JERUSALEM — The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, condemned on Monday a recent claim by the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, that Jews were “the biggest antisemites.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry also summoned the Russian ambassador to Israel to explain Mr. Lavrov’s remarks, while the Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, demanded an apology.
The backlash followed an interview Mr. Lavrov gave on Sunday to an Italian television journalist who asked him why Russia claimed to be “denazifying” Ukraine when the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was Jewish. Mr. Lavrov replied that he thought Hitler himself had Jewish roots, a claim dismissed by historians, and added, “For a long time now we’ve been hearing the wise Jewish people say that the biggest antisemites are the Jews themselves.”
Mr. Bennett said that he viewed Mr. Lavrov’s remarks with the “utmost severity,” saying that the comments were “untrue and their intentions are wrong.”
Mr. Bennett added, “The goal of such lies is to accuse the Jews themselves of the most awful crimes in history, which were perpetrated against them, and thereby absolve Israel’s enemies of responsibility.”
Separately, Mr. Lapid said that Mr. Lavrov’s comments were “both an unforgivable and outrageous statement as well as a terrible historical error.”
“Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust,” he added. “The lowest level of racism against Jews is to accuse Jews themselves of antisemitism.”
The Israeli government’s response is among the fiercest criticism it has leveled at the Russian government since the invasion of Ukraine.
Israel has been engaged in a tricky balancing act: supporting Ukraine while trying to avoid a showdown with Russia, which has a large military presence in Syria, Israel’s neighbor. Israel coordinates with Russia when striking Iranian, Syrian or Lebanese military or militia targets on Syrian soil, and does not want to unduly rock its relationship with Moscow. Israel is also concerned about possible fallout for Russian Jews.
In general, Israeli officials are very sensitive about how the Holocaust is invoked by politicians abroad. Mr. Zelensky himself was criticized in Israel when, during a virtual address in March to the country’s Parliament, he compared the suffering of Ukrainians to that of Jews during the Holocaust.