Press conference of Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Avner Shalev and President of World Holocaust Foundation Moshe Kantor during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum. Yad Vashem

Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate. Shalom, good morning, and welcome everyone! First of all, as it was mentioned, I’m Avner Shalev, Chairman of Yad Vashem. Unfortunately, I fell a week ago and broke a bone, and I’m doing my best, and I’m glad that I’m here today with you. And, you know, in the theatre they say that to break a leg is a good sign, so let’s hope for the future.

First of all, I want to welcome again, bruchim habaim, my dear friends and colleagues, survivors who are here with us, they volunteered to be with you and to make the needed interviews and to answer any questions you will ask or they will present on the behalf of so many survivors here in Israel. So, good morning again, and bruchim habaim le-Yad Vashem.

I would start with three, only three short remarks with regard to the event. The idea of the event, which was initiated years ago by Moshe Kantor, my dear friend, to gather leaders of the international community, leaders of nations and states, to come together and to express their new commitment for Holocaust remembrance, and understanding the deep meaning of Holocaust remembrance, and of course to combat antisemitism all over the world. And this is the reason that we are gathered here today on Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. The idea is to gather as many leaders that we have invited, leaders from Europe, leaders from an international organization who deals with remembrance of the Shoah (the IHRA), and to sit together. We think that the fact that close to fifty leaders from around the world are gathered here on Mountain of Remembrance in Yad Vashem means a lot. It means that we are creating a united front of leaders who came to express, I think, one very important statement, and to present their mission. The mission is to combat antisemitism, to understand the growing danger of all kinds of expressions of antisemitism, xenophobia and hate speeches all over the world, and to recommit(?) their own states and nations for human rights, human dignity all over the world. This is, I think, the most important part, and this is the case.

And I must say with satisfaction that it was even a kind of surprise to Moshe, to me and to others that so many leaders, actually all the leaders that have been invited, actually responded in a positive way, and they’re here in Jerusalem, they have been yesterday, of course, we did it under the auspices of the President of Israel Ruvi (Reuven) Rivlin, who sent the invitations to the leaders, and yesterday we had a meeting, a dinner, in the mansion of the President, which was a very warm event, very meaningful, and a good evening, I think a meaningful one, for all of them. I think that King of Spain has spoken on behalf of the leaders, of course, a short message from our President, and Dr. Kantor maybe will repeat about it, have(?) a special device that points to Jerusalem from all directions in the world, and it was presented to our President.

So here we are, and this is the main reason. The other one is, I think, a very important, I think, phenomena, which is here, in my hands. It’s a book which was actually gathered from statements that we asked from each and every leader who was invited to this international event. Each one of them sent a page, a page and a half. It is a statement, a statement of commitment and giving a meaningful sense to this gathering or to their commitment, I say it again and again, to fight against antisemitism and to do whatever is needed to educate, I say it again and again, to educate, to train the teachers, to train the students, and to educate about the importance of Holocaust remembrance and the relevancy of Holocaust remembrance quite nowadays, because we are really worrying about what is happening around the globe with regard to xenophobia and antisemitism. So this is the book; it will be presented this afternoon and given to each of the leaders. I think it’s a very important document that we have here with us this morning.

So… Last, I think, remark is that this is an international event, and most of the places are kept for two, the leaders and those who are coming with the leaders, most of the seats in the hall. Nevertheless, from the very beginning we planned to invite and to have with us survivors from Israel, more than 100 survivors will be with us in this hall. Unfortunately, in Israel – or fortunately! – we still have in Israel close to 200,000 survivors who are still with us, and they should be blessed, and hope that they will be with us as long as we and they can. So, some of them will represent the community of survivors here in Israel. It is very important to all of us.

So, this is the framework; here we are this morning, and I’ll ask my dear friend and colleague Moshe to open his remarks. Thank you, and later on we shall of course answer any questions.

Moshe Kantor, President of the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, President of the European Jewish Congress. Thank you, Avner.

Chair. Thank you, Mr. Shalev. Please, Dr. Kantor!

