For Lithuanians, Israel is cool

In Lithuania, Jews are now very much ‘in’. As such, so is Israel. Ambassador Darius Degutis explains why

The “warm sympathy” toward Israel in Lithuania today is reminiscent of the sympathy that many in Western Europe felt for Israel a few decades ago, when Germans and Scandinavians flocked to kibbutzim to support the plucky little Jewish state.
That, at least, is the way Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel Darius Degutis sees things. In his home country, indeed in many other former Soviet bloc countries, Jews, Jewishness and Judaism are cool, attractive and desirable.
And, by extension, so is Israel.
Placed in historical context, this “Jew is cool” phenomenon is a mind-boggling turnaround. Some 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust – about 95 percent of the prewar Jewish community, making it according to some scholars the highest ratio anywhere – with the Nazis often aided by eager Lithuanians citizens.
And placed in present context – where Israel is so uncool in many corners of Western Europe – it is no less staggering.
Yet there it is. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post coinciding with Lithuania’s assumption of the EU’s rotating presidency this past summer, Degutis discussed this phenomenon.
“For us, and I think probably for all Eastern Europe, Jewishness is something very attractive,” the convivial ambassador said, in his 12th-floor office in a Tel Aviv office building that commands a spectacular view of the city. “We had a lot of it [Jews and Judaism], then it was gone. Then we started to hear about it again; then we had to recognize our fault, our shame, the Shoah, the Holocaust. And then it was like, ‘Yes, I heard something from my grandmother about gefilte fish, I heard of the word kosher, but what does that mean.’” “The best gift I bring to my friends in Lithuania is something kosher, kosher wine, kosher anything,” he said with a chuckle. “They don’t understand, but it is good. It is a romantic affiliation with Israel. You bring a Star of David, a shofar. It is not only Christianity and Jerusalem, it is Jewishness.
‘Yes, yes, I remember. My parents had so many friends who are Jews.’ This is very interesting.”
IN DEGUTIS’S telegraphed Lithuanian timeline, there was the prewar Litvak (a term denoting Lithuanian Jews) glory days. Then there was the Holocaust. Then the Soviet occupation.
Then Independence.
Born in 1963, at the height of the Cold War and Soviet domination of his country, Degutis said he did not hear of the Holocaust until he was a teenager, when his grandmother spoke of it.
“I went to a Soviet school,” he said, “and heard nothing about the Shoah.
Nothing was ever told officially in the studies or in the history classes, to anyone in the Soviet Union, or in any of the other socialist countries. They deliberately omitted anything linked to Jewish history, good or bad, or anything linked to our [Lithuanian] prewar history.”
“The Shoah, the Holocaust, the Jewish tragedy did not exist, even the word Jew was not common,” he said. “The Soviets didn’t want it to be heard.”
Yet, Degutis recalled, he grew up with Jews in his Vilnius (Vilna) neighborhood, and played football with them. He also remembered meeting Jewish boys from Moscow summering with their families on Black Sea beaches.
“Thirty percent of the kids in my neighborhood were Jews, and this was in the 1970s. Then they were gone,” he said, explaining that this was a time of US-Soviet detente when some Jews were given exit visas. “We didn’t know what happened, they left to Israel in the ‘70s, but it was hushhush style. They got the permission to leave, but no one was saying anything, because they were considered to have betrayed the Soviet system and state.”
Degutis, who speaks perfect English, grew up on a steady diet of propaganda, rich in the depiction of Israel as the ally and slave of American imperialists bent on subjugating the poor countries in the region.
Then, suddenly, in 1990 the Iron Curtain fell, Lithuania gained independence, and the blinders fell off.
“After we regained independence, when we looked into our history, we looked into the parts we are proud of, the bright side, the courageous side of Lithuania, indeed there are very nice and romantic elements,” he said. “But we also looked at our very tragic history – the Holocaust, the Shoah.
“When the archives were opened, and the society and public received this information, there was a big shock that 200,000 Jews died in Lithuania, and that there were a number of Lithuanians involved in this. This was a big shock for us.
“But eventually we managed, with partners from Jewish communities and Jewish organizations in the world, to build a new Lithuania – of course by admitting that terrible things had happened, and that we had a fault in it.
“The next step was the ability, that opened in front of us, to remember the Jews that were in our neighborhood.”
AND THEN, with independence in 1990, “everything opened up.”
“Not only did we become free, we were allowed to think and do whatever we wanted. We were able to travel, we were finally allowed to communicate with our families from whom we were separated.”
And that meant, he said, also reconnecting with former Jewish neighbors and friends. “We had many of them, and then they left, and then there was this natural interest to reconnect with them.”
“When we became free,” he said, describing what he called his countrymen’s nostalgia and fascination with Jews, “we asked, ‘Where are they? They are our friends.’” Indeed, he made clear, it was Lithuania’s fraught history with its Jews – the heyday, the Holocaust, the Soviets, the newfound freedom – that animated the country’s positive sentiment toward Israel today, and explained the “warm sympathy” to Israel, reminiscent of what existed in Western Europe five decades ago.
The phenomenon Degutis described is well-known in Jerusalem. Indeed, it goes a long way toward explaining that along with Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, Israel’s strongest supporters inside the EU are the former Iron Curtain countries.
A look at last November’s UN vote on granting the Palestinians non-member statehood status tells the story.
The 27 EU countries split on that vote.
The only EU country that voted for Israel, and against the motion, was the Czech Republic. Of the 12 EU countries that abstained, however, nine of them – including Lithuania – were former Soviet bloc countries. Not one of these countries joined 14 other EU states in voting for the resolution.
Lithuania was also one of only four EU countries, and 14 overall, who voted against admitting the Palestinians to UNESCO in 2011.
“It is natural,” Degutis said about this against-the-mainstream voting pattern on Israel. “It is not only a romantic approach. We understand what it is to be small; we understand what it is to be living in a different environment.
We had a gap of 50 years in the relationship, and for us it is a natural situation that we are finding each other again.”
But how long will the luster last? Some in the Foreign Ministry say that the longer the former Iron Countries are in the EU, and the more they are exposed to a pro-Palestinian bent in Brussels, the sooner will the romance fade.
Degutis believes those concerns are overblown.
“Our interest in Israel is growing,” he said, adding that this interest does not “have a direct link with EU membership.” He said the interest is seen everywhere, in the growth of tourism and trade, and the huge increase in the number of high-level political visits.