Europe’s top antisemitism official has condemned Russian claims of fighting Nazis in Ukraine, warning that such propaganda “trivializes the Holocaust” and constitutes a “real threat” to the Jewish community.
Speaking in Jerusalem Thursday during a visit timed to coincide with Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Katharina von Schnurbein – the European Commission’s coordinator on combating antisemitism – said that Moscow’s self-declared mission to “denazify” its neighbor was “related to antisemitism” and constituted “instrumentalization of the Holocaust.”
“The whole idea of talking about denazification and of using language that in the end trivializes the Holocaust is unacceptable and is also dangerous,” she said.
Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, both sides in the conflict have compared their opponents to Nazis and accused them of committing genocide. On the morning his forces first entered Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that “the purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime,” and that his goal was “to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”
In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – who is himself Jewish – has declared that “Russia’s criminal actions against Ukraine bear signs of genocide.” He citing the Russian bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol as “proof that the genocide of Ukrainians is taking place.”
Despite strongly condemning Russian actions in Ukraine, von Schnurbein also objected to Kyiv’s repeated comparison of Russia to Nazi Germany. She told Haaretz that “we have seen war crimes [in Ukraine], but the threshold to genocide is very high so I believe that comparing [what is happening to] the Holocaust is problematic.”
Putin has long used allegations of Ukrainian Nazism to legitimize his actions against the country. In 2014, following the Russian invasion of Crimea, he claimed that his actions were motivated by concerns over an alleged “rampage” of reactionary, nationalistic and antisemitic forces across the country.
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During the buildup to the latest invasion, Russian leaders and state media repeatedly claimed that Ukrainian forces were perpetrating a genocide against residents of two eastern districts – Luhansk and Donetsk – controlled by Russian-backed separatists that broke away from Kyiv eight years ago.
The Kremlin even went so far as to invite officials from Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial to examine purported mass graves after the fighting with Ukraine ends.
But while the Russian propaganda was concerning, von Schnurbein said recent actions taken by the European Union have been encouraging. She was in Israel to attend a meeting of the Special Envoys and Coordinators Combating Antisemitism – a gathering of global officials tasked with countering antisemitism convened by the European Commission, Israeli Foreign Ministry and World Jewish Congress.
The German-born official touted the Commission’s recent comprehensive strategy to combat antisemitism, which was announced last October and included about $25 million for protecting Jewish spaces and supporting member states to develop national strategies on combating antisemitism by the end of 2022.
As part of this initiative, starting next month a meeting will be convened in Austria involving all EU member states, to create a “methodology on recording antisemitism incidents in a comparable manner across Europe.”
This will be “crucial” to securing Jewish communities, von Schnurbein said, adding that such efforts have only “gained momentum” since her appointment as Europe’s first antisemitism czar in 2015.
The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency has repeatedly complained that few European governments effectively record anti-Jewish incidents, leading to a paucity of reliable data that hampers efforts to battle antisemitism – a problem the new strategy is intended to remedy.
Asked about criticism of the plan by groups complaining that it has failed to adequately address efforts to ban ritual slaughter and circumcision, von Schnurbein responded that the new strategy also encourages actions to help Jewish communities flourish, and that efforts to ban these practices are “threats” to Jewish communities and have been used to “portray Jews as backward.”
“With regard to circumcision, the EU has no legal competence: it’s fully the responsibility of member states to ensure that aspect of freedom of practice of religion,” she said, adding that her office wants to organize a conference to discuss the issue of ritual slaughter.
“We haven’t excluded this important aspect of this strategy,” she said, noting that “the fact we are meeting here, and have this cooperation and exchange on how to move forward” with the fight against antisemitism, “is also already progress.
“All this has developed in the last five years. We see the willingness to deal with this,” she said.