The Ministry of Justice of Russia appealed on July 21 to a Moscow court requesting to dissolve the Jewish Agency (JA), which operates as an independent Russian organization. Putin’s shocking move to close the JA, may harm the Jewish community in Russia and intensify the deep anti-Semitic sentiments in Russia.
An anonymous Israeli state senior official was quoted as saying “No one really understands what Putin wants from us”. Israeli commentators interpret this as Putin’s revenge for not unequivocally supporting Russia in the war in Ukraine.
This explanation sounds weak given that the State of Israel decided not to join the international sanctions on Russia, does not meaningfully help Ukraine, and makes it very difficult for the Ukrainian refugees to arrive and stay in Israeli territory.
Previous rounds of hand-wringing on the Jewish and historical issues, where Israel usually surrendered to Putin – provide better explanations.
On May 2, 2022, the Israeli government was stunned by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov statement, accusing Jews of Nazi crimes because Hitler “had Jewish blood”. President Isaac Herzog was so shocked that he read the statement several times. Despite strong condemnation by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Herzog made it clear to Haaretz journalist Jonathan Lis that the condemnation and shock had no meaning. Because, he said, that this would not harm bilateral relations, stressing the Reds Army’s decisive contribution to victory over the Nazis.
Russia did not take official Israeli condemnations seriously. The Russian foreign ministry stated that in history, unfortunately, there were tragic examples of collaboration between Jews and Nazis.
Why should the Kremlin worry, since over 20 years, the State of Israel was complicit in Putin government’s narrative on World War II? There is a reason that President Herzog noted the Red Army’s deeds. Putin’s government highlights what in Russia is called the ‘Great Patriotic War’. This refers to the Soviet Union’s defeat of the Nazis, while erasing any trace of collusion between Stalin and Hitler between 1939 and 1941. As well as crimes committed by Soviet forces against Polish residents, minorities and others in the territories annexed by the Soviet Union following agreements with Hitler. This narrative also obscures the repression and crimes committed by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe following the war, as well as the memory of the crimes and internal repression perpetrated by Stalin, whose distinct symbol was the gulag. This narrative existed prior to Putin’s ascension. But Putin has personalized and exploited it for domestic and international purposes, by portraying the Soviet Union and its descendant, the Russian Federation under his aegis, as a benevolent superpower. Putin also portrays himself as a national patriotic leader who unites and protects the Russian people from the West that tries to steal their achievements.
Israel helped the Putin government establish the false historical narrative in two main ways – relinquishing any enquiry into the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, the Israeli State adopted the narrative of the “Great Patriotic War”, while agreeing that its denial was equivalent in severity to denying the Jewish Holocaust.
On November 26, 1963, Yad Vashem recognized Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg as a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, following his actions to save the Jews of Hungary from extermination. Among other actions, Wallenberg issued Jews fake Swedish passports, organized the provision of food, clothing and medicine, and established “Swedish homes” in which tens of thousands of Jews were granted asylum until the end of the war. The Yad Vashem website states:
“On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg returned to Budapest accompanied by Soviet soldiers, and noted that he did not know if he was a guest of the Soviets or a prisoner. From that moment, he and his chauffeur Vilmos Langfelder disappeared without a trace. The other Swedish diplomats were also held by the Soviets but returned after a few months via Bucharest and Moscow to Stockholm. Wallenberg’s fate is unclear to this day. There were reports that he was seen in a Russian prison, and only after many years did the Russians admit that the man had died in prison. Despite a joint Russian-Swedish commission of inquiry, little is known”.
Sweden and the Israeli government made little effort to find out the fate of Wallenberg, even though there was hope he was still alive. The Russian Federation was established in 1991, which allowed the opening of the archives of the security authorities and the KGB. Then efforts by Wallenberg’s relatives, public activists, organizations and the Swedish government, were intensified.
On December 31, 1999, Putin was appointed acting president. In June 2000, the Israeli government sent retired ambassador Johanan Bein to Moscow to “monitor the progress of the investigation into the fate of the Swedish diplomat”. Israeli officials noted that “The Russian interlocutors’ conclusion is that the documents related to the issue were destroyed by the secret services of the then USSR”, and that “the Deputy Foreign Minister and other Russian representatives reiterated that their efforts were ‘intertwined with their wish to demonstrate the changes in the policy and foreign relations of the new Russia’”.
Between 1999 to 2000, Russian forces were razing Grozny, and the separatist Chechen Republic, to the ground. Making it difficult to be convinced of the Russian claims regarding a “new Russia”. The Israeli government understood that the Wallenberg issue was as sensitive to the Putin government as it was to the Soviet government, and allowed the Swedish government to deal with the Wallenberg case. A statement followed a meeting of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, on March 15, 2005, giving responsibility for the Wallenberg case to Sweden. On July 17, 2006, MK Natan Sharansky, who himself spent nine years in Soviet prisons, put forward a bill to oblige Israel to investigate Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance and his whereabouts. The bill was never put to a vote.
On August 18, 2009, Israeli President Shimon Peres met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. A joint statement noted that Medvedev and Peres “express their outrage at attempts to deny the enormous contribution of the Soviet Union in the victory over Nazi Germany and question the crime of the Holocaust”. In other words, the denial of Putin’s ‘Great Patriotic War’ narrative is equivalent in severity to Holocaust denial. The announcement, marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, obviously ignored the fact that while the war began on September 1, 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the Soviet Union invaded the eastern part of Poland on September 17, in accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.
In February 2010, during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow, he promised Putin a monument to the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis. A statement (May, 2010), noted that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced today… a national memorial site commemorating the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany, 65 years ago today.”
