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Israel’s shameful policy on Holocaust issues in Eastern Europe

Bibi, when you visit countries that no longer have Jews, maybe don't praise the first line they give you about how much they've fought anti-Semitism since the war
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Babi Yar ravine, where Nazi troops murdered thousands of Jews during WWII, in Kyiv, Ukraine, August 19, 2019. (AP Photo/ Efrem Lukatsky)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Babi Yar ravine, where Nazi troops murdered thousands of Jews during WWII, in Kyiv, Ukraine, August 19, 2019. (AP Photo/ Efrem Lukatsky)

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trip to Ukraine early last week is yet another opportunity to assess Israel’s relations with the post-Communist new democracies of Eastern Europe, and especially those with a Holocaust past of participation in the systematic mass murder of Jews. In this respect, Ukraine in recent years has been one of the worst offenders in terms of distorting the history of the Holocaust, and glorifying individuals who collaborated with the Nazis in implementing the Final Solution.

The deterioration of the situation is directly linked to local politics and the conflict with Russia over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing insurgency in Eastern Ukraine. Thus, for example, in May 2015, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a package of laws, one of which outlaws criticism of those who fought for Ukrainian statehood in the 20th century, despite the fact that it is indisputable that militias established in 1941 by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), one of the most important movements that sought to achieve statehood, were active participants in the wave of anti-Jewish violence which swept Western Ukraine during the weeks following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. In fact, according to Swedish Holocaust historian Per Rudling, the most recent research on the involvement of the OUN in these actions, indicates that they participated in the murder of at least “thousands, perhaps even as many as tens of thousands, of Jews.”

This is only one small, but highly indicative, detail of the numerous steps taken by Ukrainian institutions and historians to whitewash the large-scale participation of their nationals in Holocaust crimes. The country is full of memorials and statues to Ukrainian Nazi collaborators and torchlight parades to honor the leaders of the OUN and UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which developed out of the OUN) are a common occurrence. Streets are named for OUN leader Stefan Bandera, whose birthday was recently declared a national holiday. In addition, quite a few Holocaust memorials have been defaced or vandalized in recent years, and not a single perpetrator of such crimes, or any other anti-Semitic acts, has ever been prosecuted, let alone convicted and punished, since Ukraine achieved independence with the fall of the Soviet Union.

The question is how should Israel respond, if at all, to these steps and to what extent should the rampant Holocaust distortion affect Israeli-Ukrainian relations? Unlike the situation in other post-Communist new democracies, where, for the most part, our ambassadors have refrained from getting involved in historical issues, our new ambassador in Kyiv, Joel Lion, has criticized initiatives to honor Holocaust perpetrators on at least three occasions, and has done so in at least one case with the Polish ambassador, since the “hero” in question was also involved in murdering Poles.

In retrospect, we are now in a position to assess current Israeli policy regarding Holocaust distortion, following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s state visit to Kyiv. Sad to say, but it strongly reminded me of his trip this past September to Lithuania, another prime offender when it comes to Holocaust-related issues. In fact, for many years, Lithuania was the country most active in initiating the cardinal tenets of Holocaust distortion, i.e., minimizing or hiding the participation of locals in Nazi crimes, promoting the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes, glorifying anti-Soviet heroes despite their role in the Shoah, and lobbying for a joint memorial day for all the victims of totalitarian regimes, which would make International Holocaust Remembrance Day superfluous. Instead of drawing attention to these problematic policies, Netanyahu praised his hosts for the manner in which they sought to commemorate the Shoah, and, for good measure, he also lauded their (relatively nonexistent or at best minimal) efforts to fight anti-Semitism.

This modus operandi was exactly replicated in Kyiv, which in recent years has by far surpassed Vilnius in its blatant Holocaust distortion and brazen systematic attempts to totally falsify the historical narrative of World War II and the Holocaust. Thus, for example, at Babi Yar, the site of the biggest Holocaust massacre, Netanyahu thanked the Ukrainian government for its efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, and mentioned their (nonexistent) “efforts in the war against anti-Semitism.” The grotesque irony of these comments was noted by Israeli journalist Sam Sokol writing in The Times of Israel. In his analysis of the visit, he pointed out that Babi Yar can serve as an excellent illustration of Ukrainian Holocaust distortion, as the Ukrainians seek to commemorate OUN members there alongside Shoah victims.

If anyone is looking for a silver lining in this sad story, at least Netanyahu did not agree to recognize the Holodomor as a genocide (which it wasn’t) and he mentioned “Nazi collaborators,” several times, although the Ukrainians, like the Lithuanians, might attempt to claim that the term also includes members of the Judenrat and/or the Jewish police in local ghettos.

In short, Israeli policy on Holocaust-related issues in post-Communist Eastern Europe remains flawed and shameful, but it remains to be seen, exactly how it can be improved, a subject which I hope to address in a coming op-ed.

About the Author
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center's Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.
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