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Ushering in Holocaust Day, Israeli PM warns against polarization

Israeli PM warns Jews not to let internal divisions tear their society apart

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett delivered a stark message Wednesday as the country inaugurated its annual Holocaust Memorial Day, warning Jews against letting internal divisions tear society apart.

Speaking at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the 6 million Jews massacred by the Nazis and their collaborators, Bennett also called on the world to stop comparing the Holocaust to other events in history. He spoke after Ukrainian and Russian leaders drew parallels between their ongoing war and the genocide of World War II.

“Over the years, there are more and more discourses around the world that compare other difficult events to the Holocaust. But no,” he said. “No event in history, however cruel, can be compared to the extermination of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis and their collaborators.”

Bennett’s speech, delivered on one of the most solemn days of the year in Israel, also takes place in a deeply personal context. On Tuesday, his family received a letter containing a live ammunition and a death threat. Israeli authorities have tightened security around the prime minister and his family and are investigating.

“My brothers and sisters, we cannot, we simply cannot allow the same dangerous factionalism gene to dismantle Israel from within,” Bennett said.

Bennett did not explicitly refer to politics. But he leads a narrow coalition that recently lost its parliamentary majority. His government is made up of eight parties that have little in common beyond their shared animosity toward former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Netanyahu, now the leader of the opposition, has worked hard to deepen divisions within the coalition.

Israel, founded in 1948 in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide, goes to great lengths to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and make heroes of those who survived. Today, the country is home to a large but rapidly declining community of fewer than 165,000 aging survivors.

For them, challenges loom. This year’s ceremony comes as Israel and much of the world emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, which has faced Holocaust survivors in particular with heightened health risks as well as widespread loneliness and despair.

Additionally, about a third of Holocaust survivors in Israel live below the poverty line, many of whom are supported by government grants and donations, according to a group that represents survivors.

Despite their experience and widespread education programs, anti-Semitism has increased around the world during the pandemic, according to a report released Wednesday.

He pinned fuel for the anti-Jewish surge on shutdowns, social media and a backlash against Israel’s punitive airstrikes on the Gaza Strip during last year’s 11-day war.

In addition to speeches by Bennett, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and others, Wednesday’s ceremony saw survivors light six torches – for the 6 million people murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. The Speaker of the German Parliament, Baerbel Bas, was also present as a special guest.

During the annual memorial, entertainment venues and restaurants close, and television stations turn off or devote programming almost exclusively to Holocaust documentaries, survivor interviews, and melancholic music.

Thursday morning, Israel will come to a standstill as the sirens wail for two minutes. Pedestrians usually stop in their tracks, and cars and buses pull up on the streets as drivers and passengers exit their vehicles to stand with their heads bowed.

Other ceremonies include the public reading of the names of Holocaust victims in the Israeli parliament and elsewhere in the country.

ABC News

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