Kantor. Yes. Avner, thank you very much. You know, I’m very sorry, I’m very sorry that you had broken your leg, but from other side, it showed, it shows our unbreakable desire to fight antisemitism and remembering the Holocaust forever. So, it’s a good sign. It’s sign that you are here with us, and let’s applaud Avner for this.

Shalev. Thank you so much!

Kantor. Dear ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming today for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum here in Jerusalem. This is the fifth forum since I founded it in 2005, but I have never been so concerned with the rise of antisemitism that I see all around us. Just 75 years since the Holocaust, Jewish life in Europe is again under threat. Jews are again afraid to walk the streets of Europe wearing Jewish symbols. Synagogues, schools, Jewish stores are being targeted, and every year, antisemitic attacks become more violent.

As President of the European Jewish Congress, I can only offer you a sad picture of communities hiding behind high fences and thick security doors. More than 80% of European Jews feel unsafe in Europe today, while more than 40% are considering leaving Europe entirely. In recent years, 3% have left the continent annually.

If we think about this figure for a moment, it means that at this rate, after more than 2000 years of living there, in only 30 years there could be no Jews in Europe. Meaning that if the situation continues as it is today, by the year 2050 there will be no Jewish communities left in Europe.

We are also witnessing now that antisemitism is a global disease. In New York, we saw a 50% increase in antisemitic incidents in 2019. (The source is the New York Police Department.) And 84% of Jews in America feel that antisemitism increased over the past five years, and 42% feel less safe than they did in 2018. (It’s the source of American Jewish Congress.)

None of this is acceptable. To tolerate the crisis of antisemitism means the normalization of extremism. And history has shown us where that can lead.

So, I am of course very pleased that more than 45 heads of state and leaders from around the world have gathered here today to stand side by side with the Jewish people. It sends a powerful message that antisemitism is unacceptable danger to all our societies. I thank them for that. It gives Jews hope all around the world that extremism can be countered with the values of tolerance, decency and moderation. Thank you very much, and we of course are open to questions and answers.

Chair. Please, say who you are and which media you represent.

Question. Tom Bateman from the BBC. Dr. Kantor, the Polish Prime Minister said on the BBC this morning that this event has been organized, he said, by President Putin and what he described as some of his allies from Israel, saying it disrespects people who helped Jews in Poland during the war. Do you have a response?

Kantor. Yes. First of all, I didn’t read this interview, but I believe that what is telling is correct.

Nobody but World Holocaust Forum and Yad Vashem had nothing to do with organization of this forum. Our idea – to invite all leaders of the world whose presence is relevant to our targets, it’s remembering Holocaust and fighting antisemitism. This was the principle. And we created, or at least tried to create, the wide platform for everybody to come here and to be united against that evil. So, if… You know, statistics is a very important thing. If a lot of guys decided to come, for sure it will be somebody who is going to refuse at the last moment. So I think it’s statistics, not more.

Shalev. If I can add something else, I’m really sorry that the president of Poland, Mr. Duda, has made the decision not to come. Because I think that he got a kind of a misinterpretation, or wrong interpretation, of the goals of this meeting here in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Usually we have good, I think, connections, professional connections, with all kinds of agencies in Poland, and we shall continue to do so in the future.

I think that there are disputes and misunderstanding between certain states, like the case of right now between Russia and Poland, or many other states, with regard to their own history and the interpretation of the history. Basically, we do believe very deeply that the business of historical truth should be handled by researchers and historians who are living(?) in a free world, under, I think, the relative, very open criteria how to make a research, how to contribute to a research, how to publish a research, which is well documented. This is the case, and this is what Yad Vashem is doing. When there are disputes between countries, they should go on with them, but not in this stage. This stage, as it was mentioned again and again, is open for the leaders of so many states and nations to sit together and to speak in one voice. We are united against expressions of antisemitism and xenophobia, and let’s say it together. And I think that Poland has to be part of this community of leader nations, and I’m really sorry for it, and we shall continue.

