Will Lavrov's ‘Hitler’ comments change Israel’s Ukraine policy?

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Lavrov’s ‘unforgivable’ remarks and the back-and-forth between Jerusalem and Moscow revealed strains in Israel’s cautious policy on the Ukraine war.

 RUSSIAN FOREIGN Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, enter a hall during a meeting in Moscow, last year in friendlier times. (photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/REUTERS)
RUSSIAN FOREIGN Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, enter a hall during a meeting in Moscow, last year in friendlier times.

Three days after Holocaust Remembrance Day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decided to give his own unique interpretation of the events of the Holocaust, reflecting on how his country can claim to be “denazifying” Ukraine when its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.

“When they say ‘What sort of denazification is this if we are Jews?’ well, I think that Hitler also had Jewish origins, so it means nothing,” Lavrov told Italy’s Rete 4.

Further riffing on antisemitism, he said: “For a long time now we’ve been hearing the wise Jewish people say that the biggest antisemites are the Jews themselves.”

When word of Lavrov’s comments reached Israel, the response was quick to arrive.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who has made a point of speaking out against distortions of the memory of the Holocaust, said the remarks were “unforgivable.”

Lavrov’s comments “accuse Jews of their own Holocaust. Hitler wasn’t Jewish, and Jews didn’t kill my grandfather in Mauthausen; the Nazis did it,” Lapid told KAN Reshet Bet. “The Russian government needs to apologize to the Jews and the memory of those killed. It was a terrible thing to say.”

 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a news conference after his talks with representatives of Arab League nations, in Moscow, Russia, April 4, 2022.  (credit: ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL VIA REUTERS) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a news conference after his talks with representatives of Arab League nations, in Moscow, Russia, April 4, 2022. (credit: ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who previously had been reticent to criticize Russia or specific Russian officials, named Lavrov in his statement.

“Lies like these are meant to blame the Jews themselves for the most terrible crimes in history, which were committed against them, and thus free the oppressors of the Jews from their responsibility,” he said.

Bennett referred to his speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day. “As I’ve already said, no war today is the Holocaust, nor is it like the Holocaust. The use of the Holocaust of the Jewish people as a political battering ram must be stopped immediately.”

Israel summoned Russia’s ambassador to tell him in no uncertain terms that Lavrov’s remarks were unacceptable, but diplomatic sources said Jerusalem expressed willingness to move on. Instead, Moscow doubled down.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called Lapid’s comments “anti-historical,” because of “cooperation between Jews and Nazis” – a very marginal phenomenon almost always forced at the threat of death – and it accused Israel of supporting “the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.”

YAD VASHEM chairman Dani Dayan pointed out that Holocaust imagery “appears on both sides. The Ukrainians use terminology from the Holocaust for their propaganda as well, especially in statements by the Ukrainian ambassador in Israel and by Zelensky about the alleged heroic attitudes of Ukrainian people towards the Jews in the Shoah, which is completely false.

“The other thing that is important to say,” Dayan added, “is that there is no doubt... that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine by the Russians. Bucha is obviously an example of that. But not every war crime is a genocide, and not every genocide is the Holocaust.

“When the Ukrainians upgrade the atrocities to the level of genocide or even the Holocaust, it is diminishing the meaning of the Shoah,” he said.

When Zelensky addressed the Knesset in March, he said Moscow is planning a “final solution for the Ukrainian question” and that Israel should save Ukrainians, just as Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations saved Jews.

While ministers, MKs and others sharply criticized Zelensky’s speech, Bennett and Lapid tried not to be judgmental.

“He’s a leader battling for the life of his country,” Bennett said. “Many hundreds of dead, millions of refugees. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in his shoes.”

“However,” the prime minister added, “I personally believe that the Holocaust should not be compared to anything.”

THE RUSSIAN claim that they are “denazifying” Ukraine is a “denigration of the victims of the real Nazis,” Dayan said, “because if [Ukraine] is what Nazis look like, then what’s so terrible about them? It’s an affront to the victims, the survivors and the Jewish people.”

In addition, Dayan said, “it is clear that Lavrov blatantly crossed a redline.”

Lavrov “touched a raw nerve,” Dayan said. “The Holocaust was the greatest antisemitic crime ever, and here is the foreign minister of Russia basically blaming the Jews and saying that the top perpetrator was Jewish, that the Jews inflicted it on themselves.”

Still, if Moscow was surprised by Jerusalem’s sharp response to Lavrov’s remarks, it may be because Russia has been calling Ukraine a bunch of Nazis for the past two months with little pushback from Israel.

