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Israel, Jews, and the Ukrainian Crisis

The Ukrainian Crisis, following Western pressure in Russia’s backyard, and consequently the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has brought the international arena to a boiling point. People in their masses and nations in their dozens have gathered to help the Ukrainian people and indirectly intervene in this international crisis which is, sadly, yet another reflection of a struggle by proxy of global powers. Indeed, refugees and those who suffered from the warfare inside Ukraine must be granted as much aid as possible. In this short piece, I do not ask to directly deal with the Crisis and with the attempt to understand global powers but rather to address Israel’s position in this situation – between a rock and a hard place. I also ask to explain the consequences of a Jewish foreign intervention in Ukraine.

Israel is a country with many security problems. Since its establishment in 1948, some security problems declined or halted, like immediate threats in its near borders, but other security problems only grew to be more significant, like foreign anti-Zionist hostility to the Jewish state or the Iranian nuclear threat. Further, Israel and most of the Middle East have also fought each other, at least on several occasions, due to pressure from external powers. Thus, Israel has gained experience not solely as a sovereign state but also as a proxy state – a position Ukraine unwillingly received as well.

Israel’s relations with the conflict in Ukraine, and thus with the conflict between NATO and Russia, is very problematic for three main reasons.  First, since the United States and NATO are significant influencers in the Middle East, and especially regarding Syria and Iran, Israel cannot risk its loyalty and support to them. It cannot renounce the West and risk itself due to foreign crises. Second, Israel also cannot risk losing relations with Russia as it is also a key influencer in the Middle East and in Syria and Iran. Israel’s obligation and commitment to stop the Iranian nuclear threat must come before the desire to criticize other countries and intervene in conflicts. Third, many Israeli citizens are former Soviet people and make a significant portion of the electoral vote. Many of them are critics of the Russian regime and protest in favor of Ukraine. Inexperienced and/or utilitarian politicians might be tempted to win another slice of the electoral cake for future elections and thus criticize and intervene in the Ukrainian crisis when, strategically speaking, they should not, at least not officially or vigorously. This democratic “feature” might undermine Israeli security in the region.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky requested Israel to mediate with Russia in late February. This might be an effective move for Ukraine and Israel, considering the fact that both NATO and Kyiv know that Moscow knows it has significant leverage on Jerusalem, making trust and mediation more reasonable for both sides. This can, hopefully, stop the bloodshed of innocent people who were caught in an international struggle for global dominance. Due to very strong relations between the United States and Israel, Moscow can speak to Washington D.C. almost directly. If the mediation card, let it be covert or overt, is played right, Israel can guarantee more security for Itself.

However, Israel, as a nation with many security problems, must resist being unwillingly dragged into a foreign conflict and must independently decide whether and to what extent it should intervene between Ukraine, NATO, and Russia. In this regard, the now-deleted post by the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel to recruit citizens from Israel to go and fight for Ukraine against Russia should be considered a diplomatic provocation – it undermines local laws, loyalties, and future relations with Russia. That is not to say Israeli aid should stop. Humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian people should be continued regardless of the strategic situation since innocent people, as were already mentioned, were caught amid a large international conflict.

Regarding Israelis fighting for Ukraine, if one removes righteousness and ideology from the equation, there is almost no difference between an Israeli citizen that joins ISIS and an Israeli citizen that joins foreign forces in Ukraine. I understand this comparison is provocative, but this nature does not make it wrong – people that choose to join foreign fighters are often blacklisted or marked by other foreign authorities and can even find themselves on terror-related watchlists. They are also at risk of losing local Israeli loyalties. Further, considering the large neo-Nazi recruitment to the Ukrainian Azov battalion, Israelis and Jews might find themselves in a peculiar situation where they fight, with neo-Nazis, against Russian forces made of Christian Slavs and Muslim Chechen soldiers.

For instance, Nationalist neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine have developed ties with other foreign white supremacy groups like the Base – an organization that is designated as a terrorist entity in several countries, including the United Kingdom. Thus, Israeli foreign fighters are in danger of being blacklisted not solely by Russia but also by Western countries. This whole situation is extremely bizarre – Israeli and Jewish foreign fighters that fight in Ukraine, alongside terrorist neo-Nazis, against Russian Christians and Muslims, while being blacklisted by Russia and the West for their engagement with white supremacy terror organizations that either find shelter in or being designated as terror entities by countries that are international adversaries.

Lastly, one must also note that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. His actions, as well as his communication with Israel, will most likely draw criticism from anti-Semites and cause new conspiracy theories regarding the Ukrainian crisis to emerge.

About the Author
Dr. Lev Topor is an ISGAP visiting scholar at the Woolf Institute at the University of Cambridge and a senior research fellow at the Center for Cyber Law and Policy at the University of Haifa in Israel. He is the co-author (w/ Prof. Jonathan Fox) of 'Why Do People Discriminate Against Jews?' Published by Oxford University Press in 2021. Lev publishes scholarly works and practical reports on the topic of antisemitism, anti-Zionism and racism.
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