Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a groundbreaking visit in Lithuania on Thursday, praising the country for its efforts at Holocaust remembrance despite protests against Vilnius’s prosecution of survivors.
Dozens of pro-Palestinian activists waved Palestinian flags and chanted that Netanyahu was “not welcome,” while railing against Lithuania’s warm ties with Israel, outside government buildings in the capital Vilnius, where he held talks with his Lithuanian counterpart Saulius Skvernelis.
Netanyahu thanked Skvernelis for being a rare voice in support of Israel within the EU and for his efforts to fight anti-Semitism.
“You have taken great steps to commemorate the victims of Holocaust, to speak openly about this horrible crime that must never be repeated,” he said.
Many Israelis have origins in Lithuania, including Netanyahu’s grandmother, who was born in the northern town of Seduva.
“Lithuania was my ancestor’s home for many generations. The story of Lithuania’s Jews is both one of great triumph and great tragedy,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister to visit Lithuania, will meet with members of the Jewish community and visit a memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims there.
He will also award a Lithuanian family the title of Righteous among the Nations for having saved their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis.
Lithuania was once a hub of Jewish learning and home to more than 200,000 Jews before World War II.
Over 90 percent of Lithuania’s Jews died during the 1941-1944 German occupation at the hands of Nazis and local collaborators.
Critics say the country has never fully recognized crimes by Lithuanians during the Holocaust and has continued to honor nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis. It has also prosecuted Jews who fought with partisan forces against the Nazis, including former Yad Vashem chairman Yitzhak Arad.
In 2011, Yad Vashem dis-invited Lithuanian officials from a memorial ceremony in protest of the prosecutions.
Netanyahu should “express Israel’s unequivocal opposition to their ongoing efforts to rewrite the narrative of the Holocaust and promote the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes,” Simon Wiesenthal Center Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff wrote in an op-ed published in the Jerusalem Post Thursday.
In February, Zuroff lamented that Israel was silent on Lithuania and other Baltic countries while protesting Poland’s Holocaust Law, which forbids assigning blame to the Polish people for Holocaust crimes.
“There has never been an Israeli reaction to Holocaust distortion,” Zuroff charged. “There was nothing. Nada. Gornisht. The Lithuanians can say whatever the hell they want, they can glorify people who murdered Jews.”
Earlier this month, leaders of Lithuania’s Jewish community asked authorities in Vilnius to remove a plaque honoring anti-Soviet fighter Jonas Noreika, who killed Jews according to his granddaughter.
The country’s 2.9 million population today includes around 3,000 Jews.
Netanyahu has been criticized by historians and politicians for agreeing to a statement which seemed to absolve Poland of Holocaust crimes.
He has also been accused of overlooking anti-Semitism and Holocaust distortion in Eastern European countries in order to curry favor and build a pro-Israel bloc within the European Union.
On Thursday, Netanyahu praised Skvernelis for the “strong position you’ve taken in forums of the EU on behalf of truth, on behalf of Israel, on behalf of decency.”
“Israel is often mistreated by the EU in Brussels, there are many distortions that are leveled at us, and it is refreshing to see that you take a stand of clarity, of truth and of courage, and we discussed how that can be expanded,” Netanyahu added.
Netanyahu said he wanted “to achieve a balance in the European Union’s not always friendly relations with Israel” before boarding his plane for the first-ever visit by an Israeli premier to Lithuania.
On Friday, he is slated to meet the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in Vilnius.
Lithuania has traditionally been one of Israel’s better friends in the European Union, a result in part of the Holocaust’s legacy and close alignment with the US.
The Baltic nation was behind Netanyahu’s invitation to meet with EU foreign ministers in Brussels last December, irking some EU officials.
“Lithuania and the other Baltic states are probably regarded by Netanyahu as voices that could play the role of Israel’s advocates inside the EU,” Vilnius University professor Ramunas Vilpisauskas told AFP.
Netanyahu has regularly sought sympathetic ears within the EU, particularly among countries that can serve as a counterweight to the critical treatment Israel often receives from western European nations over its policies in the Palestinian territories it occupies.
Netanyahu has also been eager to convince European countries to exert more pressure on Iran after the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and reimposed sanctions — something Israel had advocated.
The EU was one of the signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, which it has sought to salvage after the US withdrawal.
The European countries say the deal is working as intended, keeping Israel’s arch-enemy Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons for now.
Netanyahu praised the “good” decision of Air France and British Airways to halt flights to Tehran next month, a move the carriers said they were taking due to low profitability amid the renewed US sanctions.