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Holocaust remembrance becoming a political football

  • Paula
Israel hosted on Thursday its third-largest ever gathering of international leaders after the funerals of former leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. More than 45 world leaders and senior diplomats, including 26 presidents, four kings (from Spain, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg) and four prime ministers were in town to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
by PAULA SLIER | Jan 23, 2020

But the day wasn’t only about remembering the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis. Politics and power played their part.

Until this week, not many people – Israelis included – had heard of the World Holocaust Forum Foundation. It is headed by Russian billionaire, Dr Moshe Kantor, also president of the European Jewish Congress, who bankrolled the event.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the gathering as a diplomatic triumph for Israel. President Reuven Rivlin, as the official host alongside the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, held a reception and dinner for delegation heads.

The timing couldn’t have been more opportune. Hateful and violent expressions of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, continue to climb, and the event’s message that anti-Semitism has no place in our global society is more relevant than ever.

Israel hopes world leaders will adopt the official definition of anti-Semitism as formulated by the American-based International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It states that criticism of Zionism or the existence of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic. In recent years, Israeli leaders have worked to promote this definition as well as laws against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

On Monday, a ceremony will take place in Poland, as it does every year, to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz. I reported from the ceremony five years ago, when Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn’t invited to attend. Moscow saw it as a slap in the face as it was, after all, the Red Army that liberated the camp.

This week, it was Polish President Andrzej Duda’s turn to be outraged. He refused to attend the gathering held at Yad Vashem after his request to speak was turned down. In its defence, Yad Vashem said that time was short, and few world leaders addressed the gathering.

Netanyahu very much wanted Duda to attend. Israeli-Polish ties are currently fraught after the Polish parliament two years ago passed a law making it a crime to criticise Polish collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Poland is trying to downplay – and even negate – its role in the Holocaust and the collaboration between some Poles and Nazis. The country has since revised the law, but Holocaust experts say it’s still problematic.

Duda said he was astonished that Putin was invited to talk while he was not. You might call it sweet justice, although surely a Holocaust-remembrance event isn’t the place for this. Critics say the truth is much more sinister.

Kantor, who paid for the event, is known to represent the interests of Putin in large Jewish global forums. He has brought leaders of Jewish communities throughout Europe to meet the Russian president at the Kremlin. For someone so close to Putin to be bankrolling such a forum, argues its detractors, raises suspicions as to its agenda.

They have a point. Perhaps less important for the leaders who visited Israel this week was diplomacy and relations with the Jewish state; more important was commemoration of the Holocaust and their relations with Kantor.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest that such a forum allowed Putin to present Russia as some kind of haven for Jews while portraying her rivals – the Ukraine and Poland in particular – as anti-Semitic hotspots.

But in truth for many decades, the Soviet Union didn’t mention that Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Instead, its narrative was that everyone who died was a victim of fascism and the West was fascist, not just the Germans. It was a very selective, politically convenient narrative.

In the past few years, remembrance of the Holocaust has left the realm of history and become politicised. The act of remembering is in itself political – what does one emphasise? What does one forget? How do we remember what happened?

It was former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said, “History is written by victors.” An increasing number of particularly former Soviet states are attempting to do precisely that – rewrite history.

In reality, every victorious nation has a narrative that it wishes to push. This week, Israel basically adopted Putin’s by hosting him and allowing him to be one of the main stars of this event.

For very necessary reasons, Israel needs to be on Putin’s side right now because the United States is slowly but surely withdrawing from the region, and Moscow controls the skies over Syria. Israel frequently attacks Hezbollah and Iranian Shia targets in her northern neighbour, and needs Russia to continue to turn a blind eye.

There’s also other politics at bay. Naama Issachar is an Israeli-American woman who has been held by Russia since April last year on drug charges. About 10g of cannabis was found in her luggage during a stopover in Moscow as she flew from India to Israel. She was sentenced to seven and a half years for drug smuggling, a charge she denies.

According to Israeli media, Moscow has put forward several concessions for Issachar’s freedom, including a resolution to a building dispute in Jerusalem that houses Russian pilgrims. Additionally, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Russia is seeking some sort of backing for its own narrative regarding World War II. Should Israel announce such gestures (at the time of writing it hadn’t), it won’t be long before we find out whether this was indeed the deal.

The Lithuanian president has also announced that he won’t be attending. Although he didn’t give a reason for the last-minute cancellation, it’s believed to be a gesture in support of Poland and against Russia.


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