- Israel has taken a relatively neutral stance on the Ukraine war, stopping short of sanctions on Moscow or lethal aid to Kyiv.
- But Russia is accusing Israel of backing neo-Nazis in Ukraine, which could change that.
- Israel has tried to stay on Russia’s good side over security concerns linked to Iranian activities in Syria.
Russia on Tuesday escalated a rhetorical spat with Israel over Ukraine, essentially accusing the Israelis of being pro-Nazi by expressing support for Kyiv, which it falsely called a “neo-Nazi regime.” Moscow is risking pushing away one of the only countries with close ties to the US that has remained relatively neutral and has yet to impose sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine war or provide Kyiv with weapons.
The dispute began after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the weekend pushed the unfounded claim that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had Jewish origins in attempt to bolster Russia’s farcical assertion that it’s “de-Nazifying” Ukraine.
Russia has maintained its war in Ukraine is being waged against the country’s “neo-Nazi” leaders — a wrongful assertion that’s fundamentally undermined by the fact Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a democratically elected leader, who happens to be Jewish and who lost family during the Holocaust. But Russia has repeatedly spread this baseless narrative in an attempt to justify its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
“When they say ‘What sort of nazification is this if we are Jews’, well I think that Hitler also had Jewish origins, so it means nothing,” Lavrov said in an interview on Italian television, per Reuters.
“For a long time now we’ve been hearing the wise Jewish people say that the biggest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves,” Lavrov added.
The Israeli government was infuriated by Lavrov’s comments.
“Such lies are intended to accuse the Jews themselves of the most horrific crimes in history that were committed against them,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid ripped into Lavrov, deeming the top Russian diplomat’s remarks “unforgivable” and “the lowest form of racism.”
“Foreign Minister Lavrov’s remarks are both an unforgivable and outrageous statement as well as a terrible historical error. Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust,” Lapid wrote on Twitter. “The lowest level of racism against Jews is to accuse Jews themselves of antisemitism.”
Instead of apologizing, the Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday went after Lapid and accused the Israeli foreign minister of making “anti-historical statements” that explains “to a large extent why the current Israeli government supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.”
Israel has offered Ukraine humanitarian assistance since the war began, and joined the US and its allies in voting to condemn Russia in the UN over the invasion. lapid also accused Russia of war crimes over the Bucha execution-style killings. But Israel has stopped short of backing sanctions or supplying lethal aid to Ukraine, in spite of pressure from lawmakers in Washington and the Ukrainian government.
The Russian military’s presence in Syria has led Israel to walk a careful line when it comes to the Ukraine war. Israel coordinates with Russia to conduct strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, and sees maintaining friendly relations with Moscow as important to its security.
Roughly 15% of the Israeli population is Russian-speaking as well — many are immigrants or family of immigrants from the former Soviet Union — and Israel has strong cultural connections to Russia and Ukraine. Along these lines, Israel offered to help broker peace talks between Russia and Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the so-called “special military operation” in late February.
In this context, Russia’s insistence on antagonizing Israel and accusing it of supporting neo-Nazis is a curious approach that could push the Israeli government to join in on the crippling economic penalties imposed on Russia and possibly even lead it to supply Ukraine with weapons.
Israeli officials have discussed ramping up aid to Ukraine and believe that providing defensive systems that help protect troops on the ground, among other forms of assistance that don’t include advanced weaponry, would not induce a crisis with Moscow, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Tuesday.