Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, caused outrage earlier this week after he was asked on Italian TV how Russia could claim to be “de-Nazifying” Ukraine when its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.
Lavrov replied: “I could be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood. That [Zelensky is Jewish] means absolutely nothing. Wise Jewish people say that the most rabid anti-Semites are usually Jews.”
After Israeli politicians reacted with fury to the suggestion that the Jews were responsible for their own victimization in the Holocaust, Russia’s foreign ministry doubled down by asserting that the uproar explained “to a large extent why the current Israeli government supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.” In a phone conversation days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin apologized to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for Lavrov’s remarks.
Lavrov’s preposterous attempt to make Jews and Nazis interchangeable was prompted by the fact that Zelensky’s Jewish identity exposes as a lie Russia’s claim to be de-Nazifying Ukraine.
However, the foreign minister’s comments contributed to fears that Russia is reviving Soviet-era anti-Semitism as a response to the crisis provoked by its aggression.
Israel was shocked by Lavrov’s remarks because it believed Putin to be well-disposed towards the Jewish people.
Jewish communities in Russia have been allowed to flourish. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has hosted special Hanukkah concerts at the Kremlin, menorah-lightings throughout Moscow, and Putin has met, talked, toured and posed with Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar on Jewish holidays and at other times.
But Israel ignored the fact that Putin has also frequently cited anti-Semitic Russian thinkers in his speeches, and in his attacks on Crimea and Ukraine has teamed up with anti-Semitic thugs such as the Night Wolves and the Wagner Group.
Ksenia Svetlova, director of the Israel-Middle East program at Mitvim‒The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policy, has observed that anti-Semitism in Russia always simmers just below the surface, particularly around the Russian Orthodox Church, and erupts in times of crisis.
After a horrific 2018 fire in a Kemerovo trade center, for example, various Christian circles argued that the Jews were behind the tragedy as it coincided with a Jewish holiday.
Professor Michal Bilewicz, director of the Centre for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, has noted that Putin’s recent references to a “fifth column” and “traitors to the nation” have sinister echoes. They almost exactly replicate language used by the Soviets in the 1940s and 1950s preceding anti-Jewish purges, and by Polish Communist leader Władyslaw Gomułka in a 1967 speech that preceded his own regime’s purge of Jews.
Bilewicz writes: “The paradox of Putin’s rhetoric is that he accuses Ukraine of ‘Nazism’ while simultaneously using anti-Semitic tropes to stigmatize Russians who oppose his war and support Ukraine.”
This, he said, was reminiscent of the slur Zhidobanderovtsy, or “Kike-Banderites,” used by pro-Russian activists during Moscow’s 2014 war in the Donbas to link Jews and followers of Stepan Bandera.
This linkage was absurd because Bandera led a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist organization that collaborated with the Nazis and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. “Yet it made sense to the followers of conspiracy theories,” observes Bilewicz. “There is no logic in their thinking.”
In a similarly nonsensical vein, Russia has also accused the Swedes of being Nazis in response to Sweden preparing to join NATO because of Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Ads have been appearing at Russian bus stops depicting various Swedish national heroes as Nazis with the slogan: “We are against Nazism, they are not.”
The word “we” is in the color of the Russian flag and “they” in the colors of Sweden’s flag. Selective quotes appear next to each picture purporting to paint the figure as a Nazi. These include Astrid Lindgren, the children’s author who created the character Pippi Longstocking; Ingvar Kamprad who founded Ikea; and Sweden’s King Gustaf V.
In claiming to be fighting Nazis, Russia is trying to channel the Soviet Union’s undoubtedly heroic resistance to Nazi Germany. Ignoring the inconvenient fact that the Soviet Union had first allied with Nazi Germany and thus started World War II, its stand against Nazism is a key element in Russia’s mythic sense of itself.
As a result, it thinks that claiming to be standing once more against Nazism casts it again in a heroic light. For these purposes, it has turned Nazism into a synonym for unspecific evil.
Exactly the same perverse rationale fuels the anti-Zionist claim that Israelis are Nazis. For just as Russia seeks to rewrite its aggression against “Nazi” Ukraine as heroism, so anti-Zionists rewrite their exterminatory anti-Semitism as a heroic stand against “genocidal” Israel.
Crucial to this infernal inversion of victim and aggressor is the belief by both anti-Zionists and Putinistas that they embody virtue, and so by definition, all who oppose them are evil. This mindset is a hallmark of totalitarian movements and has led to the oppression, persecution and mass murder of millions.
It was why Stalinism was supported by people in the West, who believed that they were thus supporting the creation of a more just world.
It was why so many “progressives” supported eugenics, the theory of manipulated breeding and racial improvement that derived from social Darwinism. Even though this ideology fueled Hitler’s program to eliminate those he deemed sub-human, it was promoted until the Holocaust by those who thought of themselves as working for the betterment of humanity.
It’s why those Muslims who hold that everything outside Islam is evil believe that when they blow Israelis or Westerners to kingdom come they are doing holy work. And it’s why the Palestinian Arabs tell themselves—in a demonstrably ludicrous denial of both history and reason—that they were the indigenous people of the land of Israel, that Jesus was a Palestinian, and that their murderous attempt to drive the Jewish people from its ancestral homeland is in fact an attempt to protect themselves from attack by the Jews.
This reversal of truth and lies, victim and aggressor, right and wrong is the hallmark of Soviet and Russian propaganda. It was no accident that the Arabs intent on destroying Israel developed modern anti-Zionism in cahoots with the Soviet Union.
The big anti-Zionist lie about Israel was created in the 1960s when the terrorist leader Yasser Arafat made common cause with the Soviet Union to rewrite history, demonize the Jewish state and thus subvert the West by twisting its collective mind and destroying its moral compass.
Israel’s difficulties with Russia are growing. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently canceled a scheduled phone call with his Israeli counterpart Benny Gantz, which was intended to discuss the cooperation and security coordination essential for Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria.
Without that cooperation, Israel’s defense against Iran on its Syrian border will be undermined. More ominously still, Russia is further cozying up to Iran. And meanwhile, it is ratcheting up its verbal aggression against Israel.
A spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry claimed earlier this week that Israeli mercenaries were fighting alongside the neo-fascist Ukrainian Azov regiment. In fact, Israel has sent no mercenaries nor supplied arms to Ukraine—a cause of bitter complaint by Zelensky.
But last week, a group thought to have close links with the Kremlin posted a list of 20 Israelis claiming that they were fighting as mercenaries in Ukraine.
Most of those names belonged to Israeli security guards, consular officials and employees of the Jewish Agency for Israel. They had merely been sent to bolster Israeli embassy staff who had been evacuated to Poland in order to aid the return of Israelis stuck in Ukraine.
“He who sups with the devil,” it is said, “should have a long spoon.” Israel is only now realizing that, in supping with Russia, its own spoon has been far too short.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy.” Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.