Bennett urges unity, rejects Holocaust comparisons as Israel marks remembrance day

Israel’s leaders pleaded for an end to political divisions and warned against antisemitic rhetoric or attempts to compare the slaughter of Europe’s Jews to other atrocities, as the nation stopped to memorialize the victims of the Nazi death machine for Holocaust Remembrance Day Wednesday night.

Both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Isaac Herzog focused on a separate single Holocaust incident to evoke the larger, incomprehensible horrors of the Nazi genocide while speaking at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum.

Bennett, who is holding onto power despite losing his parliamentary majority, railed against politics and tribalism that have riven Israel in recent years. He noted that divisions between right- and left-wing ideologies frayed ties between Jews during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

“Even in the darkest days of Jewish history, in the inferno of destruction, the left and right failed to cooperate. Each group fought alone against the Germans, ”he said.

“We must not dismantle Israel from within. Today, thank God, in the State of Israel, we have one army, one government, one parliament and one people – the people of Israel, ”he added.

Bennett’s comments, which he said were “especially important these days,” came a day after police announced they were investigating a letter with death threats and a live bullet were sent to the premier and his family, prompting officials to step up the family’s security.

A group of Polish Jews is led away for deportation by German SS soldiers, in April / May 1943, during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after an uprising in the Jewish quarter, 1943. (AP Photo)

His religious affairs minister has also received death threats since taking office, and some members of his and other right-wing factions have been called traitors for working with parties from across the aisle.

Israel’s political landscape has been markedly chaotic and divided in recent years. Bennett’s fragile, disparate coalition was cobbled together after a series of inconclusive, vitriolic elections over two years. The government is now on the ropes after one of his party members quit under pressure from the right-wing opposition, stripping the coalition of its majority.

Bennett also rejected Holocaust comparisons, which have become common surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last month, some Israeli lawmakers tore into Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky when he compared his country to the Holocaust during a speech to Israeli politicians.

A ceremony held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day. April 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90)

“The Holocaust is an unprecedented event in human history. I take the trouble to say this because as the years pass, more and more serious events are compared to the Holocaust, ”Bennett said.

“But no, even the most serious wars today are not the Holocaust and are not like the Holocaust,” he said, without directly mentioning Ukraine.

“No event in history, cruel as it may have been, compares to the destruction of Europe’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators,” Bennett said.

History is rife with disaster, but the Holocaust stands apart in its singular goal of racial extermination, he said.

“Never, in any place or at any time, has one nation acted to destroy another, in a way that was so planned, systematic and cold-hearted, completely due to ideology and without another purpose,” he said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a ceremony held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90)

The lesson from the Holocaust for him, he said, was that while “we have friends, we have close and distant allies, and that’s good, but in the end, the Jewish people, the State of Israel, must always be in charge of their own fate. ”

Bennett may have been making a reference to the threat posed to Israel by Iran, which is suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons. Israel has warned for years that it will not accept a nuclear-armed Iran and has committed to preventing Tehran from building atomic weapons.

Jerusalem has firmly opposed the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Iran and has said that reactivating the original agreement is insufficient to curb the threat.

In light of the growing uncertainty, the Israeli military in recent months has ramped up its efforts to prepare a credible military threat against Tehran’s nuclear facilities. In October, The Times of Israel learned that the Israel Air Force will begin practicing for a strike on Iran’s nuclear program in 2022, having set aside funding and updated its training schedule for the mission. In February, a US official is said to have attended a classified Israeli drill simulating a “massive attack” on Iran’s nuclear program

The US has said it sees “eye to eye” with Israel on Iran.

Also speaking Wednesday evening at Yad Vashem, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that the “mission to protect the Israel people is stronger than any ideological debate” and was no less important than Israel’s “readiness to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

Israeli officials often mention the security threats faced by the country in addresses for Holocaust Remembrance Day, Gantz said, “especially Iran, which seeks to acquire nuclear weapons and become an existential threat to us.

