Political tensions bubbling at the World Holocaust Forum

Dignitaries assemble to pay their respects at the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation

Macron in Jerusalem
French President Emmanuel Macron puts on a kippah as he arrives at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City
(Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)

More than 40 heads of state, along with a host of high-profile politicians and royalty, have descended on Jerusalem for the World Holocaust Forum, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Some of those scheduled to attend are Prince Charles, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, US Vice President Mike Pence and US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, along with the kings of Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Organisers say the summit is one of the biggest international gatherings in Israel’s 72-year history - eclipsed only by the funerals of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Shimon Peres. Speaking at a special reception last night, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin described it as an “historic gathering, not only for Israel and the Jewish People, but for all humanity”.

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The summit will address the global rise in anti-Semitism, and commemorate the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust, but it has also emerged as a focal point of some more prosaic political tensions.

Macron in altercation with security personnel

President Macron was yesterday visiting the Church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem’s old city, which belongs to the French government and is considered French territory, when Israeli security personnel attempted to follow him inside, reports Politico.eu.

The Roman Catholic church dates back to the 12th-century era of the crusades, and was a gift to Napoleon III by the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I in 1856, as thanks for French support during the Crimean War.

“Everybody knows the rules. I don’t like what you did in front of me. Go outside!” shouted Macron, who was filmed admonishing the Israeli officials. “Please respect the rules as they are for centuries. They will not change with me, I can tell you!”

A spokesperson for the Elysee Palace later clarified: “Israeli security forces wanted to enter while security was being provided by French security services. The president reacted to an altercation between the Israeli and French security forces at the time of entering Saint Anne in order to end it, and to remind everyone of the rules that apply.”

Poland-Russia spat

One person missing from proceedings in Jerusalem is Polish President Andrzej Duda, a notable omission considering Auschwitz-Birkenau is in Poland.

The reason for Duda’s absence stems from an argument between his government and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin - a quarrel that has reached a fever pitch over the last few months.

In various public addresses, “Mr. Putin has sought to portray the Soviet Union as having saved the world from Nazism and ignore its own 1939 nonaggression pact with Germany, and has framed Poland as more a perpetrator than a victim of the Holocaust,” reports The New York Times. “Mr. Duda argues that the Soviet agreement with Germany paved the way to war, and that Mr. Putin is reviving old Stalinist propaganda as a modern-day cudgel.”

Duda reportedly declined his Jerusalem invitation because he was not given a speaking slot at the summit, while Putin was, and has set up his own rival ceremony at the Auschwitz site in southern Poland on Monday. Israeli President Rivlin was adamant only leaders from Allied powers would speak - an insistence that has infuriated the Polish president.

“I am sorry to say this, but President Putin is knowingly spreading historical lies,” Duda said in an interview with Israeli public television that aired on Tuesday.

Rivlin yesterday alluded to the disagreement during his speech without addressing it directly. “Historical research should remain at the hands of historians. The role of leaders and politicians is to shape the future,” he said.

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Israeli hopes for jailed backpacker

Meanwhile, eyes will also be on the fate of an Israeli backpacker jailed in Russia. Na’ama Issachar, 28, an Israeli-American woman, had taken an extended trip backpacking around India, and her return flight home in April last year took her via Moscow, where police discovered 9.5g of cannabis in her checked luggage.

She was arrested on charges of drug trafficking and sentenced to seven years in jail by a Moscow court, but Israelis are hoping Putin can be persuaded to pardon her.

“Israeli officials and the public are hoping that a warm welcome for the Russian leader will soften his heart and mind to the plight of Na’ama Issachar,” reports The Washington Post.

The case has captured the attention of the Israeli public, and Netanyahu has promised to raise the issue with Putin when the two meet in Jerusalem today. In a sign that he may be open to persuasion, Putin aide Yuri Ushakov has said the Russian leader will meet with Issachar’s mother, Yaff, during his brief 12-hour stay in the Holy Land.

Netanyahu hopes to influence international opinion

After the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced she would investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in Palestine, Netanyahu will use meetings with world leaders during the forum to secure support from international partners, arguing the court has no jurisdiction in Palestinian territories, as they are not a sovereign state.

“Netanyahu is expected to ask the leaders he will meet – chief among them U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and others – to publish official statements that will back the Israeli claim that the court in The Hague has no jurisdiction in Palestinian territories,” reports Haaretz.

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William Gritten

William Gritten is a London-born, New York-based strategist and writer focusing on politics and international affairs.