Putin attended the inauguration ceremony in Netanya on June 25, 2012, and expressed his satisfaction: “As we unveil this monument today, we grieve together for those who fell on the battlefields, died from wounds and hunger, or suffered the death camps’ tortures. The Holocaust was one of the blackest, most shameful and tragic pages in all of human history. Even today, our hearts still refuse to accept this monstrous cruelty that the Nazis committed. It was the Soviet Army that put an end to this madness”. On May 9, 2018, Prime Minister Netanyahu participated with Putin in the victory march commemorating 73 years to the defeat of Nazi Germany, in Moscow’s Red Square. After the march, they laid wreaths for the unknown soldiers at the monument in memory of Red Army soldiers who fell in World War II.
It is puzzling then that some were surprised when at on January 23, 2020, the ‘International Holocaust Forum’, at an event led by Moshe Kantor (a billionaire close to Putin), in collaboration with Yad Vashem and President Reuven Rivlin, video footage endorsing the Putin government’s narrative of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ was screened. It contained no references to the collaboration between Hitler and Stalin; the maps presented showed wrong borders of Poland and its neighbors; and the Soviet Union was portrayed as liberating Europe almost single-handedly. Putin spoke, but the organizers of the ceremony rejected the Polish president’s request to speak. Yad Vashem later apologised for the ‘inaccuracies’ via Haaretz.
Why would an inquiry into Wallenberg’s fate challenge Putin’s ‘Great Patriotic War’ narrative? This became clear at a conference of the ‘International Memorial’ on the Wallenberg case, in Moscow in October, 2016. This organization – established at the twilight of the Soviet Union – dealt with the Soviet government’s crimes, and later addressed the crimes and internal repression in contemporary Russia and the Chechen war. Facing demonstrations against his electoral fraud in the 2011 Duma elections in 2011, Putin advanced new legislation. This constricted remnants of democracy in Russia. In November 2012, legislative amendments forced ‘foreign agents’ or organizations to register political activity or foreign funding. Failure to comply to bureaucratic reviews risked sanctions or bans. In 2013, the Putin government declared organizations affiliated with ‘International Memorial’ as foreign agents to halt their activities.
Two weeks before the 2016 conference on Wallenberg, ‘International Memorial’ was declared a ‘foreign agent’. Dissident and historian Arseny Roginsky, a founder and then head explained how Memorial researchers developed their archival research methods and discovered details about other prisoners. “We saw amazing things in these personal files: transfer orders from one cell to another or from one prison to another. We saw documentation of investigations and numerous other documents that could seal the fate of a prisoner”. Roginsky explained the enormous importance of this:
“The internal ‘kitchen’ of terrorism began to open up before us. We were looking for Wallenberg. That is the most important thing for me. But in fact, what was done is absolutely important for the entire history of Soviet terror. One discovers new types of sources. One blazes trails on which people, in search of unknown Soviet prisoners who have disappeared in the camps, tread. They ask for documents of this kind, they compare things. This connection between the fate of a very famous, very important man, a legendary man, a man who disappeared along with the fate of our missing Soviet brethren – for us, in Memorial, this is immensely important“.
Not only does the clarification of Wallenberg’s fate threaten the Putin government narrative, but the Wallenberg affair may also arouse interest and reveal details about the entire Soviet terror regime and its victims. On December 18, 2017, Roginsky passed away in Tel Aviv.
On November 11 ,2021, the Putin government filed a request for closure of ’International Memorial’ for “violating” the Foreign Agents Act. On December 28, 2021, the Supreme Court of Russia granted the request. It is no coincidence that ‘International Memorial’ was outlawed shortly after organizations of Alexei Navalny were outlawed. For Putin, the activities of Memorial were no less dangerous than the huge demonstrations which Navalny organized all over Russia.
Three days before the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine, on February 21, 2022 Putin delivered a speech in which he explained why Ukraine and the Ukrainian people were a fiction. For Putin the fight for the narrative is no less important than the fight through missiles, planes and tanks.
On April 6, the UK government announced that following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it would impose sanctions on Moshe Kantor. This announcement proven that not only Kantor helped Putin fight for his narrative, but also aided industries Putin used to support his war targeting Ukraine.
Even before the anti-Semitic remarks of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin reiterated that the purpose of the ‘special operation’ was to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine. The Bennett-Lapid government has been careful not to condemn harshly Putin for this. According to a statement from Prime Minister Bennett’s office, on May 5, 2022, Putin apologized in a conversation for Sergei Lavrov’s remarks, but Bennett has endorsed Putin’s narrative. According to the statement “Putin and Bennett stressed the special importance of May 9, the day of victory over Nazi Germany, to Russians and Israelis, and the memory of the victims of the war – including the victims of the Holocaust. Bennett noted the Red Army’s contribution to World War II victory.”
Now, Yair Lapid as the new Israeli Prime Minister will need to tackle the issue of the Jewish Agency closer. Lapid’s Minister of Finance, Avigdor Lieberman, already tried to minimize the problem. On July 25, Lieberman said “I think the somewhat obsessive and hysterical preoccupation is completely unnecessary”.
The State of Israel gave up on Raoul Wallenberg and got in return Sergei Lavrov’s anti-Semitic remarks and the dissolving of the Jewish Agency.
The current Israeli government can ditch the faux outcry and reap the mendacious and anti-Semitic crop whose seeds it, along with its predecessors, they have helped to sowed. Putin can rest assured that Russian-Israeli relations will continue as usual.
(Translated from Hebrew by Ofer Neiman; published originally in ‘The Times of Israel)