“Indeed, the State of Israel must have military power and moral power alongside it. This power and morality stem from our ability to live as a strong, cohesive society, and not as a people scattered in the diasporas, divided and separated. Our resilience as a society enables and justifies our existence, ”added Gantz.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during a ceremony held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 27, 2022. (Bruno Sharvit / GPO)

In his speech Wednesday, Bennett used a “witness sheet” of an infant girl, an official Yad Vashem document that outlines the basic biographical details of a Jew who was murdered in the Holocaust, to illustrate the depth of the Holocaust horrors.

On the sheet the girl’s first name was left blank, her last name was Reich, and her birthplace and place of death were both listed as Auschwitz, Bennett noted.

“Circumstances of her death: taken immediately from her mother,” the prime minister read. “Age at the time of death: half an hour.”

The sheet was filled out by her mother, Irene Reich.

Herzog used a photo of Nazi soldiers and Ukrainian militia executing a Jewish family at the edge of a pit in Miropol, Ukraine, in 1941 to evoke the horrors of the Nazi genocide during his speech.

In the photo, a mother clasps her young son’s hand, bending toward him, as the men shoot her in the back of the head. The boy is barefoot, looking toward the trees.

Smoke from the gunfire hides the mother’s face in a ghostly plume. Another child is in her lap, barely visible in her polka dot skirt. The killers appear to be enjoying themselves.

“What did the mother whisper in her little boy’s ear? Did she beg him not to cry? And what of the child? Did he cry? Did he stay silent? Did he understand? Was he afraid? ” Herzog said. “The photograph is silent, but its voice cries out. It shakes us. It stuns us to silence. ”

A Holocaust massacre carried out by Germans and Ukrainians in Miropol, Ukraine, on October 13, 1941. (USHMM)

The photo was the focus of the 2021 book “The Ravine” by historian Wendy Lower. Herzog said he experienced “grief, fury and pain” when he saw the photo in the book.

The Nazis killed over 1 million Jews in the “Holocaust by bullets,” gunning them down in forests and fields, away from the infamous death camps.

Herzog evoked the State of Israel as a “lighthouse” for the world’s Jewry after the Holocaust, and said discourse that questions right to exist is “not legitimate diplomacy but pure antisemitism, which must be uprooted.”

President Isaac Herzog speaks at a ceremony held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. April 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90)

“We must make it clear that even today, eight decades after the darkest abyss in the annals of human history, the antisemitism threatening our people is a crime against humanity,” Herzog said.

The speeches came as Israel and Jewish communities worldwide began 24 hours of remembrances dedicated to the victims of the Nazi genocide.

The annual memorial day is one of the most solemn days on Israel’s national calendar. Much of the country will shut down and stop moving for two minutes for a memorial siren at 10 am Thursday.

The Jewish community has been grappling in recent years with how to memorialize and educate future generations about the genocide in the coming decades, as the number of survivors dwindles.

The Social Equality Ministry said Wednesday that there are 161,400 Holocaust survivors living in Israel.

The average age of Holocaust survivors is 85.5, with 31,500 over age 90 and more than 1,000 who have lived for over a century.

Over the past year, 15,553 survivors died in Israel, an average of more than 42 a day.

Bennett on Wednesday hosted a Holocaust survivor at his office as part of an annual event series called Zikaron Basalon (living room remembrance), in which survivors gather in intimate settings to tell their stories.

Bennett hosted a survivor from Poland named Aliza Landau, who said she hid in the forest when she was 6 years old with her brother and father.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hosts Holocaust survivor Aliza Landau at a Zikaron Basalon event for Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 27, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

One morning, she found her father crying. He said her brother had died of starvation and sent her to some nearby homes to seek food.

“You’ll go, you’ll survive and you will establish our family again,” she told her.

“I fulfilled my father’s wish – I started a family. I have three children and seven grandchildren, ”Landau said at a meeting with Bennett. “This is my personal victory over the Nazis.”

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