By: David Yao
The Israeli and Lithuanian states established diplomatic relations in 1992, a year after Lithuania declared its independence in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Lithuania opened an embassy in Tel-Aviv shortly afterwards; it would also appoint a commercial attaché to serve in Israel in 2003. Israel, however, did not open an embassy in Lithuania. Instead, the Israeli state was represented in Lithuania by their embassy in Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia; it would not be until March 2015 that Israel would open an embassy in Vilnius. Since then, there has been a marked improvement in relations between the two countries, particularly in matters of economic and intergovernmental cooperation. That said, points of contention do exist. History casts a long shadow over Lithuania and Israel, particularly where it concerns the Holocaust and the complicity of the Lithuanian state and its people. It has been the source of some dispute between the two countries, underpinning the curious manner in which they reconcile warming political ties with a conflicting narrative of the past.
The conventional narrative of Lithuania’s history during the tumultuous twentieth century is one of victimhood.. Emphasis is placed on the nation’s experience under Soviet rule and the indignities they have suffered as a result. In fact, Lithuania is the only country that claims that its people were the victims of a genocide perpetrated by the Soviet Union (Winer 2014). Moreover, Nazi occupation of Lithuania and the crimes they commited have been equated with Soviet rule. Such claims have been received poorly internationally and in Israel, as it is viewed as an attempt by the Lithuanian state to gloss over their complicity in the Holocaust. Nonetheless, any mention of the Holocaust in the Lithuanian press and in political speeches is quickly followed by references to Lithuanian suffering during the war and after, as well as special emphasis on Lithuanians who aided Jews during the Holocaust.
In 2006, an investigation into the destruction of a village during the Second World War by Lithuanian prosecutors drew the ire of Israeli officials. Lithuanian prosecutors accused a group of Jewish ghetto survivors – two of whom lived in Israel – of joining pro-Soviet insurgent organizations. The sentiment within Lithuania was that the two former guerillas were evading justice in their reluctance to return to Lithuania and stand trial. The former Israeli ambassador to Lithuania, Ivri Apter, condemned the investigation for attempting to equate Soviet occupation with the Holocaust, and Pinhas Avivi, the deputy general director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry at the time, stated that the prosecution of Jewish partisans would not be taken lightly by the Israeli government (Repeckaite 2019). Indeed, Lithuania has been criticized by Efraim Zuroff, an Israeli historian and Nazi hunter, for being the only state in the world with a government that has gone to great lengths to conceal their role in the Holocaust. The Lithuanian state has been much more proactive in prosecuting those associated with Soviet collaborators than Nazi ones.
Prior to the Second World War, Lithuania was home to a large Jewish population numbering around 150,000; this community was decimated, with the survivors scattering. The experience of the Lithuanian Jewish community was largely left unacknowledged, especially in the wake of Soviet rule over Lithuania; many Lithuanians felt it unfair when then-President Algirdas Brazauskas apologized for Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust (Repeckatie 2019). Lithuanian Jews in Israel felt that such a statement was too little, too late.
That said, relations between Israel and Lithuania have warmed noticeably as Lithuania takes a more nuanced view of the legacy of the Holocaust and gains a greater appreciation for its Jewish heritage. High-ranking Lithuanian politicians now commemorate Jewish holidays and recognize Holocaust-related memorial days. In 2016, President Dalia Grybauskaite, accompanied by the former Israeli ambassador to Lithuania and representatives of the Jewish community, laid a stone in Moletai – the site of a mass execution during the Holocaust – to commemorate the victims. Since then, high-ranking Lithuanian officials have participated in Holocaust memorial events, signaling the shifting attitudes within the country towards its history.
In 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit Lithuania. During his visit, he explicitly linked the improving relations between the two countries with Lithuania’s new approach to its history, stating: “I believe that by coming to terms with the past, striving to combat anti-Semitism, as the Lithuanian government is doing, telling the new generations the truth about the historic tragedy so that such cases could be avoided in the future, through this we can create strong bilateral relations” (Jakilatis 2019). Such a direct statement from an Israeli Prime Minister is indicative of the more positive attitude within the Israeli government towards Lithuania in the wake of shifting views towards the past.
However, critics have stated that Lithuania has not done enough to reexamine its past, specifically citing the country’s unwillingness to admit that individuals considered as war heroes in their conventional narrative of history may have been involved in the Holocaust. It is also thought that Israel is willfully overlooking the shortcomings of the Lithuanian state in favor of political expediency (Repeckatie 2019). Indeed, even as Lithuania takes steps to acknowledge the great misfortune of its Jewish population during the Second World War, it has still fallen short in taking a critical view of their involvement in the Holocaust. Of course, Lithuania is not the only Eastern European nation guilty of such. Other countries, such as Poland and the other former Soviet Republics, have taken to downplaying their complicity in the Holocaust and romanticizing anti-Soviet nationalists, some of whom were involved in the persecution of Jews (Heller 2019). In light of this, Netanyahu’s decision to avoid addressing the issue directly has drawn the ire of domestic critics who believe that he is implicitly giving them the green light to continue their denial of the past. Tamar Zandberg, the leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, has called it “a specific maneuver that legitimizes anti-Semitism and borders on Holocaust denial” (Heller 2019).
