Israel blasted the Russian foreign minister on Monday over his “unforgivable” comments about Nazism, Hitler and the war in Ukraine.
Speaking on an Italian news channel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed Nazis could still have power in Ukraine, even if the country’s president was Jewish.
“When they say ‘how can Nazification exist if we’re Jewish’,” said Lavrov. “In my opinion, Hitler also had Jewish origins, so it doesn’t mean absolutely anything.
“For some time we have heard from the Jewish people that the biggest antisemites were Jewish,” he added.
Russia has repeatedly claimed it invaded Ukraine to “de-nazify” the country and remove fascist elements from its government, in a bid to legitimise the war to its citizens.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and his relatives were killed in the Holocaust.
In a steep decline in relations between the two countries, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called Lavrov’s statement “unforgivable and scandalous and a horrible historical error.
“The Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust,” he said. “The lowest level of racism against Jews is to blame Jews themselves for antisemitism.”
Russia’s top diplomat was later summoned by Lapid for “clarifications”.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Israel has sought to strike a neutral position between the two sides, wishing to remain in Russia’s good books for its security needs in the Middle East.
Israel has not provided Kyiv with any offensive weaponry, although it has given Ukraine protective equipment.
The chairman of Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem called the Russian foreign minister’s comments “absurd, delusional, dangerous and deserving of condemnation.”
“Lavrov is propagating the inversion of the Holocaust — turning the victims into the criminals on the basis of promoting a completely unfounded claim that Hitler was of Jewish descent,” it said in a statement.
“Equally serious is calling the Ukrainians in general, and President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy in particular, Nazis. This, among other things, is a complete distortion of the history and an affront to the victims of Nazism.”
Ukraine also condemned Lavrov’s comments.
The country’s foreign minister Dmytro Kouleba slammed what he called “deeply rooted anti-Semitism within the Russian elites,” while Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said “Moscow is simply looking for arguments to justify the mass murder.”
Nazism features prominently in Russia’s narrative on the Ukraine war.
Vladimir Putin has parallelled the Soviet Union’s struggle against Nazi Germany in World War Two with his country’s effort to de-nazify the Ukrainian government.
During elections in 2019, extreme-right parties in Ukraine received a total of 2.15 % of the votes and no seats in parliament.
Some 27 million Russians died in WW2, or the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, and it is a cornerstone of Russia’s national identity.
Invoking the Holocaust during the Ukrainian war has drawn sharp criticism in Israel before.
In a speech in March, Zelenskyy compared Russia’s invasion of his country to the actions of Nazi Germany, accusing Putin of trying to carry out a “final solution” against Ukraine.
This drew condemnation from Yad Vashem, which said Zelenskyy was trivialising the Holocaust.