Kantor. And, if I may, I would like to add just one thing. In any case, we heard that President Duda has a strong desire to invest a lot of attention, serious attention, to event on 27th of January in Auschwitz. We wish him full success…

Shalev. Absolutely!

Kantor. …in this very important thing, because we do think that we are doing mutual thing, mutual project.

Shalev. And by the way, the importance of this event in Auschwitz is expressed and symbolized by the fact that the President of Israel, the State of Israel, will attend this event. He is also not going to speak because he was not invited to speak, but nevertheless he will be there, he will do whatever is needed for the commemoration and the remembrance of the Shoah there in Auschwitz, with the Poles and other representatives who will attend this event.

Question. Hello! Sabine Müller, with ARD, German radio. I was wondering how worried are the two of you. I mean, this is supposed to be a day of remembrance. How worried are you that some of the leaders that are speaking might use their speeches for political messages, that Putin might talk about what has happened or what he has said concerning Poland again, or that the Israeli Prime Minister might use this event to send a message towards Iran?

Kantor. If I may?

Shalev. Of course, please, go ahead.

Kantor. First of all, it’s not a political gathering. Our main goal is to use the platform of Holocaust commemoration to raise the issue about crisis of antisemitism. Crisis. Antisemitism after 2008-2009 is growing dramatically every year. And just now this crisis of antisemitism is not any more only Jewish issue, it’s only secondly about Jews; it is about shaking the pillars of the societies. Because Jews everywhere, according to our, as you know, Talmudic law, dina d’malkhuta dina, the law of the land is the law. We are the pillars of the society; we’re integrated in the societies, and this is our task to be close always to the states where we live, first of all, in diasporas. And if somebody’s shaking the pillars, it means they are not taking care about pillars, they are taking care and try to destroy the home, the society in general. That’s why we have so strong feedback from these leaders of the states who are coming here, because we are speaking about common danger! Danger of antisemitism and danger of the destruction of their own states through coming into executive power extremism of different types in democratic way. As it was, as you know, 80+ years ago in Germany. So, this is the case, this is the very important issue why we decided to make this project.

Shalev. Of course I agree with my colleague, but another sign for me, personally, are the statements which have been written by the leaders. And we read all of them, one by one, and including of course the one of Putin, and I couldn’t see any sign that he’s going to attack any other state but declaring the importance of combating antisemitism and those human values.

Chair. Thank you. Next question, please! Present yourself, please.

Question. Marcin Tulicki, I’m from Polish Public Television. You didn’t let President of Poland take a speech today. Why? We were also ally(?) in Second World War.

Chair. I think this question already been answered by Dr. Kantor before, and by Mr. Shalev. He explained what the idea of the event is. But if they want to elaborate?

Shalev. Because long before the dispute between Russia and Poland has started we planned this international event, and we thought that the representative of the allies(?) that(?) time will get the opportunity to speak, to stand up and speak, and this was the case, we didn’t have any intention otherwise from this principle, and we kept that principle, that’s simply so, and I think that Duda was invited to speak in the presidential dinner, and it was his choice, and he decided what he has decided. I’m really, really sorry for it. I think that Poland has the right to stand with the other nations here shoulder to shoulder this morning, this afternoon in Jerusalem.

Kantor. Yes, and you can of course tell your readers that President Duda, with all our respect and with all our desire, was proposed to speak number one at the opening of our all these ceremonies. And his position was replaced yesterday by the King of Spain. But firstly, this position, to speak first, was proposed to him. This is the medical fact.

Chair. Thank you.

Question. Hey, I’m Dana Regev, Deutsche Welle. Deutsche Welle, Germany, although I am Israeli, and I will ask this question as an Israeli Jew. We know that there will be no concrete action or any obliging declaration following this event. So, my question is, what is the concrete and true meaning of this, beyond a party for journalists and empty statements, and could it have any concrete and measurable results?

Chair. Please, Dr. Kantor!

Kantor. The majority of the population of the entire world first speak, then think, and then act. OK? So, the result is self-sufficient already. If we have such an important gathering of decision-makers of this world together, and they exchange their opinions, they speak about the values which we put on the table for discussion, it means it’s self-sufficient result, and it will trigger the mentality process which will be for sure followed up by the actions.