In early 2020, the Lithuanian government drafted a piece of legislation declaring that neither Lithuania nor its leaders participated in the Holocaust. This was done shortly after neighboring Poland passed a similar law the previous year. The justification given by Lithuanian lawmakers for such a declaration was that since Lithuania was occupied during the Second World War, it could not have possibly engaged in the Holocaust (Liphshiz 2020). The proposed legislation has been widely criticized by the Jewish community for being a blatant attempt to obscure the past, particularly when Lithuanian collaborators culled the country’s Jewish population with brutal efficiency. The potential passage of the law has been described as a “travesty,” and it is feared that it would set a precedent for other Eastern European countries that have engaged in molding the official narrative of their history to suit their political agenda (Liphshiz 2020). Efraim Zuroff, the Eastern European director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that “if a nation with a Holocaust record such as Lithuania passes a law that exonerates it without significant diplomatic fallout, it would be a terrible sign for others” (Liphshiz 2020).
Israel and Lithuania have dealt with the unfortunate realities of history in curious and contradictory ways. In improving its relations with Israel, Lithuania has had to make gestures to address the destruction of its Jewish population during the Holocaust. While it has made steps in that regard, it has been unable — or unwilling — to admit to the complicity of Lithuanian collaborators during the Second World War, and that some of their nationalist heroes may have participated in the atrocities committed during that time period. It seems remarkable, then, that the Israeli state has been willing to overlook such developments and continue to foster its relationship with Lithuania.
But Israel’s outreach to the Eastern European nations is part of a strategy to forge alliances to counteract the criticism it faces on the international stage over its treatment of Palestinians (Heller 2019). Moreover, Lithuania has offered to be “Israel’s voice in the EU, which can elaborate on Israel’s position” (Repeckaite). Since Netanyahu’s visit to Vilnius in 2018, the Lithuanian government has prioritized strengthening bilateral economic ties and increasing intergovernmental cooperation. In 2019, Lithuania was also one of eleven European countries to break ranks with the EU and vote against a resolution urging UN members to support the Secretariat of the Palestinian Rights’ Committee (“Lithuania breaks ranks” 2019). In return, countries like Lithuania are provided some insulation against accusations of anti-Semitism while also strengthening ties with a U.S. ally.
Thus, it may be observed that despite relatively warm relations between Israel and Lithuania, the legacy of the Holocaust creates an underlying tension between the two nations. This tenuous dynamic has defined relations between Israel and Lithuania in recent years. In its quest to seek more political allies, Israel has been willing to overlook Lithuania’s shortcomings in grappling with its past for the sake of political expediency. Lithuania, for its part, has acknowledged the vibrant Jewish community it once possessed, but has not found any incentive to truly reevaluate its conventional narrative of the Second World War as it continues to reap the benefits of good relations with Israel.
Čachovskij, Kiril. “Israel Wants to Strengthen Ties with Lithuania to Counterbalance EU Criticism.” The Lithuania Tribune, April 17, 2019. https://lithuaniatribune.com/israel-wants-to-strengthen-ties-with-lithuania-to-counterbalance-eu-criticism/.
Heller, Aron. “Israel Leader Scorned for Wooing Holocaust-Distorting Allies.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, January 30, 2019. https://apnews.com/article/2b1eb6dbe0f44763b515fbb4c6398f2b.
Jakilaitis, Edmundas. “Will Lithuania Become Israel's Wedge in the European Union? The Message Netanyahu Sends to His Own.” the Lithuania Tribune, April 17, 2019. https://lithuaniatribune.com/will-lithuania-become-israels-wedge-in-the-european-union-the-message-netanyahu-sends-to-his-own/.
Liphshiz, Cnaan. “Following Poland's Lead, Lithuania Proposes Controversial Holocaust Law.” The Times of Israel. The Times of Israel, January 15, 2020. https://www.timesofisrael.com/following-polands-lead-lithuania-proposes-controversial-holocaust-law/.
LRT.lt. “Lithuania Breaks Rank with EU and Backs Israel in UN Resolution.” lrt.lt. lrt.lt, December 6, 2019. https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1122447/lithuania-breaks-rank-with-eu-and-backs-israel-in-un-resolution.
Repeckaite, Daiva. “Lithuania Is Forming a New Relationship with ITS Past-and with Israel,” October 18, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/18/lithuania-is-forming-a-new-relationship-with-its-past-and-with-israel/.
Winer, Stuart. “Israel to Open Embassy in Lithuania.” The Times of Israel, September 11, 2014. https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-to-open-embassy-in-lithuania/.
David Yao is a junior studying history and political science at American University.