Israel's Top Court Rejects Petition to Ban War Criminals From Visiting Yad Vashem

Court rules it cannot interfere in official diplomatic visits of controversial leaders to Israel's Jewish Holocaust memorial

Ofer Aderet
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Philippine President Duterte lays a wreath at Israel's Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. September 2, 2018
Philippine President Duterte lays a wreath at Israel's Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. September 2, 2018.Credit: Emil Salman
Ofer Aderet

Israel's High Court of Justice denied a petition last week to prevent official visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center by foreign officials involved in war crimes, human rights violations or who support racist and antisemitic policies.

The court ruled that it has no authority to intervene in the government’s diplomatic considerations and that the visits of the controversial foreign leaders may have “educational value.”

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In past years, dozens of activists have asked Yad Vashem and the Foreign Ministry to stop such “shameful” visits of “dubious and dangerous” foreign leaders. The list includes Philippine's President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – along with leaders from Myanmar, South Sudan, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Papua New guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso.

“It is unthinkable that the central museum for commemorating the Holocaust of the Jews hosts in an official manner, time after time, senior leaders suspected of war crimes, crimes against humanity and severe violations of human rights, who support rape, and are rousing antisemitism and the hatred of others,” wrote the petitioners represented by attorney Itay Mack. “These visits stain the Yad Vashem museum and hurt the feelings of large parts of the Israeli public, Jewish communities in the diaspora, Holocaust survivors and those persecuted by the Nazis, researchers and donors,” wrote the petitioners.

The court accepted Yad Vashem's position that responsibility lies with the Foreign Ministry, which organizes such visits based on cabinet decisions. The Foreign Ministry, in turn, claimed that the visits have “moral and educational value" and that their cancellation could “harm Israel’s foreign relations” and cause diplomatic scandals.

The court admitted it was faced with a “weighty moral and ethical question,” which contained tensions between ethical and utilitarian considerations. The court asked whether it was appropriate for leaders who bear responsibility for carrying out “horrible crimes such as murder, rape, looting, arson and torture to visit the Yad Vashem museum, which documents and commemorates the Holocaust of the Jewish people?” The court noted that this was a question of principle, and it was not deciding as to whether these accusations about leaders were true.

"It is not a matter for the court to answer. The government and the Knesset have the authority to determine the appropriate policy in this matter,” wrote Supreme Court justice Noam Sohlberg.

Justice Yosef Elron said he thought such visits actually had educational value and send a clear message from Israel to the foreign leaders who come to visit, as an “Expression of Israel’s declared position in denouncing and condemning any regime or person who undermines democratic principles and trampled in his actions the principle of the sanctification of life.”

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