In 1946, my grandfather and namesake, the Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Isaac HaLevi Herzog, embarked on a search and rescue mission for his Jewish sisters and brothers all across the ravaged continent of Europe. Looking around, he beheld not only smoldering heaps of stone and sand, but also the silent cry of a downtrodden nation. The lives of millions, men, women, and children that had come to an end; in their stead, only crumbling stone.
In Warsaw, home to over half a million Jews before the Holocaust, only the Jewish cemetery remained to attest to the vibrant life that had flourished before the advent of the Nazi axeman. In the only Jewish synagogue in Warsaw that was still standing, the Nożyk Synagogue on Twarda Street, a few dozen souls gathered, snatched from the jaws of carnage. A bloodstained Torah scroll was handed to my grandfather by the survivors, to be taken to the Land of Israel for eternal memory.
The former cantor of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, Moshe Koussevitzky, stood to recite the traditional Jewish prayer for the departed, “El Malei Rachamim,” “O God, who art full of compassion.” Only this time, the wording of the prayer was different from usual. It was different because my grandfather rewrote it, so that it might express—if there were any way to express—the pain, loss, and grief in the wake of the chilling destruction that had unfolded before his eyes. He rewrote it and appealed to God to grant perfect rest to our brothers and sisters, victims of the horrific Holocaust after the thousand painful deathly blows they had suffered on this earth. I stand before you today as the President of the State of Israel, the democratic nation-state of the Jewish People, but my heart and thoughts are with my brothers and sisters killed in the Holocaust, whose only crime was their Jewishness and the humanity they bore. Beloved and cherished, never parted, in life or in death! They dared to hope and dream, even in the midst of devastation.
In their memory, I will begin my remarks with this traditional prayer: “O God, who art full of compassion, who dwellest on high, grant perfect rest on the wings of the Divine Presence, on the pinnacles of the holy and the pure, which shine like the radiance of the firmament, to the souls of the six million Jews, victims of the Holocaust, who were killed, suffocated, burned, and martyred by the German murderers and their accomplices from other nations. Therefore, may the compassionate one shelter them forever in the safety of His wings and bind their souls in the eternal bonds of life. God is their portion. May their resting place be in the Garden of Eden. And may they stand for their fate at the end of days. Let us say: Amen.”
Madame President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola; Madame President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, honored Members of the European Parliament.
On the afternoon of 23 July 1944, the Jews of the Greek island of Rhodes were forced to stand in a long line, facing the western wall of the old city. The rest of the city’s population was forbidden to step outside.
The Nazis were not sated by the elimination of the glorious Jewish communities of Thessaloniki and Greece’s other cities, home to 98 percent of Greece’s Jews. And thus, from that holding site, over 1,600 Jews from Rhodes were marched and loaded onto three old cargo vessels, led by SS officers.
For eight days and nights, in a nightmarish voyage, a monstrous odyssey, the Jews of Rhodes were at sea. The heat was intense; the food was meager. Seven people were killed during the voyage; their bodies were thrown into the sea. Another ship was sent to the island of Kos, to pick up close to 100 Jews. Yet another ship was sent to Leros, a small and remote island, to hunt down the only Jew who lived there. Just one man. That was the whole “Jewish community” of Leros. One Jew, solitary, alone—the last one. His name was Daniel Rachamim. Rachamim—the Hebrew word for “compassion.” Rachamim, as in the prayer El Malei Rachamim, “O God who art full of compassion.” Rachamim—the compassion that he never received.
This seemingly “small,” horrifying hunting expedition by the Nazi monster, for a single person, the last Jew in a backwater place, tells the story of the entire Holocaust. The story of the totality of annihilation, eradication, obliteration. The story of the monstrous, deranged obsession to totally exterminate a nation with roots stretching deep into history, such an inseparable and essential part of Europe: the Jewish People. “Why did you take a single person, why go through the trouble?” asked Daniel Rachamim. He did not know that for the Nazis, his mere existence was a crime punishable by death. That in his case, “being” had become a crime. The people aboard these ships reached Athens after a tortuous journey, and from there, they were loaded onto cattle wagons. The destination: the Auschwitz extermination camp. The purpose: annihilation. Daniel Rachamim, the last Jew from Leros, rounded off this procession.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are some dates in history that overspill the boundaries of time and become, themselves, memorial sites. In 1945, the 27th of January went from being just another date to becoming a memorial site, when in the afternoon, the gates of hell were burst open. Five years too late, the Auschwitz extermination camp, the largest death factory in human history, was liberated by the soldiers of the Red Army and stopped operating. Snow covered the blood-drenched soil. In Buchenwald, Dachau, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen, and so many other places, the horrors continued for many more months, until their liberation.
