy Conference will take place in Jerusalem on Wednesday, February 18, under the joint auspices of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and the Polish Institute for International Affairs. Given recent conflicting attitudes on Holocaust history of Poland and Israel and Poland and Russia, there might be some clarification in a panel discussion on “Challenges of History and Memory in Polish-Israeli Relations.”
Panelists will include Jakub Kurnoch, Poland’s ambassador to Switzerland; noted Israeli historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who is the academic adviser to Yad Vashem; Prof. Andrzej Nowak of the Jagiellonian University; and Holocaust historian Prof. Havi Dreifuss of Tel Aviv University. Moderator will be Laurence Weinbaum, the director-general of ICFR.
■ BEAUTY IN our lives is the title of an all-day multidisciplinary conference to be held on Monday, February 3, at the Jerusalem-based Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Of the local and foreign speakers, probably the best known is Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, who inter alia designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and whose imaginative museum designs can be found in many parts of the world.
■ RA’ANANA-BASED Beit Issie Shapiro has scored yet another feather in its cap. The American Jewish Community Center Association has announced that the JCC Association of North America is partnering with Beit Issie Shapiro, which develops therapies, advocates for better legislation for the benefit of people with disabilities, and is a major influence in changing social attitudes toward people with mental or physical disabilities.
In making the announcement JCC president and CEO Doron Krakow said that “Jewish Community Centers are the town squares of Jewish life in the neighborhoods and cities they serve with such dedication. But being a true town square means being accessible to all. Together with Beit Issie Shapiro, we will invite untold thousands of children and families to join us in the square, making it and all of us an even better version of ourselves.”
The new partnership will enable JCC across America to expand inclusion programming across the JCC movement, with a focus on strengthening early intervention for children and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays. Through a pilot program that includes customized assessments, a new framework for inclusion in JCCs, training sessions and workshops, Beit Issie Shapiro specialists will help JCC early childhood educators strengthen their capacity to meet the developmental, emotional and physical needs of thousands of children and families in the US and Canada.
■ ISRAELI TOURISTS who may be visiting Denmark between February 2 and March 8, and who care to tour the Charlottenborg museum in Copenhagen, which will be exhibiting its Spring Exhibition, which has been held annually since 1857, may be excited to see among the works of many artists from around the world four works of the one and only Israeli. The artist in question is Noa Ironic, 26, of Tel Aviv, who is a Shenkar College BA graduate who happens to be the first Israeli to ever be accepted for the Spring Exhibition. Ironic is taking her participation in her stride, but her family, especially her grandparents Paula and Geoffrey Felberg of Petah Tikva, are over the moon.
It’s not just a matter of normal grandparents’ pride in the achievements of a grandchild. This is more than an ordinary achievement, and goes beyond family to national pride. The Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition is one of the most important submission exhibitions in Northern Europe. It originated as an exhibition of new works by Danish artists but gradually developed into a global cultural event, providing an important platform for emerging young artists, many of whom went on to become world famous, partly because of the fiscal awards associated with the exhibition.
As far as Ironic is concerned, she is one of two new artists whose works will be exhibited. The other is from the United States. Of 800 artists who submitted digital applications, only 80 were selected.
■ WITH ALL the hoopla that went on in Jerusalem last week, another important event was all but overlooked – the 70th anniversary of the establishment of Ramat Gan. A social media reminder was issued by David Sela, the editor of the Nostalgia on Line website and the chairman of the Council for Promoting Israeli Heritage. During the past 25 years, change has moved at such a rapid pace in Israel that Sela feels that there is a desperate need to tell the public about the Israel of yesteryear, which he does via Nostalgia on Line. Ramat Gan was inaugurated January 24, 1950.
■ THE LATE Meir Shamgar, who died last October, was one of the most outstanding and long-serving presidents of the Supreme Court. He was also a lover of both jazz and classical music, and every year traveled to Eilat for the annual Red Sea Jazz Festival.
His wife, Michal Rubinstein-Shamgar, is chairwoman of the Friends of the Tel Aviv Music Conservatory, which held two tribute concerts in his memory – one jazz and one classical, both of which were attended by leading figures from Israel’s law and justice community including past and present members of the Supreme Court.
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