OPINION | ISRAEL PAGE | ISRAEL SECTION | HONORING COLLABORATORS | LEGACY OF JOE MELAMED | LEGACY OF DOV LEVIN | FOREIGN MINISTRIES AND THE HOLOCAUST
by Dovid Katz (Vilnius)
VILNIUS—We had the painful responsibility last week to record the folly of the Israeli embassy in an East European country that would go out of its way to lend “Jewish legitimacy” to a lamentable decision of a national parliament to name the incoming year 2018 in honor of a man, who in addition to whatever acts of bravery as a resistance figure in the postwar Soviet period, was also a leader of an armed pro-Nazi militia in the early days of the Lithuanian Holocaust, in late June and early July of 1941. The primary achievement of these groups, many affiliated with the LAF (Lithuanian Activist Front) fascist “white-armbanders” was the unleashing of pillage, humiliation, harm and murder of their Jewish citizen neighbors. Make no mistake, the Soviets were fleeing, in June 1941, from Hitler’s invasion, the largest in human history, not from the local Jew-killers.
Ambassador Amir Maimon, winding up his third hapless year in Vilnius, has still not found the courage to publicly utter the names of three of his own Israeli citizens, Yitzhak Arad (born 1926), Rachel Margolis (1921-2015), and Joseph Melamed (1924-2017), who are foremost among the Holocaust survivors defamed for posterity by Lithuanian government organs for having survived the ghetto to join up with the anti-Nazi partisans, and in Melamed’s case, for having “defamed” national heroes by pointing out their alleged Holocaust collaboration in one of his books. These Israeli citizens have been defended and praised, incidentally, among many others, by former UK prime minister Gordon Brown (Rachel Margolis), a British Parliamentary motion (Joseph Melamed), and the late Sir Martin Gilbert (Yitzhak Arad and others). The defamed-for-posterity survivors are owed an elegant state apology in writing. In the case of the Israeli citizens among them, who better to politely bring it up than the Israeli embassy?
But when some little carrot or other was dangled before his eyes, the Israeli ambassador to Lithuania rushed to do a photo-op with the political champion and daughter of someone who was a pro-Nazi militiaman in 1941. The resulting images, flaunted on the nation’s major news portal, include one of himself under portraits of an East European national icon who happened to lead a pro-Nazi militia in the weeks when these militias were unleashing the Lithuanian Holocaust in June of 1941. This is the kind of PR coup that few in the elite antisemitic, ultranationalist establishment here would have dreamt possible. But it did earn the ambassador a highly unusual personal accolade from the prime minister’s office (not because the prime minister is antisemitic, he is not! It is because of the regional lack of sensitivity to the glorification of heroes who were “also” Nazi collaborators.)
The events of the past few weeks will be studied by future generations of students of Israeli diplomacy, and fine future diplomats too. Selling the Holocaust in return for some pot of lentils is not only morally reprehensible and not becoming of the Jewish state. It is also a failed practical strategy.
But things don’t happen in a vacuum. The focused context of time and place is needed to understand the fullness of the small-time foul-play that brought this big-time folly into play.
irst, Ambassador Maimon’s meeting with the daughter of the 1941 militiaman was “midwifed” by Dr. Arvyas Anušauskas, the very same historian-and-politician who effectively launched the campaign against Dr. Yitzhak Arad in 2006, as detailed last week. In one fell swoop, Maimon was duped into lending implied moral legitimization for that nefarious endeavor too, while yet again betraying Dr. Arad, a Holocaust survivor, hero of the anti-Nazi partisan resistance, hero of the Israeli War of Independence, major historian and for over twenty years the director of Yad Vashem. Think about it: The shameful accusations against Arad gain an underhanded, cunning new traction nearly a dozen years after the launch of that campaign, in the hands of the same historian-politician, this time accompanied by an Israeli ambassador (albeit for the “glorify pro-Nazi militias of 1941” half of the equation, complementing the “demonize the Holocaust survivors who joined the resistance to fight the Nazis” half of it in play the last time around).
Second, the set-up included immediate media coverage stressing that by meeting with the daughter of the alleged 1941 collaborator slated for huge honors in 2018, the Israeli ambassador was “dumping” on yet another of his own citizens, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of East European Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and head of the center’s Jerusalem office. How so? It was Dr. Zuroff’s co-author of a major book on the Holocaust who had caused this past autumn’s national furore when she (as part of a backfired exercise in PR sensationalist ecstasy) attacked the postwar record of Adolfas Ramanauskas (Vanagas), who was in fact brutally tortured and murdered by Stalin’s KGB after the war, when he was a major resistance leader. Sample headline: “Israel sends a message to Vanagaitė regarding Ramanauskas-Vanagas.” Given the very public PR rollout of the Vanagaite-Zuroff liaison, the “lesson for Zuroff” was not lost on readers. This was the Israeli Foreign Ministry poking the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the eye, and that little tiff playing into local East European hard-core ultranationalist politics. Is that part of the remit of the Foreign Ministry? Could one of its many talented writers not have penned a straight, respectful op-ed disagreeing with Zuroff and Vanagaite on any issue arising? Some of these aspects of the saga were first unpacked and revealed by The Weekly of Vilnius.
Third, there is the issue of short-term diplomatic quid-pro-quo, an obsessive concern for some diplomats. Ambassador Maimon got credit for helping engineer Lithuania’s invitation to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at an EU event in Brussels earlier this month. But during this period, many, including one of the country’s top geopolitical commentators, Dr. K. Girnius, were asking publicly what Lithuania is getting in return for its pro-Israel stance. In walks Maimon, in the able hands of Anušauskas, legitimizing one of the country’s most far-right political ultranationalist icons, in the context of the decision by parliament, the same month, to name 2018 for her late father.
Last but not least, it all came tumbling down this week. When it came to a major vote in the United Nations this past week, Lithuania would not even join its fellow “New Europe” states, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Latvia, Poland and Romania in abstaining from condemnation of the American president’s decision to move his embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This time it took two headlines to tell the story: “Lithuania’s unexpected vote on Jerusalem: against Trump, in solidarity with EU” and “Israel’s ambassador disappointed at Lithuania’s vote against Trump’s decision on Jerusalem.”
History is not for sale. The Holocaust is not for sale. It is time for this sad chapter in Israel’s proud and exemplary diplomatic history to be brought to a rapid close.
It is also high time to recognize the non-Jewish Lithuanians who have stood up with inspirational integrity and marked courage about the folly of glorifying people whose biography “happens to include” an “episode” of collaboration with the Hitlerist regime that organized the murder of around 96% of Lithuania’s Jewish minority.
While the Israeli ambassador was being manipulated by the veteran history-fixers to betray his own citizens, Lithuanian ethicist Evaldas Balčiūnas wrote the essay that will outlive all of this season’s noise here in end-of-2017 Vilnius.