April 8, 2020
Survivors of Auschwitz arrive at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at the former concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

International Holocaust Remembrance Day almost didn’t happen

The European UN rep said they wouldn’t support the initiative because of Arab opposition. I felt a sense of fury washing over me

One of the biggest and most significant political events in the history of the State of Israel is set to take place in Jerusalem this week. Dozens of heads of state from around the world will convene at Yad Vashem to mark the Fifth World Holocaust Forum as part of the commemorations surrounding International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The United Nations designated January 27th as the annual commemoration in November 2005. But it’s worth remembering that getting support from the General Assembly was far from a sure thing.

Towards the end of 2004, Ambassador Roni Adam, who was then director of the Department for International Organizations at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and who today serves as Israel’s Ambassador to Rwanda, proposed the initiation of a special session at the United Nations’ General Assembly to commemorate the Holocaust.

The goal of this special session was to strengthen and enhance the world’s capacity to counter the phenomenon of Holocaust denial and the proliferation of anti-Semitism. It was an exceptional initiative, particularly in the face of the General Assembly’s reputation for being an extremely anti-Israel forum, a reputation that, for the most part, has not changed. The composition of the Assembly lends strength to the forum’s Arab and Muslim member states, and as a result, the organization as a whole has become deeply hostile to Israel.

At the time, I was serving as political advisor at the Israeli Permanent Mission to the UN. Together with Permanent Representative Dan Gillerman, we knew that in order for the resolution to pass we needed to reach the magic number of 96 countries – just over half of all member states. To this end, we requested that representatives of the European Union convene a joint meeting with the United States, Russia, Canada, and Australia: taking action together, with a shared goal, would allow us to overcome the inevitable resistance, and obtain the majority we needed.

We convened at the offices of the European delegation on the eve of the first night of Hanukkah. Our host began the evening by stating that, to his regret, as the Arab bloc was opposed to the initiative, and as the Europeans did not want to arouse debate or differences of opinion on the issue of the Holocaust, they would not lend their support to the Israeli initiative. Without the Europeans, there was no chance of passing the resolution.

It was a defining moment for me, both professionally and personally. I could not allow myself to continue on with standard diplomatic protocol. I felt a sense of fury washing over me. I turned to the European diplomat hosting us, and to the German diplomat sitting beside me: “Look me in the eyes, me, a representative of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and tell me that you’re not willing to support the special session because of the Arabs. You owe my people a moral debt.

The worst tragedy in the history of humankind occurred on your soil. The Arabs and the Palestinians have enough resolutions against us in the General Assembly, and it’s time that the Jewish and Israeli narrative is given expression in a special session!”

I turned to a colleague from the Russian delegation and inquired as to his position. His response was quick and precise: “We will support your initiative! We lost over twenty million people in the war against the Nazis, and it was the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz.” 

I went on to secure support from the United States, Canada, and Australia. I then returned to the Europeans, making clear to them that the Arabs would not decide our agenda, and that we were determined to continue forward with the process. I explained that it was up to them to decide which side of history and morality they wanted to be on.

After a short consultation with his ambassador, the European diplomat finally concluded: “The European Union will join the initiative, despite the objections of Arab countries”.

As I left the meeting, it started snowing. I called Ambassador Gillerman to inform him that we had a session. My wife Kinneret called to ask where I was; our guests were waiting to light the first Hanukkah candle. I told her I was running late, and not to wait for me, but that today we had achieved something great for our people and our state.

Just a few weeks later, the special session of the General Assembly convened to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27th 2005, and we curated a permanent exhibition at the UN’s headquarters to memorialize the Holocaust. In November of that same year, the UN adopted a resolution establishing International Holocaust Remembrance Day; 14 months later, the General Assembly passed another resolution condemning Holocaust denial.

In the time that has since passed, the tremendous importance of Holocaust remembrance has become clear, and thousands of events have been and continue to be held throughout the world annually in honor of the 27th of January. The date and the subject have become an integral part of the international calendar, and more importantly, the Holocaust has now entered an array of national curricula, ensuring that students around the world learn the importance of tolerance and the need to prevent this kind of atrocity from repeating itself in the future. 

During the event held on the evening of the special session in January 2005, Knesset Speaker Dov Shilansky reflected: “In the moment when I was liberated, and stood at the gates of Dachau after the world had abandoned us, I felt like the loneliest person in the world. If you had told me then that after sixty years, all the world’s nations would stand and salute us, I would have laughed in your face.”

It’s hard to describe the excitement that overcame us. We had done it for him, for all the survivors, to perpetuate the memory of the six million, and to ensure that the world’s next generations would never forget.

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