My father, the Sixth President of the State of Israel, Chaim Herzog, was an officer in the British Army at the time. He had the privilege of landing at Normandy, crossing the Rhine, and taking part in the liberation of the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern Germany. I shall never forget how he described to me the horrors that unfolded before his eyes, as one of the first liberators of the death camps, including Bergen-Belsen. The human skeletons in the striped pajamas, the hell on earth, the stench, the heart of darkness. Millions of worlds, one third of the Jewish People, were wiped out—in the killing pits, in the gas chambers, in the furnaces, in the death camps.
“The whole thing is simply beyond comprehension,” wrote a young Etty Hillesum from Netherlands in her diary, before she was murdered in Auschwitz in November 1943. “The skies are full of birds. The purple lupins stand up so regally and peacefully. The sun is shining on my face. And right before our eyes, mass murder.” In the Nazis’ despicable “Final Solution,” they sought to rip at Europe’s own flesh and blood. For just as humanity would not be what it is without Europe, Europe could not be what it is without the Jews. Can anyone imagine a Europe without the theories of Sigmund Freud, without the genius of Albert Einstein or Emmy Noether? Is there such a thing as Europe without the echoes of Karl Marx’s thought? How can one conceive of European philosophy without Baruch Spinoza or Henri Bergson, or of the spirit of European culture shorn of Amedeo Modigliani and Franz Kafka? But antisemitism, like an autoimmune disease, made Europe attack part of its own DNA, and a shared millennia-long history was erased, as if it had never been.
Ladies and gentlemen, Members of the European Parliament, the Holocaust was not born in a vacuum. We must never forget that the Nazi death machine would not have succeeded in realizing its nightmarish vision had it not met soil fertilized with Jew-hatred, which is as old as time itself. The stereotypical depiction of Jews had struck roots through Europe for centuries and generations, before the rise of Nazism. Nazi ideology intensified traditional antisemitism, and primordial fears fanned the flames of hatred.
Even before a single extermination camp was built, in the minds of the masses, the Jew was already human dust, sub-human. It is precisely for this reason, precisely because the Holocaust was predicated on much older antisemitic foundations that had taken root and flourished in Europe, that this dark abyss is a terrible, profound, and compelling lesson for the whole of Europe. When we stand together, here, in the beating heart of the European Union, we understand well the mission of memory that we all share; we recognize that at the memorial site to which we make pilgrimage, we must remember not only the Holocaust and the destruction, but also the sacred alliance forged alongside this horrific disaster: to sanctify the memory of the victims, to prioritize the welfare of the survivors who are still with us, to teach and educate in light of the lessons of the historic catastrophe that was the Holocaust, and to prevent any repetition of these ghastly crimes.
Today we see movements on the extremes of European and world politics, which proudly raise the ugly banner of antisemitism, which once more threatens to turn democratic and civilized societies into ones that devour their own people. Unfortunately, the picture is disturbing. Deeply disturbing. Antisemitic discourse festers not only within dark regimes; but within the heartlands of the free, democratic West. Jew-hatred still exists. Antisemitism still exists. Holocaust denial still exists. The latest reports point to new records of hatred, as antisemitism continues to don new guises, and this time it is active on virtual platforms as well—fueled by them, striking roots in them, thriving, spreading poison.
Throughout the internet, viral antisemitism is spreading at a record pace, at the click of a button. The distance between a viral video and a physical attack hardly exists at all. The distance between a Facebook post and the smashing of headstones in a cemetery is shorter than we would think. Deranged tweets can kill. They really can. Antisemites draw inspiration and ideas from virtual platforms. They are brainwashed and enraged as a result of unchecked and unrestrained online discourse.
I stand before you—you, who in your identities, positions, and beliefs represent Europe’s impressive diversity—at the height of this sacred gathering, and in the heart of the place that has always championed partnership in the war against darkness and evil, and the joining of hands to uphold our most basic core moral and human values. And I call on you, elected officials of Europe: do not stand by! You must read the warning signs, detect the symptoms of the pandemic of antisemitism, and fight it at all costs. You must ensure that every Jew wanting to live a full Jewish life in your countries may do so safely and fearlessly.