Shalev. My expectations are even more. We know that we are training every single year hundreds of teachers and leaderships, echelons of leaders, in the educational field, here in Yad Vashem, Mount of Remembrance, and we want to know, and this is not always the case that they will get support from their own ministries, from their own leaders. So, if the voices that will be heard from here, the Mount of Remembrance, in Yad Vashem, by the leaders of the community, it will be a moral support, and I think a real support, for leaders in the field of education, principals, teachers, who want to intensify the work and to teach more and more, and I think that it is concrete result of this gathering here in Jerusalem. I do believe in it, and we shall see in the future that it goes on in this direction.

Chair. Thank you. Next question, please!

Question. I’m Walter Bingham, here with two hats: one as a survivor, and one as the oldest working journalist in the world. My question is – you have this wonderful book, with those statements by all the leaders. How many of their countries have signed up for the official definition of antisemitism?

Shalev. I do not remember right now, but it’s a fact that more and more states joined. For example, Prime Minister of Sweden – Sweden had quite critical, I think…

Kantor. Situation.

Shalev. …way of looking about the Israeli policy, with regard to political situation here in the Middle East, but nevertheless this leader has stated very clearly a few days ago that he will get fully the definition of the IHRA with regard to that. I think the other states that we remember are France, Germany, the U.S., and other states who gather and will gather. I think that this definition is a mutual(?) definition, and it’s a very practical definition to understand when it stops to be a legitimate criticism about political, I think, sides, or policies, and it starts to be antisemitism. And it’s very important for every one of us, so I think that this gathering will give another push for the recognition of the definition, as has been with Sweden and other states. Thank you.

Chair. Next question, please!

Female. Hello. Noam(?) * from GLZ Radio. We understand that Rabbi Meir Lau said today that he was asked by President of Ukraine, Zelensky, to give up his place, his speech, so President Zelensky will speak in his place, but he was declined. Is this the real reason he won’t be attending the forum later in the day?

Chair. Please, your question again? Who was? What was declined?

Female. We understand that Rabbi Meir Lau said that President Zelensky of Ukraine asked him to give up his speech so Zelensky will speak in his place.

Chair. We didn’t hear about it, I don’t think this…

Shalev. We didn’t hear about it.

Chair. I don’t know what you’re talking about, we’ll have to check this.

Female. He said it to GLZ Radio.

Shalev. I spoke to him yesterday and this morning, and I never heard about it.

Female. OK. So, can you speak as to the reason why President Zelensky won’t be attending today?

Shalev. I don’t have a good explanation, seriously. I know that he… At a certain point, he thought and he asked to speak; he was explained that this is not the case, this is not the stage. He understood it, and, as far as I knew yesterday morning, he was planning to come. Why he changed his mind, I do not know, but I know that he is coming on Friday, with his wife, and he will pay a visit to Yad Vashem. So what exactly happened and changed the timetable, I really don’t know, I cannot answer you.

Chair. Next question, please!

Question. Hello! Elena Chinkova, Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. How do you think, why the dozens of world leaders came here? What was their motivation?

Chair. Dr. Kantor!

Kantor. I already answered this question.

Shalev. We say it again and again.

Chair. Yes, this question was answered.

Shalev. I think the motivation is clear. The motivation is their understanding, deep understanding that the world, the globe, so many states are confronting a real danger, a real problem, and they want to come and express a united, I would say, front, united message to their nations, to the world, that we are here, we are really committed to fight against it and to do whatever we can for education and to fight against antisemitism. This is the motivation, and this is the reason why they are here, all of them.

