Lithuania holocaust memorial vandalized 311.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Holocaust remembrance is a central plank of Jewish Foreign Policy (JFP), a term
that encompasses how Israel and Diaspora organizations act on issues of common
Jewish concern. The establishment of Yad Vashem in 1953 and the Eichmann trial
in 1961 showed how central the memory of the Holocaust was to Israeli public and
However, leap forward 60 plus years and recent
developments suggest Holocaust remembrance has fallen by the wayside as a key
element of JFP, at least as far as Lithuania is concerned, which has become a
focus of 21st century Holocaust debates.
This was manifest on August 30
when the Israel Police, acting on an Interpol request from Lithuania,
interviewed 86-yearold Joseph Melamed, chairman of the Association of Lithuanian
Jews in Israel.
In 1999, Melamed sent the Lithuanian prosecutor a list of
Lithuanians who allegedly murdered Jews in 1941 and should be investigated for
war crimes. For over a decade the Lithuanian authorities ignored Melamed’s
document, and instead are now accusing Melamed of defaming those the Lithuanian
Ambassador to Israel has described as “national heroes.”
first wrote to officials in Vilnius, the Lithuanians have become more aggressive
in downplaying their own vast role in the genocide of Lithuanian Jewry, while
emphasizing brutal Lithuanian suffering under the Soviet Union. As part of this
process, since 2006 Holocaust survivors who became partisans have been
investigated by the Lithuanians for “war crimes,” including former chairman of
Yad Vashem Yitzhak Arad and soon-to-be 90-year-old Rachel Margolis of Rehovot.
The pursuit of Melamed is the latest saga in this sordid chapter.
Lithuanian policy can be explained by their attempts to remove the bloody stain
of their past by turning victims into perpetrators and perpetrators into
victims, one would expect the Jewish state, established on the tragic
foundations of the Holocaust, would be at the forefront of defending the memory
of the Holocaust. Yet with few exceptions, the Israeli silence has been
In the European Union, where Lithuania is
actively involved in trying to get the EU to adopt as policy the 2008 Prague
Declaration’s notion of two “equal” genocides – the Soviet and the Nazi – Israel
has been silent. The Foreign Ministry even invited the then-Lithuanian foreign
minister to speak at the 2009 Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism, ignoring the
lone protests of Simon Wisenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff, who highlighted the
irony of the conference being addressed by the representative of a government
engaged in a concerted assault on the memory of the Holocaust.
Israel remained silent on the Melamed affair it was left to the British
Parliament to table a motion condemning the Lithuanian pursuit of Melamed. While
Israel has kept mum in the face of Lithuanian investigations of Jews for “war
crimes,” a range of European Embassies in Vilnius have taken the lead, speaking
up to defend the Jewish partisans.
Why did the Israel Police jump to the
aid of the Lithuanians, who are obfuscating the Holocaust? Why wasn’t the
Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel summoned to the Foreign Ministry? It is
understandable that Israel has not been forthright in its criticisms of
While Lithuania has an offensive policy on the
Holocaust, it is, like many in the “New Europe” states of the eastern EU,
sympathetic to Israel’s broader diplomatic security concerns, offering Israel an
ally in the EU and UN, where it does not have a lot of friends. However, the
challenge for Israel is to find a way to advance its diplomatic interests
without compromising its core values and responsibilities to the memory of the
The slippery slope of Israel’s neglect of events in Lithuania
has caused Diaspora JFP actors to take misguided steps. Just days after police
knocked on Melamed’s door, the New York YIVO Institute for Jewish Research,
established to carry on the work of the famous pre-War Vilna YIVO, announced as
guest of honor, to a ceremony marking the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto, the
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis.
This minister is not only
a leader in a government pursuing the survivors who escaped the liquidation of
the Vilna Ghetto, but is on record alleging that foreign Jews of Litvak origin,
motivated by financial gain, were pushing a dual citizenship bill in
Even though the Lithuanian Jewish community is still waiting
for an apology, YIVO still regarded him as someone to honor, alongside a
concurrent error with longer-lasting consequences: a YIVO plan to abandon
claims to ownership of its Holocaust-era plundered books that Lithuania has
refused to return to its rightful owners.
Zionism changed the reality of
global Jewish politics. Having a Jewish state provides JFP with a
can advance Jewish interests in a way other Jewish organizations cannot.
Lithuania may be a friend to Israel but is an enemy to the survivors of
Lithuanian Holocaust and Holocaust history. Lithuania cannot have it
As a leader in JFP, Israel, with Diaspora stakeholders such as YIVO, has
a responsibility to work with countries like Lithuania to grapple with a
painful past and to establish a positive present, respectful of the
Holocaust, its victims and its survivors.
Of course there is realpolitik,
but some things are beyond moral compromise. •Danny Ben-Moshe is an Associate
Professor at Victoria University, Australia, specializing in
relations, and a filmmaker working on a documentary about Lithuania and
Holocaust (www.identity-films.com ).