Sure, Bennett made some oblique comments in the past about the war not being like the Holocaust, but even the Israeli media in some cases interpreted the comments as being about Zelensky.

Foreign relations expert Ksenia Svetlova of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies said that “Lavrov’s words were the natural continuation of our silence.

“We, the descendants of those who survived the Holocaust, didn’t oppose Russia using the terms ‘Nazis’ and ‘denazification,’” she lamented.

While Svetlova acknowledged that there are “very problematic people in Ukraine,” and said that as a member of Knesset she wrote letters to Ukrainian authorities against the glorification of violent antisemites by naming streets after them and other actions, “justifying the massacre of people – including Jews – using Nazis as an excuse is shameful, and we should have said something in the first place.”

She also pointed out that Israel has cooperated with Russia’s valorization of the Red Army as the liberators of Auschwitz. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the only Western leader to participate in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day celebration in 2018, for example.

Russia’s Nazi comparisons are not really meant to win over hearts and minds, Svetlova said. The Western view on the war doesn’t interest Moscow, nor do its own citizens.

“I see a big difference between now and 2014” – when Russia invaded Crimea – “and they really invested in public opinion,” Svetlova said. “Now they’re working on oppression. They’re not allowing conversation or debate like in 2014.”

At the same time, World War II is still a powerful point of reference for Russians.

Contemporary Russia “doesn’t have an ideology. It’s not the Soviet Union. The only national holiday is Victory Day on May 9. The memories of that war are still so strong and the word ‘Nazis’ brings up so much feeling and hatred that [Putin and his government] decided to build a kind of ideology around those memories and the fact that every family lost someone,” Svetlova explained.

Calling Ukraine and the West “Nazis” is an easy way to build antagonism.

THINGS HAVE shifted in the Russia-Ukraine war and Israel’s position, not only in terms of the Israeli response to Nazi comparisons.

While Israel, via Lapid, condemned Russia from the start of its assault on Ukraine and voted against Russia repeatedly at the UN, Bennett was very cautious and quiet.

This was mainly because Israel coordinates with Russia when it attacks Iranian targets in Syria, but also due to the possible impact on the large Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine. Zelensky had also asked Bennett to try to mediate with Russia, which the Israeli premier tried to do, flying to Moscow and repeatedly speaking with both leaders.

In recent weeks, after the extent of Russia’s massacres of Ukrainian civilians has come to light, Israel has moved from sending large quantities of humanitarian aid to sending some defensive military aid, though not weaponry, and sending a Defense Ministry official to a US-led summit for defense aid to Ukraine. Plus, Bennett’s early attempts to mediate between Zelensky and Putin were put on hold because of the wave of terrorism in Israel, a pause that seems to have become permanent.

Moscow recently accused Jerusalem of voting against Russia in the UN only to distract from Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov summoned Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi to reprimand him. Putin resurfaced a long-standing demand for Moscow to regain control of the Alexander Nevsky Church in Jerusalem’s Old City. A Kremlin-affiliated group on the messaging app Telegram doxed Israeli diplomats, claiming that they are mercenaries in Ukraine, and Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Israeli mercenaries are fighting with the Azov Battalion, which has neo-Nazi ties.

In other words, cracks are beginning to appear in Israel’s carefully crafted, cautious position. While there has been little pressure from Israel’s Western allies – despite the frequent criticism in the American media – Russia isn’t buying it anymore.

Svetlova argued that Israel’s position is untenable, because Russia wants “either total loyalty or nothing,” and Israel has no leverage over Moscow.

Israel’s attitude on the war in Ukraine, even if Jerusalem continues not to supply Kyiv with weapons, “may not be a casus belli or end the cooperation in Syria, but we will reach some kind of difficult struggle with Russia on the Palestinians, Syria or maybe Iran,” Svetlova said. “It may even be in the short term.”

Until that happens, however, Svetlova thinks a change in Israeli policy is unlikely.

“Israel won’t change out of its own initiative. I don’t see the government selling weapons to Ukraine or sanctioning oligarchs, some of whom are Jewish. The crisis has to get worse first, and unfortunately I think there is potential for that to happen,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lapid said that Israel won’t be scared off by Russia’s rhetoric.

“We protect national interests in Syria,” he said in an interview with Reshet Bet this week, “but no one will tell us we can’t express a moral position.

“Part of our scale of values is that the Russian invasion is not justified and has to stop. We say it and vote in international institutions when we need to,” Lapid added.