JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened Israel’s annual memorial day for the 6 million Jews systematically killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II by saying the lessons of the Holocaust guide him daily and issuing a warning to Israel’s enemies not to test it.
The Nazis and their collaborators wiped out a third of world Jewry and Netanyahu’s remarks illustrated how decades later the Holocaust is still a central part of Israel’s psyche. The state of Israel was established just three years after the end of the war and hundreds of thousands of survivors made their way here.
Speaking at the at the main ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Netanyahu said Israel’s arch-enemy Iran, as well as the Islamic State group, are “publicly striving to destroy us.”
Netanyahu said the lesson of the Holocaust is that “we must be able to defend ourselves by ourselves against all threats and any enemy.” He said this lesson guides him “every morning and every evening.”
Netanyahu said Israel has transformed itself into a strong nation with one of the “strongest defensive forces in the world” and warned “those that seek to destroy us will put themselves in danger of destruction.”
World powers knew of the mass destruction of Jews already in 1942 and if allies would have intervened by bombing the death camps millions of people could have been saved, Netanyahu said.
He said that although there hasn’t been anything on the scale and scope of the Holocaust since World War II, the world has mostly stood by and not intervened in mass killings around the world from Cambodia to Sudan and now Syria.
However, Netanyahu said, “amid the darkness” there are some “points of light.”
Among them he said was U.S. President Donald Trump’s “determined answer to the slaughter of the Syrian children by chemical weapons.” He was referring to the U.S. missile strike earlier this month on a Syrian air base the U.S. believed to be the launching pad for a chemical weapons attack on civilians that killed dozens.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has strongly denied he was behind the attack in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s northern Idlib province.
Netanyahu said Israel is also not apathetic to the suffering in Syria and pointed out that Israel has helped thousands of wounded Syrians who reach its northern frontier, providing them with medical treatment in hospitals in Israel.
President Reuven Rivlin took a different approach in his remarks. He said although the Holocaust is “permanently branded in our flesh” it “is not the lens through which we should examine our past and our future.”
The Israeli flag was lowered to half-mast at the beginning of the ceremony Sunday evening as a military honor guard stood nearby. Psalms and the Jewish prayer for the dead were recited at the podium. Six survivors lit six symbolic torches to commemorate the 6 million dead.
The annual memorial day is one of the most solemn on Israel’s calendar. Places of entertainment and restaurants shut their doors and TV stations either cease broadcasting or dedicate programming almost exclusively to Holocaust documentaries, interviews with survivors and melancholy music.
On Monday morning, Israel will come to a standstill as sirens wail for two minutes in the morning. Pedestrians typically stop in their tracks, and cars and buses halt on the streets while drivers and passengers step out of their vehicles to stand with their heads bowed.
Other ceremonies on the solemn day include the public reading of names of Holocaust victims at Israel’s parliament and elsewhere around the country. An annual report by Tel Aviv University on worldwide anti-Semitism released a few hours ahead of the ceremony said violent attacks on Jews dropped for a second straight year in 2016, but other forms of anti-Semitism are on the rise worldwide, particularly on U.S. university campuses.
There was a 45 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents, mostly insults and harassment of Jewish students, on U.S. university campuses, the report said. These were usually connected to increased anti-Israel activities by pro-Palestinian groups on campus, said Dina Porat, a historian who leads the team of researchers behind the report.