The World Holocaust Forum, which gathered at Yad Vashem on Thursday, fulfilled its purpose: the impressive ceremony, attended by some 40 heads of state and senior statesmen, did a fine job holding the Holocaust’s memory high and echoing its heritage to the world.
Eight speeches were made, two of which are worth a closer look – those by Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Steinmeier made a courageous, honest, inspiring speech. He placed the full responsibility for the Holocaust on his country, without reservation. He also looked directly at the present and described a true picture of it. “I wish I could say that we Germans have learned from history once and for all,” the German president said. “But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading.”
His next words should resonate in Israel even louder: “We Germans remember. But sometimes it seems as though we understand the past better than the present.”
Netanyahu’s speech, which preceded him, was a masterpiece of distraction. Netanyahu repeated the main points of his doctrine, which is that Israel can count only on its own strength. That for him is the sole lesson of the Holocaust. This, though, is a partial lesson and even a distorted one. It’s the lesson Israel recites to its younger generation, to the tens of thousands of students who travel to the “March of the Living” in Auschwitz. As a lesson that stands alone, it is destructive. Israel will not be able to survive by its sword alone, as no state in history has survived forever only by force. Unless Israel becomes a moral and just state, a state accepted by the countries around it, danger will continue to lie in wait until, heaven forbid, it finally defeats it.
Calling on the world to denounce Iran at the ceremony, Netanyahu’s usual tactic, doesn’t change the fact that the lessons he draws from the Holocaust are dangerous. When Netanyahu keeps reciting, “Auschwitz – the enslavement, Jerusalem – the freedom,” he is distorting reality. Auschwitz indeed symbolizes enslavement and of course other appalling horrors, but Jerusalem doesn’t represent freedom. As long as a large part of its residents lives under a regime of occupation, flagrant discrimination and violence – Jerusalem and freedom don’t have a single thing in common.
Netanyahu’s Israel perhaps understands the past, as Germany’s president said of his country, but it understands the present far less. Germany’s president admitted it, Netanyahu is far from doing the same.