After the Lithuanian foreign minister visited Israel this week, the Baltic state’s press delightedly reported on the two nations having reached “a new level of constructive partnership.” In Israel, however, not everyone is happy about the warm reception Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gave his Lithuanian counterpart – a man who recently said the only difference between Hitler and Stalin was the length of their mustaches.
About a dozen Israeli demonstrators gathered Monday in front of the Tel Aviv hotel where the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Audronius Azubalis, was staying. Holding signs, they protested Vilnius’ policy vis-à-vis the memory of the Holocaust, which they claim marginalizes the murder of six million Jews.
“Israel is purposely ignoring the systematic campaign being waged by the Lithuanian government to distort the history of the Shoah and to turn it into just another tragedy among many tragedies, which would have horrific consequences for Holocaust education and commemoration,” says Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, who co-organized the protest. “The Foreign Ministry under Lieberman has basically adopted a policy whereby countries that have no interest in the Palestinians are given a free pass when it comes to issues related to Jewish history.”
Some Jewish groups accuse the Lithuanian government of likening the crimes of the Holocaust to those of the Soviet regime, which occupied Lithuania after the War. For instance, critics say Lithuania was instrumental in passing the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, which states that “both the Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes … should be considered to be the main disasters, which blighted the 20th century.”
While it was also signed by some European Parliament members, the late Václav Havel and Joachim Gauck (who is slated to become Germany’s next president), many Jewish groups have expressed outrage at the attempt to equate Nazism and Communism.
‘Azubalis should be ostracized and pressured for the outrageous and offensive policies his government is pursuing’
About 95 percent of prewar Lithuanian Jewry was wiped out during the Holocaust, the highest percentage in Europe. The local population was heavily involved in the massacres.
Azubalis – who during his visit this week also met with Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin and visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum – made headlines earlier this year when he slammed a group of Lithuanian parliamentarians who spoke out against equating the Third Reich with Soviet regime. “It isn’t possible to find differences between Hitler and Stalin except in their moustaches (Hitler’s was shorter),” Azubalis announced through his spokesperson. “The legal status of the crimes they committed are totally the same: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.”
The Association of Lithuanian Jews and the Leivick House, a major Yiddish culture institution Tel Aviv, which co-organized Monday’s protest, also criticized Jerusalem for hosting Azubalis. “It is incredible that the foreign minister of a government that is leading an assault on the memory of the Holocaust through the noxious notion of double genocide should be honored as guest of honor in Israel,” it said in a statement. “Azubalis should be ostracized and pressured for the outrageous and offensive policies his government is pursuing and the insulting statements he has personally made.”
Some Israelis are also angry at Vilnius’s policy regarding Lithuanian-born Holocaust survivors in Israel. Fueled by hatred for the Soviet occupiers, Lithuania has recently started glorifying those who fought them during World War II – and as part of this campaign has asked Israel to investigate Holocaust survivors. Several Jewish-Lithuanian partisans were suspected of committing “war crimes” because they allegedly collaborated with the Soviets while fighting the Nazis.
Last year, Yad Vashem protested against these actions by disinviting Lithuania’s culture minister, Arunas Gelunas, and the country’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, Darius Degutis, from a conference about the prewar Jewish communities of Lithuania.
Asked for comment about this week’s visit by Azubalis, a Yad Vashem spokesperson said that while Lithuania has shown willingness to confront its Holocaust era past – including granting the museum more accessibility to Lithuanian archives – there are still worrisome trends.
“We remain concerned about public expressions in Lithuania emanating from anti-Semitic or nationalist circles, obscuring or distorting the Lithuanian role in the Holocaust, and recent neo-Nazi marches, as well as a troubling trend of equating Holocaust remembrance with otherwise legitimate commemoration of Soviet-era misdeeds in Lithuania,” the spokesperson said. “The general blurring of what happened, and who was responsible is problematic, to say the least, if one is going to try to confront one’s history honestly.”
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, however, seems unfazed by these accusations.
According to The Baltic Times, the two foreign ministers this week signed cooperation agreements in the fields of culture, education and science. “Relations between Lithuania and Israel reached a new qualitative level and our bilateral agenda has expanded considerably,” the paper quotes Azubalis as saying.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said Israel is able to entertain fruitful diplomatic relations even with countries that have a troubled history. Regarding the current accusations against Lithuania, he said that “there has to be separation between their experience with Communism and ours with anti-Semitism. We would hate to see anti-Semitism manifest itself under the guise of something else.”
He did not say whether the issue of equating Nazism with Communism came up during the talks.