(JTA) — During the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Lithuania, Benjamin Netanyahu praised the country’s efforts to commemorate the Holocaust, drawing a rebuke from a Jewish activist.
Netanyahu’s visit Thursday to the capital Vilnius coincided with a meeting of the leaders of all three Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – who also met with Netanyahu.
“This reflects Israel’s growing stature around the world,” Netanyahu said of the invitation to the summit.
The Baltic states are among Israel’s staunchest supporters in the European Union.
On Thursday, during a joint speech with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaute, Netanyahu praised her “great steps to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, to speak openly about this horrible crime that must never be repeated.”
He added: “I want to thank you for your commitment to fighting anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head.”
Earlier in the same speech, Netanyahu also mentioned Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis.
“Vilnius was known as the ‘Jerusalem of Lita,’ ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania,’ but as you know there was also a dark chapter. The Jews of Lithuania were almost entirely wiped out in the Holocaust by the Nazis and their collaborators,” he said.
Efraim Zuroff, the Eastern Europe director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, responded with an unusually sharp-worded rebuke of Netanyahu’s remarks, accusing Lithuania of glorifying Nazi collaborators.
“Sickening/Disgusting, that’s my response to Bibi’s praise,” Zuroff, author of a 2016 book about complicity in Lithuania during the Holocaust, wrote in an email to JTA. “Lithuania is the country which glorifies anti-Soviet fighters who helped murder Jews during the Shoah, and is doing everything it can to undermine the uniqueness of the Holocaust by promoting the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes.”
Netanyahu’s words were “a total moral failure by the person who is supposed to lead the defense of the Jewish narrative of the Holocaust,” Zuroff said.
The Lithuanian Jewish Community last month posted on its website a statement calling for the removal of a plaque commemorating an alleged war criminal on display at the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in central Vilnius.
Jonas Noreika, who died in 1947 while he was held prisoner by Russian authorities, signed orders committing Lithuanian Jews to ghettos and administered seized Jewish property, the Lithuanian Jewish Community asserted, citing the Lithuania state archives. But he has enjoyed a hero status in Lithuania for organizing resistance to Soviet occupiers. A school was named for him, and then-President Vytautas Landsbergis attended his funeral in 2000.