By Walter Ruby
As a Jew and lover of Israel, I was filled with outrage to read that, in the wake of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent Zoom address to the Israeli Knesset, unnamed senior Israeli ministers railed against what they termed Zelensky’s “outrageous comparison” of Hitler’s “final solution” to the Jewish question and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s present effort to snuff out Ukrainian life and liberty. To add insult to injury, the same unnamed officials claimed that “Zelensky also distorted the part his country played in the murder of Jews.”
Outrageous comparison? On the contrary. It is a quite apt and accurate one, given that the Russian military has carried out saturation bombing and shelling that has all but leveled the cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol as well many smaller towns and villages, killing thousands. The Russians have deliberately targeted maternity hospitals and theaters and other buildings where desperate civilians are taking shelter. Indeed, the Russian military machine appears intent on crushing Ukrainian resistance and extinguishing Ukrainian peoplehood by wantonly massacring as many Ukrainian civilians as possible, Russian speakers as well as Ukrainian ones, while forcing much of the rest of the Ukrainian population into exile to create a “Ukraine without Ukrainians” that can be colonized by Russia.
Zelensky offended some Israeli MKs with his hectoring tone and refusal to openly identify as Jewish. Yet he has clearly thought deeply about the ways that the Holocaust in Ukraine, in which members of his own family were killed, closely resembles Russia’s present-day attempted genocide of the Ukrainian people. In his speech to the Knesset, Zelensky was correct in asserting that “Ukraine and Israel face the same threat from their respective enemies — the total destruction of our people, our state, our culture, even the name: Ukraine, Israel.” He was on target in pointing out that “Our people are now wandering the world, searching for a place, just as you once wandered … seeking security, trying to stay alive, and in peace.” Finally, he was right again in pointing out, “The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not a military operation as it’s presented in Moscow. It is an all-out war, illegitimate, intended to destroy our people, our country, our cities, our culture and our children. Everything that makes Ukrainians Ukrainians.”
As to the vexed issue of Ukrainians and the Holocaust, it is undeniable that a minority of Ukrainians did collaborate with the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews during their occupation of Ukraine from 1941-44. Yet the nation-state of Ukraine did not exist during those years and therefore could not have “played a part” in carrying out the mass murder of Jews, as the senior Israeli minister wrongly suggested. Indeed, most Ukrainians joined with Russians, Jews and others to defend their common homeland against the Nazi invaders.
Why would anyone with an ounce of rachmanut (compassion) choose this moment, when Ukraine is under genocidal attack from Russia, to visit the sins of a minority of Ukrainians 80 years ago on the valiant Ukrainians of today, fighting against enormous odds to preserve self-determination and democracy? Doing that obviously plays directly into Putin’s false claim that he invaded Ukraine to eradicate Nazism, absurdly presided over, according to the Russian government, by Zelensky himself, who happens to be a Jew. Yes, Ukraine has a radical nationalist right, concentrated in the Svaboda (Freedom) party, but in the first round of the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections, in which Zelensky, a candidate of Jewish origins, took first place with over 30% of the vote. (He later won the runoff overwhelmingly with 73% of the vote.) The candidate of Svaboda received less than 2%. That is a much lower percentage than the ultranationalist candidates in countries like Germany, France and Italy have received in recent elections.
As he has done in recent speeches to the U.S. Congress and German Bundestag, Zelensky criticized his Israeli hosts, pointing to Israel’s refusal to impose sanctions on Moscow or share its Iron Dome with Ukraine. He also made clear his disquiet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s unrelenting pressure on him to accept Moscow’s stated terms for allowing the survival of a shrunken, demilitarized Ukraine that would be totally at Putin’s mercy. Seeking to explain the reasons for Bennett’s position of studied neutrality between Russia and Ukraine, Zelensky asked, “What is it? Indifference? Political calculation? Mediation without choosing sides … I want to point out that indifference kills. Calculations can be wrong. You can mediate between countries, but not between good and evil.”
Hours after Zelensky spoke, Bennett offered a rejoinder that “I personally believe that it is forbidden to equate the Holocaust to anything.” Yet such pious incantations do nothing to solve the moral issue facing Israel. If Israel refuses to choose between good and evil and instead averts its eyes from the genocide of another people, the Ukrainians, it will be acknowledging that “Never Again” is a meaningless concept, or one that applies only to the Jews. Indeed, Bennett’s cold-blooded realpolitik is staining the honor not only of Israel, but of the entire Jewish people. Jews of conscience have an obligation to speak up now and call out this morally squalid policy for what it is: deeply and enduringly wrong.
Walter Ruby is president of Jews and Muslims and Allies Acting Together (JAMAAT). This originally ran in Washington Jewish Week.