Israel says Russian comments on Nazism and Ukraine are ‘unforgivable’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Israel has criticized Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for remarks on Nazism and antisemitism with regard to Ukraine.
(Yuri Kochetkov / Pool Photo)

Israel on Monday lashed out at Russia over “unforgivable” comments by its foreign minister about Nazism and antisemitism, including claims that Hitler was Jewish and that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish origins do not mean his country can’t harbor Nazi elements.

Israel, which summoned the Russian ambassador in response to the remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said such comments blamed Jews for their own murder in the Holocaust.

It was a sharp setback to ties between the two countries at a time when Israel has sought to stake out a neutral position between Russia and Ukraine and remain in Moscow’s good books for its security needs in the Middle East.


Asked in an interview with an Italian news channel about Russian claims that it invaded Ukraine to “de-Nazify” the country, Lavrov said that Ukraine could still have Nazi elements even if some figures, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, are Jewish.

“So when they say, ‘How can Nazification exist if we’re Jewish?’, 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 said, speaking to the station in Russian, dubbed over by an Italian translation.

In some of the harshest remarks since the start of the war in Ukraine, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called Lavrov’s statement “unforgivable and scandalous and a horrible historical error.”

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“The Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust,” said Lapid, the son of a Holocaust survivor. “The lowest level of racism against Jews is to blame Jews themselves for antisemitism.”

Lapid later said Israel makes “every effort” to have good relations with Russia. “But there’s a limit and this limit has been crossed this time. The government of Russia needs to apologize to us and to the Jewish people,” he said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who has been more measured in his criticism of Russia’s invasion, also condemned Lavrov’s comments.


“His words are untrue and their intentions are wrong,” he said. “Using the Holocaust of the Jewish people as a political tool must cease immediately.”

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Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, called the remarks “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 Zelensky in particular, Nazis. This, among other things, is a complete distortion of the history and an affront to the victims of Nazism.”

In Germany, government spokesman Steffen Hebstreit said the Russian government’s “propaganda” efforts weren’t worthy of comment, calling them “absurd.”

Nazism has featured prominently in Russia’s war aims and narrative as it fights in Ukraine. In his bid to justify the war to his people, President Vladimir Putin has portrayed the battle as a struggle against Nazis in Ukraine, even though the country has a democratically elected government and a Jewish president whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust.

Ukraine also condemned Lavrov’s remarks.

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“By trying to rewrite history, Moscow is simply looking for arguments to justify the mass murders of Ukrainians,” Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Lavrov’s remarks exposed the “deeply rooted antisemitism of the Russian elites.”


World War II, in which the Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people and helped defeat Nazi Germany, is a linchpin of Russian national identity. Repeatedly reaching for the historical narrative that places Russia as a savior against evil forces has helped the Kremlin rally Russians around the war.

In the Middle East, Russia has a military presence in Syria, and Israel, which carries out frequent strikes on enemy targets in the country, relies on Russia for security coordination to prevent their forces from coming into conflict with one another. That has forced Israel to tread lightly in its criticism of the war in Ukraine.

While it has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine and expressed support for its people, Israel has been measured in its criticism of Russia. It has not joined international sanctions against Russia or provided military aid to Ukraine.

That paved the way for Bennett to be able to try to mediate between the sides, an effort which appears to have stalled as Israel deals with its own internal unrest.

The invocation of the Holocaust in the Ukraine war has also sparked Israeli anger toward Kyiv.

In a speech to Israeli legislators in March, Zelensky compared Russia’s invasion of his country to the actions of Nazi Germany, accusing Putin of trying to carry out a “final solution” in Ukraine. The comparison drew an angry condemnation from Yad Vashem, which said Zelensky was trivializing the Holocaust.