Like the rest of the Western world, Israel wants to support Ukraine in its fight to defend its democracy and right to self-determination against an unprovoked invasion from its more powerful neighbor Russia. But because Russia has a significant presence in Syria and has allowed Israel to conduct occasional airstrikes there to stymie threatening activity by Iran and Syria, Israel’s government has contorted itself in order to balance its ideals with its security needs.
As a result, Israel has sent significant humanitarian aid to Ukraine but has not joined in the imposition of sanctions against Russia. And while Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has made numerous statements condemning the Russian invasion, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been far more circumspect and refrained from doing so. Bennett even attempted to serve as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine during the early days of the war.
Recently, however, Israel’s good-cop, bad cop routine came to an abrupt halt when Israel was attacked in an ugly, antisemitic screed by a Russian official and by the Russian foreign ministry. In an interview with Italian TV, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended Russia’s claim that it invaded Ukraine to “de-Nazify” the country. Lavrov then said that it didn’t matter that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was Jewish. And he went on: “When they say that Nazification cannot exist if there are Jews [in charge]: In my opinion even Hitler had Jewish origins so it means absolutely nothing.” And if that wasn’t bad enough, Lavrov added: “Jewish wise people said already a long time ago that the biggest antisemites are Jewish themselves.”
Hitler was not Jewish, and there is no evidence that Hitler came from Jewish origins. Of course, Lavrov is not the first person to make the Hitler Jewish origins claim, nor is he the first to blame antisemitism on Jews themselves. But the fact that others have made the same outrageous claims doesn’t excuse them. Both Bennett and Lapid were quick to condemn Lavrov’s antisemitic rant. But rather than back away from Lavrov’s outrage or apologize for it, the Russian foreign ministry doubled down a few days later and accused Israel of supporting the neo-Nazis in Ukraine.
Someone must have explained to Russian leadership how outrageous and offensive the double-barreled accusations were, since Bennett’s office reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself apologized to Bennett for the comments. We note, however, that a Kremlin readout of Putin’s call with Bennett made no mention of an apology.
Russian antisemitism has a long history and continues to this day irrespective of whatever relationship Putin has with Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar. (Lazar has also criticized Lavrov’s comments.) We know that Russia’s war propaganda campaign is desperate. So it isn’t all that surprising that the Russian war machine won’t let a little blood libel get in the way of its message. Perhaps this will be enough for Israel to abandon the hope of a meaningful relationship with Putin’s Russia. It should.