CNN's Sara Sidner at Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem.
What Israel's Holocaust memorial can teach us today
03:41 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, Executive Director of The RedLines Project, is a contributor to CNN where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” and the forthcoming “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy and a History of Wars That Almost Happened,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

The world converged on Jerusalem this week to observe the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp – and with a collective determination to battle anti-Semitism in its many forms. At the same time, the gathering exposed a number of old and festering political wounds, which threatened to weaken the impact of it.

Some 40 heads of state or government from Russian President Vladimir Putin to French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial to pay homage to those who died and to pledge “never again.” The actual anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where at least 1.1 million were slaughtered in the Nazi death camp, will be marked on Monday in Poland.

In Israel, though, there were noticeable absentees and a succession of contretemps.

Poland and Lithuania, for example, have accused Putin of reviving Stalinist-era tropes when he’s claimed the Soviet Union saved the world from Nazism and framed the Polish people as participating in the Holocaust. So, when Putin was given a speaking role at Yad Vashem, Presidents Andrzej Duda of Poland and Lithuania’s Gitanas Nauseda declined to attend.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron got into a minor shouting match with Israeli police, who sought to enter the medieval Church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem – French territory since the 19th century – ahead of the French leader. (Notably, a nearly identical incident happened with the late French President Jacques Chirac in 1996).

Later, however, during a group photo of the world leaders at the home of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Macron was strategically pictured front and center between hosts Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a fight for his own political life, under indictment for corruption and facing new elections in March, Netanyahu has been making the most of this week’s events. He even leaned into his role as statesman, strolling for television cameras with Putin and then taking him on a visit to the mother of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American woman imprisoned in Russia.

This awkward moment as leader of a country keeping a woman’s child in prison was just one of the issues facing Putin at the ceremonies. He must decide whether to free Issachar, who is serving seven and a half years in prison after marijuana was found in her luggage while she transited a Moscow airport. (Issachar maintains the drugs were planted on her, and she was forced into signing a false confession.)

Israeli media suggested Putin was demanding a number of “gestures” from Israel before Putin agrees to release her, a decision which seems increasingly likely after the high-octane campaign on her behalf.

And, in Paris, Macron is facing demands, reiterated by Netanyahu during their meeting, to “deal with” the murder of Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old French Jew who was thrown from her Paris apartment window in 2017. A French court ruled that the killer was “not criminally responsible.” Despite the court ruling, many protesters in France believe the killing of Halimi to be an anti-Semitic act.

Meanwhile, Macron – as well as leaders across the globe – have a broader range of issues to address regarding growing anti-Semitism. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a nearly 60-year-old organization dealing with Holocaust education, released a survey this week showing that 57% of all French adults and 69% of millennials and Generation Z did not know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

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    Many members of the Jewish community question whether world leaders were prepared to demonstrate, as King Felipe VI of Spain said, an “unyielding commitment to fighting the ignorant intolerance, hatred and the total lack of human empathy that permitted and gave birth to the Holocaust.”

    The skepticism remains because despite wide-ranging efforts by well-meaning world leaders, anti-Semitic incidents and attacks on Jews and Jewish establishments are on the rise across Europe and the United States

    Defining and then dealing with anti-Semitism remain two critical hurdles that even the best-intentioned officials seem ill-equipped to handle. But, as King Felipe concluded, “”There is no room for indifference in the presence of racism, xenophobia, hate speech and anti-Semitism.”