by David I. Klein
(JTA) — In a speech to the European Union parliament tied to commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said that criticism of his country, which has drawn renewed international scrutiny over its new right-wing government, is legitimate. Questioning Israel’s right to exist, he added, is “antisemitism in the full sense of the word.”
“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,” he said on Thursday. “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.”
Herzog’s comments come as his government back home has proposed a wave of judicial reforms that critics say will damage Israel’s standing as a full-fledged democracy. Two Israeli tech firms pulled their funds out of the country on the same day, citing what they deem the financial dangers of the government’s proposals, and all eyes are fixed on the government’s right-wing Cabinet ministers in charge of security and the West Bank after a military raid left nine Palestinians dead on Thursday.
Later in the day, Herzog visited a Jewish school in Brussels, where he was asked a question about the government’s controversial proposals.
“In the current crisis in Israel,” he responded, according to the Times of Israel. “I am making a supreme effort to create a dialogue between all sides. This is an important presidential role, to try and do good for the people of Israel.”
On Tuesday, Herzog, a former Labor Party leader, sharply criticized the judicial reform proposals, which would strip the country’s Supreme Court of the power to override parliament decisions.
“The dramatic reform, when done quickly without negotiation, rouses opposition and deep concerns among the public,” he said, according to the Times of Israel. “I see the sides prepared and ready all along the front for an all-out confrontation over the character of the State of Israel, and I am anxious we are on the brink of an internal struggle that could consume us all.”
Herzog’s EU speech also comes at a time when recent surveys of views in European countries, such as a recent one conducted in Belgium’s neighbor the Netherlands, show record levels of Holocaust ignorance and acceptance of antisemitic beliefs.
“I call upon you, elected officials of Europe, do not stand by, you must read the warning signs and fight at all costs,” he said. “You must ensure that every Jew wanting to live a full Jewish life in your countries may do so safely and fearlessly.”
January 27 marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, tied to the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Herzog also mentioned his family history in his remarks, wore a kippah at the podium and recited a version of “El Malei Rachamim,” a traditional Jewish prayer for the dead that had been rewritten by his grandfather — Rabbi Isaac Herzog, Israel’s first chief rabbi — to account for enormity of the Holocaust.
“In the only Jewish synagogue in Warsaw that was still standing [after the Holocaust], the Nozhik synagogue, a few dozen souls gathered, snatched from the jaws of carnage. A blood stained Torah scroll was handed to my grandfather by the survivors to be taken to the land of Israel for internal memory,” he said.