You and your countries must use every tool at your disposal, from education and legislation to security and enforcement, to deter and eradicate hatred, racism, and antisemitism in all their forms. You must instill the understanding across Europe that the Jewish People’s right to national and sovereign self-determination is sacred, and manifested in our democratic state: the State of Israel. Which is why, among other things, you must move to fully adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
From this plenary, I wish to underscore the fine line between criticism of the State of Israel and negation of the State of Israel’s existence. It is, of course, OK to criticize the state that I head. It is OK to criticize us, and it is OK to disagree with us, just as it is OK to criticize you and your states. Our country is open to criticism like all members in the family of nations, and Israeli democracy certainly excels in fierce and penetrating internal criticism. However—and this is the important and critical difference—criticism of the State of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the very existence of the State of Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish People, as recognized by the institutions of the international community. Casting doubt on the nation-state of the Jewish people’s right to exist is not legitimate diplomacy! It is antisemitism in the full sense of the word, and it must be thoroughly uprooted. The rule is simple: criticism of us must pass the basic test of fairness and integrity, and it must not cross the line into dehumanization or delegitimization.
The State of Israel rose like a phoenix out of the ashes and the terrible destruction and realized our historic right to a state in our ancient homeland. In a few months, we will celebrate the 75th Independence Day of our country, whose immense contribution to humanity—and to Europe in particular—in countless fields, including science, agriculture, energy, security, technology, culture, health, and education, and so much more is an established fact.
We have withstood enormous challenges over these years: we have absorbed waves of Jewish immigration from over 100 countries, from all corners of the earth; we have established a resilient and democratic society, comprised of an unparalleled human mosaic of Jews and Arabs, people of every religion and faith; we have proven that we can take any action, at any time and in every place, to protect our citizens and the whole Jewish People; we have courageously weathered attacks by our enemies, and no less importantly, we have extended a hand in peace and have forged unprecedented alliances and peace accords, including the Abraham Accords, which have transformed and continue to dramatically transform the Middle East, and I pray for the day we can reach peace with our Palestinian neighbors as well.
An essential and fundamental part of our state’s growth rests on the close ties and ironclad alliances with European states and the institutions of the European Union. The State of Israel and Europe are bound together in an unbreakable bond. Our shared interests, and even more so, our shared values, dictate our present and shape our future. Liberty, equality, justice, peace—these are the fundamental values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, which we shall uphold and defend at any cost; and these are also the core values of the European Union.
I stand here not only in the name of the past, but also for the sake of the future: for the sake of our shared prosperity, so that we may apply in practice the understanding that together, in true partnership, we can overcome further challenges and realize even more opportunities. I call on you and your nations to move to broaden, deepen, and strengthen our partnership. There is so much we can and must do together, for our sake, for the sake of the future and for the sake of future generations.
This is a time of trial for all of us. If we believe that the voice of justice has not been silenced, if we believe in another, more compassionate humanity, we must work together as a single community, determined and cohesive, against the forces of darkness and hatred that threaten to destroy us. As president of the State of Israel, I speak first and foremost of the Iranian regime, which not only publicly calls for the complete annihilation of my country but is also murdering its own countrymen and women, who are demanding liberty and human and civil rights, stoking wars throughout the Middle East, playing an active and lethal role in the war in Ukraine, and developing weapons of mass destruction on the way to dramatically threatening the stability of the entire globe.
My friends, until Etty Hillesum, the young poet I quoted at the beginning of my speech, was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a month and a half before her thirtieth birthday, she kept writing in her diary. Etty wrote about the orphaned children forced to grow up too early, about the love of mankind that had withered, and about how much she wanted to live. In her beautiful, moving words, she wrote: “One day we shall be building a whole new world. Against every new outrage and very fresh horror we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness.” Love and goodness—that was her dying wish; that was her legacy; that is our duty to pursue, all of us, together.
And in the words of Jewish liturgy: “May it be Your will, Master of Peace, King to whom peace belongs, to set peace among Israel, your people, and may peace grow until peace is drawn upon every person in the world.”
May the memory of the victims of the Holocaust be eternally etched in our hearts. May their souls be bound in the bond of life.