Jerusalem – Israel hosts dozens of world leaders Thursday to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, the World War II death camp where the Nazis killed more than 1.1 million people, most of them Jews.
The presidents of Russia, France and Germany, US Vice President Mike Pence and Britain’s Prince Charles were set to address the sombre event at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem in the presence of Auschwitz survivors.
Guarded by more than 10,000 police, one third of the national force, the meeting of more than 40 presidents, premiers and monarchs is the biggest international diplomatic gathering ever held in Israel.
Alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leaders will warn against a resurgence of anti-Semitism in speeches at the memorial centre for the six million Jews that Nazi Germany killed in gas chambers, ghettos and forced labour camps.
“This is a historic gathering, not only for Israel and the Jewish people, but for all humanity,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin told a dinner on the eve of the commemoration.
“As we remember the victims of the Holocaust, and World War II, we also mark the victory of freedom and human dignity,” he said, calling for a global push to “stand united in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and extremism”.
The ceremonies move on next Monday to the site in Poland of the Auschwitz camp, liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.
While the focus in Jerusalem will be on the Holocaust and its haunting legacy, modern politics have impacted the event, held at a time of soaring US-Iranian tensions and ahead of Israel’s March general election.
Netanyahu this week drew a direct link between the Nazis’ “Final Solution” to exterminate Europe’s Jews and the threat that Israel says it faces from its arch-foe Iran.
While in the Nazi death camps, “a third of the Jewish people went up in flames”, today “Iran openly declares every day that it wants to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,” he said.
“I think the lesson of Auschwitz is: one, stop bad things when they’re small. And Iran is a very bad thing, it’s not that small, but it could get a lot bigger with nuclear weapons.”
Tehran strongly denies all accusations of anti-Semitism, insisting that while it opposes the Jewish state and supports the Palestinian cause, it has no problem with Jewish people, including its own Jewish minority.
– ‘Memory of victims’ –
Netanyahu enjoys strong backing from US President Donald Trump, who in 2018 pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal with Iran and has heaped sanctions and “maximum pressure” on Tehran and ordered the targeted killing of a top Iranian general on January 3.
In his talks with Pence, who arrived early Thursday, Netanyahu was expected to seek reaffirmation of Washington’s support for Israeli settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territories and on other contentious issues.
One of the most powerful players in Jerusalem will be Putin, a key actor in the Middle East since his forces, along with Iranian fighters, started backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015.
The commemorations were organised by Moshe Kantor, a billionaire close to the Kremlin who is also a prominent figure in Russia’s Jewish community and the president of the European Jewish Congress.
Putin, who is travelling with his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, will give a key speech, but Poland’s President Andrzej Duda is staying away after being denied the right to address the event.
Relations between Moscow and Warsaw, its Cold War-era satellite, have been strained since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, and have deteriorated further in disagreements over history.
Last month, Putin provoked an outcry after he made the false claim that Poland had colluded with Adolf Hitler and contributed to the outbreak of World War II.
Poland, which sees Moscow as rewriting history and ignoring its own 1939 non-aggression pact with Hitler, has urged Putin “not to use the memory of the victims of the Holocaust for political games”.
While in Jerusalem, Putin will inaugurate a monument to honour victims of the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, that left hundreds of thousands of people dead, including an estimated 70,000 Jewish soldiers.
For Israel, the commemoration comes at a time of political paralysis, when voters face a third general election in less than 12 months on March 2.
Polls indicate Netanyahu, the caretaker premier, and his centrist rival Benny Gantz are still neck-and-neck — potentially leaving both unable, again, to form a majority government.