TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Israel on Monday lashed out at Russia over “unforgivable” comments from its foreign minister about Nazism and anti-Semitism – including allegations that Adolf Hitler was Jewish. Israel, which summoned the Russian ambassador in response, said the remarks blamed Jews for their own murder during the Holocaust.
It was a steep fall in ties between the two countries at a time when Israel has sought to establish a neutral position between Russia and Ukraine and remain in Russia’s good advantage for its security needs in the Middle East.
Asked in an interview with an Italian news channel about Russian allegations that it invaded Ukraine to “afnazify” the country, Sergey Lavrov said that Ukraine could still have Nazi elements, even though some people, including the country’s president, were Jews.
“So when they say ‘How can Nazism exist if we are Jews?’ “In my opinion, Hitler also had Jewish origins, so it does not matter at all. For some time we have heard from the Jewish people that the greatest anti-Semites were Jews,” he said as he spoke to the station in Russian, translated by an Italian translation.
In some of the harshest remarks since the start of the war in Ukraine, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called Lavrov’s statement “unforgivable and scandalous and a terrible historical mistake”.
“The Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust,” said Lapid, son of a Holocaust survivor. “The lowest level of racism against Jews is to blame Jews themselves for anti-Semitism.”
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who has been more measured in his criticism of Russia’s invasion, also condemned Lavrov’s comments.
“His words are untrue and their intentions are wrong,” he said. “The use of the Holocaust by the Jewish people as a political tool must cease immediately.”
Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem called the remarks “absurd, delusional, dangerous and deserving of condemnation.”
“Lavrov is advocating for the inversion of the Holocaust – making the victims criminals on the basis of promoting a completely unfounded claim that Hitler was of Jewish descent,” it said in a statement.
Equally serious is calling the Ukrainians in general and President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy in particular Nazis. This is, among other things, a complete distortion of history and a violation of the victims of Nazism. “
In Germany, government spokesman Steffen Hebstreit said the Russian government’s “propaganda” efforts were not worth commenting on, calling them “absurd.”
Nazism has had a prominent place in Russia’s war goals and narrative while fighting in Ukraine. In his attempt to legitimize the war against Russian citizens, President Vladimir Putin has portrayed the fight as a fight against Nazis in Ukraine, even though the country has a democratically elected government and a Jewish president whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust.
Ukraine also condemned Lavrov’s remarks.
“By trying to rewrite history, Moscow is simply looking for arguments to justify the massacres of Ukrainians,” tweeted Ukrainian Presidential Adviser Mykhailo Podolyak. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Lavrov’s remarks revealed the “deep-rooted anti-Semitism of the Russian elites.”
World War II, in which the Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people and helped defeat Nazi Germany, is a cornerstone of Russia’s national identity. Repeatedly reaching out for the historical narrative that places Russia as a savior against evil forces has helped the Kremlin rally the Russians around the war.
Israel was formed as a refuge for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust. Over 70 years later, the Holocaust is central to its national ethos, and it has positioned itself at the center of global efforts to remember the Holocaust and fight anti-Semitism. Israel is home to a declining population of 165,000 Holocaust survivors, most in the 80s and 90s, and last week the country marked its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day.
But these goals sometimes conflict with its other national interests. Russia has a military presence in neighboring Syria, and Israel, which carries out frequent attacks on enemy targets in the country, relies on Russia’s security coordination to prevent its forces from coming into conflict with each other. It has forced Israel to tread lightly on its criticism of the war in Ukraine.
While it has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine and expressed support for its people, Israel has been measured in its criticism of Russia. It has not endorsed international sanctions against Russia or provided military assistance to Ukraine.
It paved the way for Bennett to try to mediate between the sides, an effort that appears to have stalled as Israel handles its own internal unrest.
The Holocaust and the constant manipulation of its history during the conflict have previously triggered outrage in Israel.
In a speech to Israeli lawmakers in March, Zelenskyy compared Russia’s invasion of his country to the actions of Nazi Germany, accusing Putin of trying to implement a “final settlement” against Ukraine. The comparisons received an angry condemnation from Yad Vashem, who said Zelenskyy downplayed the Holocaust.
Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in Rome and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.