Kantor. And I would like to add a little bit. It’s very important to understand the difference between the quality of antisemitism, which used to be from, let’s say, the end of the Second World War up to the crisis of financial and economical crisis of 2008-2009. Just now we see not any more the antisemitism which was qualified as latent one, just now we see the real crisis of antisemitism everywhere in the world, and the numbers are terrifying. So, we try to send the message to the leaders that it is a danger for the countries, for national security of the countries, that extremism from both sides, from ultra left, from ultra right, from islamistic side, it’s coming, because the middle class, so-called middle class, which used to be always, during all these years, the biggest stabilizer of the stability in each country, is very much polarized and don’t deliver any more these functions. So, just now is the moment when the leaders should stop extremism, which is thinking and moving very actively to take over executive power, country by country. And this phenomenon has a very strong symptom, as it was exactly in Nazi Germany: they want to get the power in democratic way. That’s why I think we have so strong positive feedback from the leaders.

Chair. Thank you, Dr. Kantor. Next question, please!

Question. Hi! Ofira Koopmans from dpa International, Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

Chair. From where? Sorry, again?

Question. dpa International, the international service in English of Deutsche Presse-Agentur. I saw at the entrance to Yad Vashem two people protesting with yellow stars and a sign, “Stop this Holocaust party: 100,000 hungry survivors”. I understand the real figure is lower, I think about a half, but can you comment on that? I mean, how do you feel about Holocaust survivors in Israel who are living below the poverty line?

Shalev. I’m really sorry to know that still here in our society there are survivors who do not have enough and do not get the right support from the welfare authorities here in Israel. It’s not the responsibility of Yad Vashem, there is a complete separation between, you know, the commemoration, the research, the remembrance, which Yad Vashem has the responsibility for, and another(?) authorities here in Israel, that they are doing together with international organizations to support the survivors, as far as I know, they are doing quite well, but I’m sorry, really, that still there are some survivors who do not have all their needs, and I think that it’s the responsibility of our state and society to do it, but it don’t say and don’t means that survivors do not interest, do not have interest in the commemoration and remembrance; on the contrary, so many survivors are doing so much, and it is so important for them to keep the remembrance, a meaningful remembrance, and together with them we are doing whatever we can to do it relevant and to keep educational efforts going on and on with the young generations for the coming years, coming generations.

Chair. Thank you. Another question?

Question. Hi, I’m Deborah Fineblum from JNS. I have a question about BDS and college campuses. As you know, college campuses in Europe and in North America are having a problem with BDS and other anti-Israel and sometimes antisemitic forces on these campuses making a headway in terms of taking the hearts or the minds of the students there, including Jewish students. Is there anything that you think that could come out of this conference in a positive way, with the leaders’ statements that could alleviate or in some way inform the situation on college campuses across the world?

Kantor. Yes. It’s a very interesting question, because just recently in United States the administration passed a resolution which is prohibiting to give the federal funds to the universities which are not preventing the antisemitism at the campuses. I think this initiative should be common not only for United States and not only for Europe, but for entire world. I think it’s very practical, because the future extremism appearing in campuses, in these campuses, and we have to stop it when they’re just appearing. Thank you.

Chair. Last question, please!

Question. Tom Bateman from the BBC. I was just interested, Dr. Kantor, you talked about the rise of extremism trying to take over in some countries, you said, democratically, this is happening country by country. Could you just elaborate on which countries you mean?

Kantor. You know, the best example is your country, OK?

Chair. That’s why he was asking!

Kantor. You know, I think it’s a positive provocation from your side. I got it, I got it, no problem. OK. 33% of British voters supported Labours with Mr. Corbyn. I am not saying that all of them are antisemites, but their leader used to be practically not so much hiding antisemite. And still, 33%. It’s enormous! It’s very dangerous. It means extremism is very close to one of the best countries in the world to take over the executive power in democratic way. And don’t forget that Great Britain is a nuclear superpower. These opportunities Hitler didn’t have when he got the power. In democratic way.

Chair. Thank you very much, Dr. Kantor! Thank you very much, Mr. Shalev! Thank you very much for everyone! We all wish ourselves a very fruitful event, we’re sure it’s going to be, and we have here, at Yad Vashem press centre, at the World Holocaust Forum press centre, expertise from Yad Vashem, Holocaust survivors who came to give interviews that will help you get more information and to report back to your countries. Thank you very much, and have a good day!

Shalev. Thank you very much, really, we appreciate it!