More than 40 world leaders and dignitaries, including Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Prince Charles and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, descended on Jerusalem Thursday to rally against anti-Semitism at the World Holocaust Forum.
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The forum, considered the largest event dedicated to remembering the Holocaust and condemning the recent spike in anti-Jewish violence worldwide, is slated to take place ahead of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on Monday.
“Anti-Semitism does not stop with the Jews,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in an opening speech. “Anti-Semitism and racism are a malignant disease that destroyed and takes apart societies from within and no democracy is immune.”
The presidents of Germany, Italy and Austria and representatives from Canada and Australia were also present. Meanwhile, the president of Poland boycotted the event after he was not invited to speak.
Rivlin warned visiting dignitaries to “leave history for the historians” – amid controversy over the Soviet’s pre-war pact with the Nazis, which was betrayed in the subsequent nearly 900-day siege of Leningrad, a city now known as St. Petersburg, Russia, and Putin’s hometown.
“The role of political leaders, of all of us, is to shape the future,” Rivlin said Wednesday.
About 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis. Historians have estimated about 1 million were Soviet. But Putin offered a disputed – and more controversial figure – Thursday, claiming an additional 1.5 million Jews killed were Soviet. That estimation seemed to include Jews from eastern European territories that were occupied by the Soviets at the onset of World War II.
In his meeting with Rivlin, Putin claimed that “when it comes to the tragedy of the Holocaust, 40 percent of tortured and killed Jews were Soviet Union Jews.”
“So this is our common tragedy in the fullest sense of the word,” he added.
Putin has been leading a campaign to downplay the Soviet Union’s pre-war pact with Nazi Germany. He instead is claiming Poland is responsible for the outbreak of World War II. But Germany and the Soviet Union both invaded Poland on opposite fronts in 1939.
The three-hour long ceremony, held at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, comes amid an uptick in anti-Semitic violence. Tel Aviv University researchers reported last year that violent attacks against Jews grew significantly in 2018, with the largest reported number of Jews killed in anti-Semitic acts in decades.
They recorded 400 cases, with the spike most dramatic in western Europe, The Associated Press reported. In Germany, for instance, there was a 70 percent increase in anti-Semitic violence. In addition to the shooting attacks, assaults and vandalism, the research also noted increased anti-Semitic vitriol online and in newspapers, as extremist political parties grew in power in several countries, raising shock and concern among aging survivors.
Also at the event, called “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism,” Pence used his speech to condemn Iran – which claims the Holocaust never happened.
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“We must also stand strong against the leading purveyor of anti-Semitism, the one government in the world that denies the Holocaust as a matter of state policy and threatens to wipe Israel off the map: the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking re-election on March 2, meanwhile nodded to the Soviet Union for its role in ending World War II. He also planned to use meetings with world leaders to bolster his tough line toward Iran and rally opposition to a looming war crimes case against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
“We mustn’t for even one second blur the sacrifice and the contribution of the former Soviet Union” in defeating “the Nazi monster,” Netanyahu said at the ceremony.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.