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'Question is, will the Israeli ambassador stay in Moscow?'

‘No words’: Zelensky looks for Israel to ice Russia ties over ‘Jewish Hitler’ claim

Ukrainian president says remarks from Kremlin’s top diplomat show Moscow has failed to learn lessons from World War II, noting Russian assaults on Holocaust memorials and survivors

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint news conference with International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 26, 2022. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint news conference with International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 26, 2022. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed outrage over Russia’s top diplomat claiming that some of the worst antisemites, including Adolf Hitler, are Jewish and appeared to urge Israel to recall its ambassador from Moscow in a video message late Monday.

“Russia’s top diplomat is blaming the Jewish people for Nazi crimes. No words,” Zelensky said in a video posted on his Telegram channel in Ukrainian.

On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov defended Moscow’s so-called “denazification” of Ukraine, saying the fact that the president — Zelensky — is Jewish did not rule him out from being a Nazi and claiming falsely that Nazi leader Hitler himself had Jewish heritage.

“Hitler also had Jewish origins, so it doesn’t mean absolutely anything,” he told Italian TV. “For some time we have heard from the Jewish people that the biggest antisemites were Jewish.”

The comments have set off a firestorm of criticism, with Israel summoning the Russian ambassador for what Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called “a not-so-easy talk.”

On Monday, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the country’s top Jewish elected official, added his voice to a chorus of condemnation, calling Lavrov’s comments “sickening.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also expressed outrage, calling in a tweet for “the world to speak out against such vile, dangerous rhetoric and support our Ukrainian partners in the face of the Kremlin’s vicious assault.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attends a joint press conference with International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President following their talks in Moscow on March 24, 2022. (Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / POOL / AFP)

Zelensky said that the lack of any condemnation from the Kremlin, which has not commented officially on Lavrov’s remarks, amounted to tacit Russian agreement with Lavrov’s claims.

“After the deaths of ordinary people, who survived the Nazi occupation and Nazi concentration camps, from Russian shelling, such an antisemitic expression by their minister means all the lessons of World War II have been forgotten. Or maybe those lessons were never learned,” said Zelensky, who noted that Russian shelling had also damaged Holocaust memorials in Kyiv and Kharkiv.

Zelensky appeared to push for Israel to downgrade ties with Russia over the remarks, seemingly angling for Jerusalem to drop its policy of attempting to maintain a balance between support for Kyiv and positive diplomatic ties with Moscow.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a ceremony at the monument to Jewish victims of Nazi massacres, at Babyn Yar in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, on September 29, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

“The question is, will the Israeli ambassador stay in Moscow knowing their new position? Will relations with Russia remain as usual?” he asked.

Israel has so far sufficed with a sit-down between its Eurasia director Gary Koren and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov, which it described as a “clarification conversation” and not a rebuke.

“Our message was made clear,” an Israeli official said. “The two sides decided not to give any more details on the contents of the conversation.”

However, Jerusalem is not “ruling out the possibility of a further deterioration of ties in the wake of the incident,” according to officials quoted by Channel 12 news.

“The Russians hid the extent of their aggression from everybody, but these words [from Lavrov] are unforgivable,” the network quoted a senior Israeli official as saying, adding that Jerusalem now appears inclined to further align its stance on the Ukraine invasion with the West.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man wrapped in Ukrainian and Israeli national flags prays at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

In his initial reaction to Lavrov’s comments, Lapid said that Israel was “making every effort to maintain good relations with Russia, but there is a line, and this time the line has been crossed. The Russian government must apologize to us and to the Jewish people.”

Zelensky has repeatedly urged Israel to more fully embrace Ukraine, including making appeals based on Russian actions which have damaged Jewish sites and drawing parallels to the Holocaust, language which Israeli leaders have chafed at for diminishing the unique enormity of the destruction of European Jewry.

While mentioning alleged Russian actions that echo those of the Nazis, such as so-called filtration camps and the use of forced labor, Zelensky did not directly compare them to the Holocaust in his Monday remarks, seemingly avoiding the offending language.

He noted the proximity of Lavrov’s remarks to Victory Day, May 9, which marks the 1945 surrender of Nazi Germany to allied forces, including the then-Soviet Union, but not to Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, which took place last week.

Russian troops march during the Victory Day military parade to celebrate 73 years since the end of WWII and the defeat of Nazi Germany, in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2018. (Maxim Shipenkov/Pool Photo via AP)

While Israel has refused to send weapons or defensive equipment to Ukraine, last month it said it would supply helmets and flak jackets to civil emergency services, amid what appears to be a slight shift in Israel’s stance following reports of widespread civilian killings by the Russians.

The reports led Lapid to explicitly accuse Russia of war crimes for the first time, though Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has continued to use moderate language when speaking about Ukraine.

Moscow has publicly criticized Jerusalem over its decision to supply the defensive gear to Kyiv and over a suggestion by Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine that streets be renamed in the Ukrainian capital for those who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Emergency services work at the site where fires were triggered by an explosion in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, April 28, 2022. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)

Persistent conspiracy theories that Hitler had some Jewish ancestry that may have motivated his antisemitism and the murder of six million Jews have been repeatedly debunked by historians.

“If Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov asks to visit Yad Vashem to learn, we will welcome him,” Dani Dayan,. the head of Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial, told Army Radio Monday. “He crossed a red line; blaming the Jews for the Holocaust is an unacceptable blood libel.”

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