Canada’s Governor General Julie Payette joined almost 50 other heads of state from around the world for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on Thursday, Jan. 23 to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by Red Army forces.
In a tweet from Israel on Thursday, Payette called the event an opportunity “to remember what unites us all.”
Speaking about combating anti-Semitism in Canada, Payette told The CJN, “We are very engaged in policies that will diminish racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. Last year we adopted an anti-racism strategy, with a specific definition of anti-Semitism.”
As reported in The CJN, a 2019 Anti-Defamation League survey of anti-Semitism worldwide found that Canada was one of few countries to experience a drop in anti-Semitic attitudes. Yet the same survey revealed that 28 per cent of Canadians said it was “probably true” that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.”
For Payette, this underscores the importance of commemorative events. “We do a lot of commemoration with regard to previous conflicts that Canada has been involved with, like the two great wars,” she said. “But in terms of the Holocaust, it is absolutely fundamental that we perpetuate the souvenir [memory] of what happened there. That we continue to do research and putting memorials everywhere so that we teach the next generation.
“We’re at a special point now, where the survivors are dwindling, and eventually there will be no more eyewitnesses of this horrible tragedy, and that’s why it is important for education purposes and for the absolute importance that this will never happen again.”
During Payette’s two days in Israel, she also met with President Reuven Rivlin, whom she welcomed to Ottawa in April 2019. That visit was cut short by the illness of his wife, Nechama, who died in June. “He is working really hard. And he is still grieving,” Payette said.
“We talked about that really, really strong relation between Canada and Israel that extends not only to trade and culture, but just in deep rooted values.”
Canada’s ambassador to Israel, Deborah Lyons, who was also present for that meeting, added that Rivlin “really emphasized the friendship between the two countries. He spoke at great length and very eloquently about Canada and Israel as friends, and as trusted friends, of one another. Every time he speaks about Canada it brings tears to my eyes, because he, I think, really does express how valuable the relationship is for both of us.”
Payette also took time – despite cold, wet weather – to visit Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Western Wall, and meet with the presidents of Armenia and Georgia.
Her travels continued on Jan. 27 with a trip to Auschwitz for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Rivlin’s meeting with Payette was one of 40 held over two days, including with French President Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Prince Charles, and Dutch King Willem-Alexander.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosted a similarly packed slate. While most of Netanyahu’s meetings took place in his office or the King David Hotel, he paid a special call on U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence at the newly-inaugurated U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
Several leaders, including Macron, also met with MK Benny Gantz, considered a front runner in Israel’s upcoming third election round, to be held March 2.
Notably absent at the Forum was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was in Israel but opted out of the ceremony following reports that Yad Vashem had allocated only 30 out of 800 seats for Holocaust survivors. “Our delegation gave them our seats,” tweeted Zelensky, who is Jewish. “These people deserve these honors most of all.”
A statement by Yad Vashem called this move “odd,” given that they had already corrected course and made room for survivors. Some speculate that Zelensky’s true motive was dodging the ire of Ukrainians who view Second World War-era Nazi collaborators as nationalist heroes.
Meanwhile, many Israelis were eagerly awaiting Russian President Vladimir Putin amid rumours that he would pardon 26-year-old American-Israeli tourist Naama Issachar, currently serving over seven years in Russia for cannabis possession. Putin reassured Issachar’s family that “everything will be fine,” while making no concrete promises.
Commentators were also quick to point out the irony that several of the world leaders, including Prince Charles, Putin, and Macron, had divided their time in the region between the Holocaust Forum and a trip to Ramallah to meet with Holocaust denier and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel’s last diplomatic event on this scale took place in 2016 with the funeral of President Shimon Peres, which was attended by over 25 heads of state, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama.