The implications of Israel’s recent spat with Russia
May 7, 2022 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
This Update deals with Israel’s very public dispute with Russia this week that resulted from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov telling Italian television on May 1 that “Hitler also had Jewish blood. It means absolutely nothing…the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews”. Lavrov was responding to criticism of Russia’s insistence that the Ukrainian government are “neo-Nazis”, despite being led by Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The dispute has run all week, but may now be subsiding following a reputed private telephone apology from Russian President Putin to Israeli PM Bennett.
This Update also contains a poignant discussion of the meaning of Israel’s Memorial Day (“Yom Hazicharon”) on Tuesday for Israel’s Arab veterans.
We lead with an analysis of why Lavrov likely made the offensive claims he did from Ksenia Svetlova, a Russian-born Israeli expert on both Middle East politics and relations with Russia, who also served as a Knesset member for a time. Svetlova sees the statements as reflecting a willingness by the Kremlin to exploit an undercurrent of antisemitism in Russian society whenever it serves Moscow’s interests. She calls on Israeli leaders to recognise this reality as they continue to navigate the problem of backing Western support for Ukraine without unduly harming relations with Moscow seen as essential to Israeli security priorities. She’s got much more to say, and to read it all, CLICK HERE.
Next up is a more detailed exploration of the possible strategic implications of this very public spat with Russia, from Jerusalem Post security analyst Seth Frantzman. He explains the strategic thinking behind Israel’s determination to maintain good channels of communication with Russia regarding Syria. He then explores three possible Russian reactions to the current verbal dispute with Israel, how they would affect Israel, as well as the likelihood of each coming to pass. For Frantzman’s analysis in full, CLICK HERE. More on Israel’s policy on Russia and Ukraine in the wake of this week’s controversy comes from columnist Zev Chafets.
Finally, on a different topic, this Update offers some moving thoughts on the occasion of Israel’s Memorial Day on Tuesday, May 3, from Yosef Haddad, an Israeli Arab activist and former officer in the IDF’s Golani brigade. Haddad explains why Memorial Day is the most difficult day of the year for him, and his efforts to correct the reality that many Arab towns in Israel, such as his hometown of Nazareth, do not have ceremonies for Memorial Day. But the core of his article involves explaining what the IDF means to the minority of Israel’s Arab citizens who volunteer to join their Jewish fellow Israelis in the military when they reach 18, despite being exempted from the draft. To read this important article, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- The latest on the terror attack in Elad in central Israel on Wednesday, which claimed three lives, and was the sixth in a series of similar attacks over recent weeks.
- Israel’s sombre Memorial Day always occurs one day before Independence Day (“Yom Ha’atzmaut”), which this year fell on May 4. Here are some good comments on the 74th anniversary of Israel’s founding from Israeli PM Naftali Bennett, former minister Liat Collins, columnist Nadav Shragai, and diplomat Ron Dermer.
- On Independence Day this year, Israel’s population reached 9.5 million, buoyed in part by recent immigration from Ukraine and Russia.
- 74 reasons to love Israel as compiled by a recent immigrant, Talya Woolf.
- Another comment on Israel’s Memorial Day traditions from Canadian academic Gil Troy.
- A look at the history of the conspiracy theory that Hitler had Jewish blood – as cited by Lavrov.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Colin Rubenstein’s op-ed in the Herald Sun on a recent motion passed by the University of Melbourne Student Union promoting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, and making extreme claims, as well as the University’s condemnation of it.
- AIJAC’s media releases on the original motion and the University response are here and here, respectively.
- An AIJAC slideshow in honour of Israeli Independence Day.
Russia’s antisemitic attack on Israel is shocking and deliberate
Haaretz, May 4, 2022
An experienced diplomat and an educated man, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov knew perfectly well what he was saying when he erupted into a tirade about Jews, antisemites and Hitler in an interview this week on Italian TV. It was neither a slip of the tongue nor a mistake, nor is anyone in the Kremlin asking to correct the record about what he said or apologize for them.
Lavrov’s comments were one of Russia’s clearest crossings of a revisionist red line since it invaded Ukraine. He declared: “So what if Zelenskyy is Jewish? The fact does not negate the Nazi elements in Ukraine. I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood. It means absolutely nothing…the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews.”
Lavrov sparked immediate outrage in Israel and far beyond, with Israeli officials calling his comments an “unforgivable” falsehood, rooted in historical error and delusional conspiracy theories, that debased the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and turned victims into perpetrators. But Russia’s foreign ministry doubled down: For Moscow, the rebukes “explain[ed] to a large extent why the current Israeli government supports the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.”
