Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has become the cataract in a minor storm. Lavrov ventured that the Ukraine’s president, Zelensky, acts in a hypocritical way because he is a Jew and yet he facilities the Azov regiment—a National Socialist organisation. Lavrov further commented that some Jews collaborated with the Hitlerites, so Zelensky’s behaviour is hardly unprecedented. This provoked vigorous complaints from Israel, but the Russian foreign ministry doubled down and released a statement that outlined current Hitlerite activities in the Ukraine and also expanded on Jewish complicity with the holocaust. What goes on here?
At the superficial level, it seems difficult to fault Lavrov; anyone who takes a moment to investigate the matter will discover that what he says about the Hitlerites in the Ukraine is true—at the moment, an Azov element is besieged in a steel plant outside Mariupol; it is easy enough to find out what they believe. Simultaneously, Zelensky has made appeals—to the Israeli parliament no less—that compare the Ukrainian predicament to the Jews under Hitler (a flatfooted action that made the Ukrainians unpopular in Israel for a time). So Lavrov would appear to be right, Zelensky is a hypocrite who betrays his own people.
However, this will not wash and Lavrov will continue to be attacked in Israel and the West. To understand why requires wider context. As it happens, yesterday I read a passage about Hitler’s early years when he was trained by the German military to be a propagandist; at the time, Hitler was offered formal education in “the Jewish question”—Hitler was to become a “rational anti-semite”, as opposed to an emotional anti-semite. In part, rational anti-semitism argued that the Jews have no higher ideals: whatever they profess—from democracy to Marxism—remains an expedient front.
To bring this attitude up to date: such expediency would include the holocaust itself, now enshrined as what we commonly regard as absolute evil—an ideal of evil. Hence Lavrov committed “meta-racism”; although his point is in a limited sense “anti-racist”, it suggests that the Jews are so governed by expedience and are so hypocritical that they do not even really care about the holocaust—the destruction of their own people—as a standard for evil to be consistently avoided. Lavrov becomes a paradoxical anti-semite; in the way he condemns the holocaust, he indicts the Jews with a trope commonly levelled against them—by the Hitlerites, in fact. And, doubtless, Lavrov could, if he wanted, point to men like David Cole—a Jew who was a major mover and shaker in the movement to claim the holocaust did not happen, or did not happen to the extent commonly agreed. Lavrov is in a bizarrely comical position: “Look, I’m a consistent opponent of the holocaust—it’s the Jews who stop us being consistent about it, they’re just such tricky people.”
Lavrov’s remarks have been trailered before; long ago, during the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt noted the extensive collaboration between the Jewish councils who acted as intermediaries between the Jews and the Hitlerites—she compared the situation in the East to Denmark, where the decision by the Danish authorities and the Jewish community not to cooperate with the Hitlerites seriously undermined the whole operation; the result was that proportionally many more Danish Jews survived than in other countries. Arendt’s comments provoked a similar storm—a storm that perhaps also indicated an internal division within Jewry between Western Jews and Eastern Jews, with the latter being seen as a lower sort.
Arendt said, rather as with Lavrov, that in the East there was a passivity, cynicism, and “ghetto mentality” that meant the Jews allowed themselves to be easy meat for the grinder—and this is what Lavrov alludes to. Arendt’s comments caused particular controversy because the Zionist state was keen to build up a “non-ghetto” mentality—healthy work on the kibbutz outside, martial values—whereas Arendt drew attention to a more dishonourable previous life. Lavrov has effectively retreaded the same territory.