JERUSALEM — Leaders from almost 50 countries gathered here Thursday to mark 75 since years since the liberation of Auschwitz and, drawing on the memory of its horrors, to mount a united stand against the resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world.
Vice President Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi will be among the dignitaries and delegations filling Yad Vashem, the city’s somber memorial to the Holocaust’s six million victims, for the World Holocaust Forum, one of the largest international events ever hosted by Israel.
Leaders of World War II’s four allied powers were schedule to speak, including Pence, Britain’s Prince Charles, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
With about 100 of the fast-dwindling number of Holocaust survivors present, participants are expected to warn that the hatred that fostered the industrial murder that took many of their families is festering again in incidents both trivial and terrorizing, from swastikas painted on gravestones to mass shootings at synagogues.
“I hope and pray that from this room the message will go out to every country on earth, that the leaders of the world will stand united in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and extremism,” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at a welcoming dinner Wednesday. “This is the call of our time.”
Moshe Kantor, the Russian philanthropist and president of the World Holocaust Forum Foundation who organized the unprecedented gathering, compared the moment to attempts by world leaders to address rising anti-Jewish violence in Europe eight decades ago at a conference in Evian, France.
“This meeting ended up with no agreement and no result,” Kantor said in an interview, a failure that paved the way for the atrocities that followed. “This is why the level of anti-Semitism in the world should serve as a moral barometer.”
The gathering of the World Holocaust Forum all but took over the Holy City, closing streets and schools and drawing more than 11,000 security officers from around the country. Hotels scrambled to accommodate presidents and princes as motorcades filled roads otherwise as quiet as a Saturday sabbath.
Many of the participants were traveling straight from another global gathering, the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. Among those who had planned to make the trip was Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and keeper of the long-delayed White House “Deal of the Century” peace proposal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Kushner, however, canceled his stop in Jerusalem Wednesday, citing potential weather-related flight delays and squashing speculation, for now, that the debut of “the deal” was imminent.
Plenty of other politics did find their way into the solemn gathering, however. Macron caused a stir when he was shown shouting at Israeli security personnel as he was entering the Church of St. Anne, a medieval edifice owned by the French government. The vocal dispute apparently had to do with whether French or Israeli security would escort Macron into the nave, a reflection of the byzantine turf conflicts that riddle Jerusalem’s holy sites (control of the nearby Church of the Sepulcher is divvied up among six separate Christian sects).
Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, where Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps were located, boycotted the gathering entirely in protest of not being offered a speaking role at the Yad Vashem ceremony. The perceived snub came amid a growing blame-game between Poland and Russia over who started World War II. Duda has accused Putin of spreading a “historical lie” about Poland’s willingness to help the Nazis while downplaying Russia’s own nonaggression pact with Germany. Duda will attend commemorative events at Auschwitz Monday.
Locally, though, Israelis were fixated on Putin, particularly whether he would use his visit to announce the release of a 27-year-old American-Israeli backpacker imprisoned in Russia on minor drug charges. The case is widely seen as part of a wider geopolitical tussle between Russia, and the United States, including efforts by Washington to have an alleged Russian hacker extradited from Israel.
The plight of the New Jersey-born Na’ama Issachar, who was found with a small amount of hashish when transiting the Moscow airport on a flight from India, has become a cause celebre here. “Free Na’ama” signs hang over highways and her mother has become a frequent, pleading presence on television.
Both Putin and Pence were scheduled to meet Thursday with Netanyahu, who is fighting for both his political and legal survival with Israel’s third election in a year coming in March as the prime minister is under indictment on corruption charges.
Another fraught encounter is possible for Pence in the person of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the leader at the center of impeachment proceeds unfolding in Washington. Pence skipped Zelenksy’s inauguration in May at a time when Trump was seeking to pressure the Ukrainian to investigate a Democratic rival.
It was unclear if the two would bump into each other on the Yad Vashem stage however. Zelensky reportedly surrendered his seat during the main ceremony at Yad Vashem to Holocaust survivors.
Pence was also planning a visit, with his wife Karen Pence, to the iconic Western “Wailing” Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Putin was slated to visit the West Bank city of Bethlehem for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Putin also planned to attend the dedication of a new Jerusalem memorial to the Siege of Leningrad in the 1940s. About 800,000 people died during the more than two years the city, now known as St. Petersburg, was under siege, including many Jews.
Russian immigrants are a growing presence in Israeli politics and culture and the memorial, a soaring bronze tower, was funded by Jewish organizations and the city councils of St. Petersburg and Jerusalem.