Whoever in Israel once thought that it was OK to keep quiet while Putin and his aides serially compared Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a Jewish president of Ukraine, to a Nazi, and justified a bloody war against Kyiv by using the horrendous, Goebbels-style term “de-nazification,” must come to grips with reality. The Kremlin doesn’t have any problem slaughtering any holy cow.
When Putin and his loyal servant Lavrov need to justify the crusade against a Ukrainian president who happens to be a Jew, any comparison, metaphor, hyperbole or blood libel is good enough. Nothing – from facts to basic human norms – are sacred: In this Putinverse, Ukrainians are killing fellow Ukrainians in Mariupol, Bucha and Irpin “because they are Nazis,” Jews are “the worst antisemites” and in Hitler’s veins ran “Jewish blood.”
The Israeli establishment was genuinely outraged by these statements, and to many it came as a shock, a sharp departure from what is commonly described here as “Putin’s philosemitism.” But for Russian speakers in Israel, Ukraine and Russia, there was nothing new.
At one time, the Russian troubadour-poet Vladimir Vysotsky would sing a satirical song about how Jews were everywhere, reflecting what used to be the national sport in the Soviet Union – spotting Jews and marveling at their might and influence. In these days, antisemitism used to be part and parcel of official Soviet policy, and Jews were kept away from prestigious university and work places because they would automatically fail to pass the “security profile.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, antisemitism in Russia certainly did not disappear, but for a while it was not integrated into an official policy. Russia wanted to maintain close ties with Israel – a close ally of the United States, and Moscow also “needed” the Jews onside, to promote a specific image: That of a victorious nation that liberated the WWII death camps and saved the world from the Nazi bacillus, building an inclusive society while the West was being infected by Nazism all over again.
The Russian state allowed Jewish communities in Russia to flourish, particularly those led by the ultra-Orthodox Chabad movement; it hosted special Hannukah concerts at the Kremlin and marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
At the same time, it didn’t stop the worst antisemites, who were quite close to the Kremlin, to spread vicious lies– for example about Ukrainian plans to resettle Jews in the Donbas, or that Russia was being forced to intervene before Ukraine built “concentration camps” and started “gassing people.”
As a token of the intimidatory power of Putin’s philosemitism, it should be noted that no major Jewish organization in Russia has dared to denounce Lavrov’s words.
Ksenia Svetlova during her time as a Knesset member for the Zionist Union (Photo: Knesset spokesperson)
In times of crisis – for instance, when a Russian intelligence plane was downed in Syria (a strike initially blamed on Israel, but later exposed as a mistake by Syrian air defense systems) – or just pique, for instance when Israeli gymnast Linoy Ashram won the gold medal for rhythmic gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics, ending Russia’s 20-year monopoly, the Overton window shifts with appalling speed.
The social networks were suddenly full of antisemitic malice, the term “Jewish state” became an indictment, while Jews once again became “Zhidi,” the common Russian slur that had, for a time, become unseemly in the public square. After a horrific 2018 fire in a Kemerovo trade center, various Christian circles argued that the Jews were behind the tragedy, as it coincided with a Jewish holiday. Ultra-nationalist Russian Orthodox circles, which have enjoyed increasing access to the Kremlin, have long propagated antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Interestingly, these days Putin’s propaganda often compares the persecution of Russians to that of the Jews, as a form of supercessionism. A pro-Kremlin singer Shnurov even produced a new song called “No Entry: Russians and Dogs,” which featured the immortal lines: “A Russian is now like a Jew in Berlin in 1940… Russians are the new Zhids. You want us all to burn in an oven!”
Vladimir Solovyev, the Kremlin’s leading propagandist and subject of EU sanctions, argues that the “Europeans” are “prosecuting him for being a Jew.” Many pro-Putin figures openly complain that the “original” Jews are obstinately blind to what they call Ukrainian Nazism, and even have the chutzpah to protest against the “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine.
The tension between Russia and Israel has been on the rise for the two months since the invasion. Russian TV propaganda condemns the Russian Jews who “left their motherland in a critical hour and are now hiding in Israel,” and lists artists and journalists, both in Russia and abroad, critical of the war (or in their Kremlinspeak, “inciting hatred against Russians”), explicitly mentioning that all of them have Jewish names.
But Lavrov’s statements meant Israel had no choice but to react and they didn’t mince their words. So will the Lavrov saga, which was too loud to ignore, actually have a tangible effect on Israel’s policy towards Russia and Ukraine?
Given that Israel’s key reason for maintaining its balancing act on Russia was national security, specifically regarding Syria, to its north, where Russia controls the airspace and could interfere at will with Israel’s operations against Hezbollah and Iran, it’s safe to assume that, at least for the time being, there will be no major change in this policy.
