JERUSALEM — President Vladimir Putin of Russia called for vigilance “not to miss when the first sprouts of hatred, of chauvinism, of xenophobia and anti-Semitism start to rear their ugly head.”
Prince Charles warned that hatred and intolerance “still lurk in the human heart, still tell new lies, still adopt new disguises and still seek new victims.”
And Vice President Mike Pence urged world leaders to “stand strong” against Iran — “the one government in the world that denies the Holocaust as a matter of policy and threatens to wipe Israel off the map.”
As dignitaries from scores of western nations met in Jerusalem to remember the liberation of Auschwitz 75 years ago and express their resolve to combat anti-Semitism, the invocations of the past were as often aimed at scoring present-day geopolitical points as at sounding the alarm about a resurgence of bigotry and anti-Jewish violence.
The president of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said his country now resists “the poison that is nationalism.” Then he hauntingly cited the attack last fall on a synagogue in Halle, Germany.
“I wish I could say that we Germans have learned from our history once and for all, but I cannot say that when hatred is spreading,” he said. “I cannot say that when Jewish children are spat on in the schoolyard. I cannot say that when crude anti-Semitism is cloaked in supposed criticism of Israeli policy. And I cannot say that when only a thick wooden door prevents a right-wing terrorist from causing a massacre, a blood bath, in a synagogue in the city of Halle on Yom Kippur.”
Putin, as nationalist as they come, noted that “the Soviet nation was the one that put an end to the Nazis’ malicious plan,” and took credit for the Red Army having “liberated Europe.”
Alluding to his war of dueling historical narratives with Poland’s president over their countries’ actions during the Holocaust and roles in the outbreak of World War II, Putin said that “the memory of the Holocaust will continue being a lesson and a warning only if the true story is told, without omitting the facts.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like Pence, did not let the opportunity pass to urge world leaders to follow the United States’ example in confronting Iran.
“The tyrants of Tehran that subjugate their own people and threaten the peace and security of the entire world, they threaten the peace and security of everyone in the Middle East and everyone beyond,” he said.
In a proud, if slightly bellicose, address, Netanyahu said Israel was “eternally grateful” to the Allied powers that defeated Hitler, but noted that during Hitler’s rise, “when the Jewish people faced annihilation, the world largely turned its back on us.”
He called Auschwitz “the ultimate symbol of Jewish powerlessness,” adding, “Today, we have a voice, we have a land, and we have a shield,” the Israeli armed forces. “And what a shield it is.”
The unusual gathering, with streams of royals and republican rulers all but shutting the Holy City down under high security, comes before Monday’s anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp in Poland where some 1.1 million people perished, most of them Jews.
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, angered that Putin was given a speaking slot but he was not, stayed home. But their dispute bled over into a memorial book printed in advance of the commemoration. Putin has sought to portray Poland as a perpetrator rather than a victim of the Holocaust, claiming the Polish ambassador to Berlin had lauded Hitler’s effort to rid Europe of Jews.
In the memorial book, Duda promised to “always uphold the truth about the tragedy that struck our country.” And Putin criticized efforts “to distort the truth about the Second World War and rehabilitate the aggressors and their accomplices.”
Putin had a busy schedule on his day trip. He unveiled a monument in Jerusalem’s central Sacher Park to the victims of the siege of Leningrad, a grisly 900-day national trauma that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Russian civilians.
And he cheered Israelis by hinting broadly that Russia would soon release an Israeli American woman who was given a long prison sentence last year after several grams of marijuana were found in her checked bags while she was changing planes in Moscow.
The Palestinians were not invited to the Holocaust commemoration, but they were not merely watching from the sidelines. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, met with President Emmanuel Macron of France late Wednesday, and with Putin on Thursday evening.
Still, those meetings paled next to what some critics of Abbas said was the embarrassment of so many leaders visiting Israel, after President Donald Trump in 2017 recognized Jerusalem as its capital.
Amer Hamdan, 38, a lawyer and activist in Nablus, said the gathering amounted to “an implicit recognition that Jerusalem is the de facto capital of Israel” and “a catastrophic failure of Palestinian diplomacy.”
Prince Charles was to meet with the Palestinian leader in Bethlehem on Friday after visiting the Church of Nativity, and before a stop in East Jerusalem at the Mount of Olives, where his grandmother, Princess Alice, is buried.
In his remarks at Yad Vashem, the prince noted that in 1943 his grandmother had taken a Jewish family into her home in Athens, saving them from the Nazis, “a fact which gives me and my family immense pride.”
It was left to Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who at age 8 was liberated from Buchenwald, then rose to become Israel’s chief rabbi and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, to bring the proceedings back to earth in the end.
“Leaders of the world, the world is in your arms, in your hands,” he said, smiling. “With one sentence, one signature, you can decide upon millions of people. So decide on love, and friendship, and peace, forever.”