Exclusive'His statement is very close to justifying the Holocaust'

Top Zelensky aide: Lavrov shows Russia a threat to Jews, Israel can’t stay on fence

Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak tells The Times of Israel that he expects Israel to be more pro-Ukrainian after Moscow insinuates Jews share blame for the Holocaust

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Andriy Yermak, Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, addresses the media during a press conference at the embassy of the Ukraine in Berlin, Germany, February 11, 2022. (AP/Michael Sohn)
Andriy Yermak, Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, addresses the media during a press conference at the embassy of the Ukraine in Berlin, Germany, February 11, 2022. (AP/Michael Sohn)

Recent comments about Adolf Hitler’s “Jewish blood” by Russia’s top diplomat prove that Moscow is a threat to Jews everywhere and border on Holocaust denial, a senior advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday.

“It showed again that Russia poses an existential threat not only to Ukraine, with at least 100,000 Jews, but to all Jewish people around the world,” Andriy Yermak told The Times of Israel during a Zoom conversation on Tuesday.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov ignited a firestorm Sunday when he told an Italian interviewer that “Hitler also had Jewish blood” and that “some of the worst antisemites are Jews.” Lavrov made the remarks in response to a questions about Moscow’s claim that it invaded Ukraine in an effort to “de-Nazify” the country, though its president, Zelensky, is Jewish.

Yermak, 50, has spoken openly about his own Jewish roots. His Kyiv-born father is Jewish, and he lost family members in the September 1941 Babyn Yar massacre in which 33,000 Jews were slaughtered by Nazi Germany and its local allies.

The chief of staff called for Israel and leaders of Jewish organizations to respond forcefully to the remarks, appearing to echo comments from Zelensky who openly questioned whether Jerusalem should downgrade ties with Moscow in a Monday video.

“We have to be more decisive in how we act,” Yermak said. “I don’t know where the Russian ambassador is and whether he is still based in Israel. Such things cannot remain without a very concrete and clear response, not only from the State of Israel, but also from the representatives of Jewish organizations around the world.”

Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaks to The Times of Israel on May 3, 2022 (screen capture)

Israeli and Jewish leaders have responded furiously to the comments, with the head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial calling it a “blood libel.”

Israel summoned Russia’s ambassador for a clarification, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the comments had “crossed a line,” though its unclear if the row will have wider diplomatic implications or play into decision-making when officials meet to discuss expanding aid to Ukraine in the coming days.

Israel has attempted to strike a balance between support for Ukraine and preserving open ties with Russia, to Kyiv’s dismay, though it has begun to speak out against more stridently against Moscow and has agreed to begin sending helmets and flak jackets, rather than purely humanitarian aid.

Yermak said he expects that Russia’s comments, and its war crimes that are increasingly coming to light, will “make the position of the Israeli government more pro-Ukrainian.”

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)

Despite the backlash, Russia has refused to back down. On Tuesday, its  Foreign Ministry doubled down on the remarks, claiming that while during the Holocaust “some Jews were forced to participate in crimes,” Zelensky, who is Jewish, “does this quite consciously and quite voluntarily.”

The statement also claimed that Ukraine is currently home to “the most extreme antisemitism.”

The statement cited “examples of cooperation between Jews and the Nazis” during the Holocaust, noting the Judenrat councils formed in many Jewish communities and those who ran them, “some of whom are remembered for absolutely monstrous deeds.”

Lavrov “has hit the bottom of cynicism and lack of humanity,” said Yermak in response. “His statement is very close to justifying the Holocaust.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid enter a hall for talks in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. (Alexander Nemenov/Pool Photo via AP)

Yermak, dressed in the khaki fleece that Ukraine’s leaders have made into an unofficial uniform during the war, now in its 69th day, said that the denial of the Holocaust resonates with Ukrainians as they face Russia’s attempts at committing genocide against them.

“We understand what it means,” he stressed.

Citing Russian missile strikes on the Jewish pilgrimage site of Uman, near the Babyn Yar ravine, and on a Holocaust memorial near Kharkiv, Yermak said that  “these are not accidental things. This is deliberate, and we have to draw conclusions. All of us.”

‘We will not forgive’

Yermak praised Israel’s determination after World War II to ensure that Nazi war criminals faced justice for their crimes, and said that it serves as a role model for Ukraine.

“All those who committed crimes, crimes that are shocking to anyone that comes and sees them with his own eyes,” said Yermak. “All those who were killing and raping women and children. All of those crimes, the people who are responsible, who were managing, who were giving instructions, must be held liable.”

Nadiya Trubchaninova, 70, center, and her son Oleg, 46, attend the funeral of her son Vadym, 48, who was killed by Russian soldiers on March 30 in Bucha, in the cemetery of Mykulychi, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

“We will not forgive anyone, for everything they have been doing and are doing.”

Yermak, speaking in Ukrainian through an interpreter, said that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett would be more than welcome to visit Kyiv.

“We would always be happy to see Prime Minister Bennett in Ukraine,” said the senior aide. “When he makes that decision, we will gladly welcome him and enjoy his company and discuss our bilateral relations.”

He said that Israel, which has built up a powerful military and robust economy while facing persistent conflict, is a model for Ukraine; Kyiv is eager to deepen security ties.

“We are interested in building our military relations,” Yermak emphasized. “We are interested in borrowing the experience, in purchasing armaments and weapons. These words, and this Russian policy, show again that we have to stand together.”

File: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2021(Evgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Israel has sought to maintain open communication with both Russia and Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to invade on February 24. Bennett held a handful of calls during the war’s first weeks with both Putin and Zelensky as he sought to exploit Israel’s working ties with both countries to help mediate a ceasefire that will end the war. At the same time, Israel has rejected requests from Kyiv and the West for military equipment such as anti-missile batteries, part of a policy meant to preserve ties with Russia.

Instead it has sent some 100 tons of humanitarian aid and set up a field hospital in western Ukraine for six weeks.

In recent weeks, Jerusalem has appeared to shift slightly away from its previous approach, agreeing to send helmets and flak jackets to emergency workers in Ukraine and explicitly accusing Russia of war crimes as scenes of atrocities have emerged in towns and cities across the country.

“All those people that support the good, the democracy, the freedom, have to believe that Ukraine will definitely win this,” Yermak said. “But it is very important for us to stand together in this fight for freedom.”


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