While Israel had to address Lavrov’s slurs, it’s still difficult to imagine that tomorrow Jerusalem will start supplying arms to Ukraine, introduce sanctions against Russian firms or individuals or, despite Zelenskyy’s call, to recall its envoy in Moscow. The fear of challenging Russia is still there, and given the always simmering coalition crisis in Israel, opening a new front with Moscow is hardly a high priority for Israel’s prime minister.
At the same time, there is no doubt that the tensions between Russia and Israel will mount. Apart from its egregious abuse of the Holocaust and antisemitism, Moscow is playing with Israel on other fronts in parallel, to gain leverage: reaffirming its support for the Palestinian case, rebuking Israeli activity in Syria. With time, there is little doubt that Moscow will impose more demands and restrictions. The St Alexander church, a property Russia eyes in Jerusalem’s Old City, might become a new apple of discord.
While Israel was hoping that it could somehow keep on satisfying both Russia and Ukraine, it seems that Moscow expects nothing less than complete obedience, and even then, the Kremlin will continue using the Jewish card any way that fits its needs.
Alla Gerber, the founder and head of the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center, once told me that antisemitism in Russia is like a train resting in the sidings: It’s not in active service today, but when there’s the need to resort to it, the train can accelerate very quickly indeed.
Ksenia Svetlova, a former member of the Knesset, is director of the Israel-Middle East program at Mitvim – the Israeli institute for Regional Foreign Policy, and a policy fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichmann University. She is the author of “On High Heels through the Middle East” (Pardes, 2021). Twitter: @KseniaSvetlova
How Could Russia-Israel Controversy over Ukraine Affect Israel’s Operations in Syria?
by Seth J. Frantzman
The Jerusalem Post, May 3, 2022
Israeli soldiers guarding the border with Syria – Israel has serious concerns that the current spat with Russia may risk its ability to take defensive actions against the Iranian military buildup in Syria. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details)
Israel and Russia have had an amicable understanding regarding Syria since Moscow intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015. Under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that relationship was important and was managed in a complex and cautious way.
That does not mean Netanyahu’s management of the Russia issue always worked; there was criticism by Moscow of Israeli actions in Syria, but the relations continued nonetheless.
Now, with new tensions between Israel and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, and inflammatory comments from Russia’s foreign minister, there are questions about whether there will be consequences for their wider relationship.
The current Israeli government has attempted to continue the modus vivendi in Syria. This means Russia backs the Syrian regime while Israel operates against Iranian entrenchment. Airstrikes targeting that entrenchment have gone on for years.
However, previous reports in The Jerusalem Post have indicated that losing the security measures in place with the Russians in Syria would be a strategic problem for the IAF as Jerusalem continues to maintain a diplomatic balance over the war in Ukraine.
What this means for the so-called “war between wars” campaign is that Israel might suddenly find some issues more complex. But what does this mean in practice? Here are several scenarios:
The first scenario is that everything remains the same. Russia and Israel see Syria as one file, and they can work on that. And while they may not share the same view of the Ukraine conflict, they may also have some shared interests elsewhere.
Russia wants good relations with Israel, and it may want to say one thing and do another. Moscow doesn’t usually like to throw away relations it has worked on for years. It also faces hurdles in Ukraine and doesn’t want tensions over Syria. This means it may be motivated to not change its position on Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin – with Russian soldiers – visiting Syria: The Russian military presence in Syria means in effect that Israel shares a border with Russia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details)
Another scenario is that Russia changes its views about Iran’s role in Syria. There is a sense that Tehran and Moscow do not see Syria in the same way. Iran wants a weak Syrian regime so that it can flood Syria with weapons, drugs and militias. Russia wants a stronger Syrian regime that is stable.
While they both want the US to leave Syria, Russia wants to manage that issue because it wants to slowly and incrementally increase the Assad regime’s power. Iran wants to backfill every power vacuum with its own militias and eat away at Syria. Iran wins when Syria is weaker; Russia wins when Syria is stronger.
Moscow could shift its view a bit and encourage the Islamic Republic to have more freedom of action in parts of Syria. That might allow the Iranians to move more missiles there, increasing the Imam Ali military base, which Iran appears to have not used much over the past year. It also might help protect Iran’s movement of its air defense, such as the 3rd Khordad system, to the T-4 air base or even giving Iran a blank check to operate closer to the Khmeimim air base in the north, where Russia has forces.
Another scenario is that Russia could aid Syrian air defense. It supposedly provided Syria with S-300s after an incident in which Syria shot down a Russian aircraft. Syria downed that aircraft near Latakia in 2018 by firing wildly at Israeli warplanes. The Kremlin could give Damascus more intelligence or more information and assistance with things like radar.
