In moving speeches to hundreds of Israeli politicians and Holocaust survivors at the country's national Holocaust memorial, Israel's ceremonial president warned the government against warming up to far-right parties in Europe, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed to last weekend's deadly synagogue shooting in San Diego as evidence of growing anti-Semitic hatred.
The 24-hour remembrance period began at sundown with the main ceremony at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, held just hours after Israeli researchers reported that violent attacks against Jews rose significantly last year. This spike, highlighted by the San Diego attack, was most dramatic in western Europe.
President Reuven Rivlin touched on the surging anti-Semitism in Europe, which he said "is once again rearing its head, fueled by waves of immigration, economic crises and disillusionment with the political establishment."
In veiled criticism of Netanyahu, he urged the government to rethink its cultivation of alliances with nationalist parties in Europe. "Not every right-wing party in Europe that believes in controlling immigration or in protecting its unique character is anti-Semitic or xenophobic," Rivlin said. "But political forces where anti-Semitism and racism are part of their language, their legacy or their ideology can never be our allies."
He added: "No interest and no consideration of realpolitik can justify a dishonorable alliance with racist groups or elements who do not acknowledge their past and their responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust."
Rivlin did not identify any particular countries. But Netanyahu has come under fire for embracing a string of eastern European leaders who have lavished Israel with political support while promoting a distorted image of the Holocaust and stoking anti-Semitism at home.
A slew of former communist nations whose leaders recently paid their respects at Yad Vashem, such as Hungary, Lithuania and Poland, are swept up in a wave of World War II-era revisionism that seeks to diminish their culpability in the Holocaust while making heroes out of anti-Soviet nationalists involved in the mass killing of Jews. Many in Israel have accused Netanyahu of cynically betraying victims' memories for political gain.
In his remarks, Netanyahu also stressed the continued threat of anti-Semitic extremism. He said that the extreme right, extreme left and radical Islam agree on "one thing: their hatred of Jews." Netanyahu noted the deadly synagogue shootings in San Diego last weekend and Pittsburgh last October, as well as recurring vandalism at Jewish cemeteries. He also castigated a recent political cartoon in the New York Times' international edition that drew ire for playing on anti-Semitic tropes, saying that hatred of Jews has even worked its way into "respected newspapers" and mainstream views.
"We're not talking about legitimate criticism of Israel," he said, "but of systematic, poisonous and shallow hatred." In an emotional ritual, six survivors lit torches in memory of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The torchlighters' brutal trials in concentration camps and narratives of endurance reflected this year's theme at Yad Vashem, "The War Within the War: the Struggle of the Jews to Survive During the Holocaust."
This year's theme urges the public to keep alive memories of extraordinary Jewish courage and resilience during World War II -- those who risked their lives in acts of solidarity for fellow Jews, smuggled food, organized rescue missions, published underground newspapers, played Jewish music on contraband instruments and documented their suffering for posterity.
The Holocaust, in which a third of the world's Jews were murdered, runs deep in Israeli public consciousness. The state, engendered in the wake of the genocide in 1948 as a place of refuge for Jews across the world, is filled with Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
Wednesday's event initiated one of the most melancholy holidays on the country's calendar, observed with numerous vigils, ceremonies and gatherings. Places of entertainment and shops shutter for the evening. TV and radio stations broadcast Holocaust documentaries and interviews with survivors until sundown the next day. The names of those who perished in the genocide are read aloud in parliament.
According to the Hebrew calendar, Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the anniversary of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising — the most significant, yet doomed, act of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust that helped shape Israel's national psyche, symbolizing strength and the struggle for freedom in the face of annihilation.
On Thursday, Israel's Holocaust remembrance will stop traffic. Israelis come to a two-minute standstill to remember the dead as sirens wails across the country. Pedestrians freeze in their tracks, buses halt on busy streets and cars pull over on highways to honor the legacies of those lost.