(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Czech Jewish community is up in arms over its government’s decision to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to a national Holocaust commemoration being held in Prague next month, citing opposition to Moscow’s actions in neighboring Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has already agreed to attend the event marking the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz, which is being organized in collaboration with the European Jewish Congress.
“The regime Putin established and embodies doesn’t respect international treaties, is aggressive and uses its power to occupy the territory of a neighboring state,” the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic said in a statement cited by Bloomberg on Friday.
Putin’s invitation would be inappropriate given the current political situation, the community explained, in an apparent reference to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March and its continuing support for pro-Russian separatists in that country’s industrial east.
Putin was defiant in the face of announcements of additional Western sanctions over the weekend, stating that Russia would not be intimidated over its actions in Ukraine and Crimea.
“Obviously, no one will succeed in intimidating us, to deter, to isolate Russia,” he said in comments that were shown by state-run Rossiya 24 TV.
Separately, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that new Western sanctions against Ukraine’s Crimea region represented “collective punishment” against residents who had voted overwhelmingly in a referendum last March to join Russia.
“I hope that he will not come, but this is only my personal hope. In addition, I believe that the event should be held in Oswiecim and be apolitical, which would be the most appropriate,” Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon told the Lidové noviny newspaper, according to The Prague Post.
The Czech media reported that there is a faction of the local Jewish community which supports a competing memorial being organized on the same dates at Auschwitz by the World Jewish Congress, of which the EJC is an affiliate.
The Holocaust has become politicized in the conflict between Russia and its former Soviet subject, with Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar holding a Holocaust memorial in the Crimean Peninsula shortly after its annexation by Moscow which drew harsh condemnations by Jewish leaders in Kiev.
Russian government and media have accused the Ukrainian government of anti-Semitism while Ukrainian Jewish leaders have accused Putin of fomenting racism to justify his interventions in their country.
In November, Ukraine voted against a Russian resolution in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Nazism, accusing Moscow of actively supporting neo-Nazism at home and of supporting “nationalistic, xenophobic and chauvinistic policies” in Crimea.
While Ukraine is committed to fighting the glorification of Nazism, “Ukrainians equally condemn Hitler and Stalin as international criminals for what they have done to us. We have always demanded that Russia should stop glorifying Stalinism and neo-Stalinism, because of their misanthropic and xenophobic nature.
Until and unless the notions of Stalinism and neo-Stalinism are equally condemned along with Nazism and neo-Nazism and other forms of intolerance, Ukraine will not be able to support the draft presented by Russia,” the Ukrainian delegation stated.
Asked about the Czech Jewish community’s concern, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a harsh critic of the Russian president, told The Jerusalem Post that he understood why his coreligionists were upset but that he “would imagine that an event marking the end of the Holocaust should be above all forms of politics.”
While opposition to Putin’s participation in the event stems from Russia’s current actions in Ukraine, which some could see as a failure to learn the lesson of the Holocaust, which is “to oppose such unilateral steps,” the irony is that Russia is the only eastern European country “actively fighting against the distortion of the Holocaust,” said the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Dr. Efraim Zuroff.
“On the one hand you have Russia acting like Nazi Germany in the 1930s and seizing territory; on the other hand they are the ones who are fighting for the accuracy of the historical record of World War II and the Holocaust,” he said.
Zuroff cited widespread eastern European support for 2008’s Prague Declaration, which he called the “manifesto of the Holocaust distortion movement” promoting an equivalence between Soviet and German crimes.
Reuters contributed to this report.