Moscow might be giving the Syrian regime more help to intercept Israeli missiles, Forbes reported last year. Russia began joint patrols with Syria near the Golan Heights, reports said in January. Moscow could begin to increase all these activities, making Jerusalem’s actions and operations more complex.
Russia could also increase intelligence leaks and sharing. An angry Moscow had exposed operational details of Israeli airstrikes, Ynet reported in November 2019. These included claims Israel had flown over Jordan. Moscow could try to embarrass Israel more regarding operations in Syria, and it could increase its rhetoric condemning the Jewish state at the UN and other forums.
Russia could also go further and begin selling arms to Iran or selling more to the Syrian regime. Lastly, Moscow could even begin to aid the Syrian regime in confronting Israeli airstrikes.
These are the main scenarios that could take place if Russia begins to feel it should let tensions over Ukraine affect relations with Israel. Moscow senses that this Israeli government is closer to the West and the Biden administration. But it also keenly understands that things could change in Jerusalem, and a new government might come to power.
Russia might exercise restraint regarding tensions over Israel and wait to use them, playing the “tensions card” later this summer, or it might wait and see if there are new Israeli elections and then do something to try to get what it wants from Jerusalem.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.
Arab Israelis want to serve, and remember
We, the Israeli Arabs, are an inseparable part of Israeli society and Memorial Day is no exception.
By Yoseph Haddad
Israel Hayom, May 4, 2022
Bedouin IDF soldiers visit an Arab school: Arab soldiers develop a deep bond with the country, and honour their fallen comrades on Memorial Day, which was May 3 this year. (Photo: IDF, Flickr)
Where I live – in the Arab city of Nazareth – shops don’t close on the eve of Memorial Day; there are no ceremonies and cars don’t pull over when the sirens blast. But still, Memorial Day is the most difficult day of the year for me. I think about the many friends I lost, brothers in arms, who died on Lebanese soil. I was severely wounded during the 2006 Second Lebanon War in the Battle of Bint Jbeil.
I think about my friends on the battlefield who told the medics to go help others before treating them; I think about my commander, the hero Roi Klein, who just before he died a heroic death taught me the Talmudic proverb, “All of Israel are responsible for one another.”
They say that the IDF is the greatest melting pot, and that is true. My service in the Golani Brigade shaped my identity as an Israeli and as an Arab. I got a lesson in what Israeli society is all about. My comrades and I sang together, regardless of our ethnicity; we learned about each other and introduced our cultures to one another. And no less important, we defended all Israelis – Arab and Jewish alike.
After all, we are all under the threat of terrorism, which does not discriminate. When I fought in Lebanon, Hezbollah fired missiles on my city, Nazareth, and killed innocent civilians, including a baby girl; Hamas’ missiles during Operation Guardian of the Walls killed an Arab man and his daughter; in the most recent spate of attacks in Israel, an Arab Druze was killed as well as an Arab Christian police officer who ran toward the attacker.
Although non-Druze Arab Israelis are exempt from the draft, thousands choose to serve anyways. I met new Bedouin conscripts recently and saw them undergo their intense training. I could hear how they felt a deep bond to the country and feel proud in wearing uniform. Of course, there are radicals among us who oppose serving, including prominent Arab leaders, but there is a growing realization among Arab communities that in order to achieve a better life, we must follow the lead of those who choose to integrate. Even after Joint Arab List Chairman Ayman Odeh called on Arab service members to lay down their weapons and strip themselves of uniform, not a single person heeded his call. In fact, the exact opposite happened: Dozens of Arab officers and troops – including those who were no longer in active duty – inundated social media with pictures showing them proudly donning their IDF fatigues or holding their Israel Police badges.
Yoseph Haddad (right) with Emily Schrader, the Jewish co-founder of Haddad’s NGO “Together – Vouch for Each Other” (Photo: Emily Schrader)
As an Arab Israeli citizen and a wounded veteran of the IDF, I decided to hold a commemoration service this Memorial Day together with my colleagues in the NGO “Responsible for Each other,” which promotes coexistence and integration. The ceremony, at the memorial for fallen IDF soldiers, is part of a tradition we started two years ago and hope to continue with an expanded participation year upon year.
We, the Israeli Arabs, are an inseparable part of Israeli society and Memorial Day is no exception – it should be part of who we are. Everyone should remember the fallen from all faiths, who died for the defense of their country and for our collective sake. May their memory be a blessing. May God rest their souls.
Yoseph Haddad is the CEO of Together – Vouch for Each Other, an NGO which aims to be a bridge between the Arab sector of Israeli society with Israeli society as a whole.