Truth was the first casualty in the brutal war in Ukraine. A war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who with a straight face, claimed that he was waging a war to ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine. No doubt he thought this would appeal to the West’s preoccupation with imagining Nazis and the ‘far right’ everywhere.
Russia had the gall to summon Israel’s ambassador and demand he explain why Israel was ‘supporting Nazis’. Doctored images of Ukraine’s Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky holding a swastika emerged.
But both sides are guilty of inappropriately invoking the Holocaust. Already early on, Zelensky compared Ukraine, to Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, and called Russia’s actions ‘pure Nazism’. Ukraine has shared images of Putin as Hitler. Using images of the Holocaust to establish victimhood is never a sound strategy.
So what is the truth?
Most people are aware that Ukraine’s President Zelensky is Jewish and the grandson of Holocaust survivors. It’s less widely known that Ukraine’s Defence Minister Reznikov is Jewish, as is Zelensky’s Chief of Staff, Yermak. In fact, the Ukrainian leadership is peppered with Jews, and those of Jewish background, including the previous Prime Minister and current mayor of Kyiv. Multiple Jews have served as mayors of major cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv, and as governors of major areas. Zelensky’s senior adviser is fluent in Hebrew. If Ukrainians are contaminated with Nazism as Putin claims, they sure forget when they’re at the voting booths.
By the same token, neither is Putin an antisemite. His affinity for Jews and the Jewish people is well known. Stories about his Jewish childhood friends, neighbours, and teachers are countless. Like the time he visited Israel and bought his 93-year-old former teacher an apartment in Tel Aviv. Putin has spoken publicly about the elderly Jewish couple who helped raise him, and the Jewish judo coach who was a major influence on his life. Putin’s inner circle is made up largely of Jewish oligarchs and he maintains close ties with the Chabad movement. It could be argued that Putin’s public embrace of the Jews has contributed to the decline in antisemitism in Russia in recent years. Of course, none of this makes his war Kosher.
Yet there are those who would whitewash Ukraine’s unsavoury history and current problems. Pogroms and antisemitism have a deep history in the Ukrainian lands. Much of US Jewry traces its roots to those fleeing Ukrainian violence, including Steven Spielberg, Bob Dylan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Leonard Nimoy. 17th century Ukrainian hero Bodgan Khmelnitsky was responsible for the largest modern massacre of Jews prior to the Holocaust. Kyiv played host to the last major blood libel trial, in the 20th Century!
When the Nazis arrived, they were welcomed by a population who had witnessed the slaughter of 100 thousand Jews in pogroms just 30 years earlier. The locals’ enthusiasm for killing Jews surprised even the Nazis. Without their willful collaboration, including rounding up tens of thousands to massacre at Babyn Yar, the Nazis would have had a much harder job. Over 100 thousand Ukrainians joined units to help the Nazis, with some, like the infamous Ivan the terrible of Treblinka earning international notoriety for their cruelty. Ukrainians served in the Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek and Auschwitz. Almost anywhere there were Nazis, there were willing Ukrainian executioners. Ukraine has never investigated or tried anyone for Nazi crimes.
Many of Ukraine’s national heroes, from Stepan Bandera to Bogdan Khmelnitsky are drenched in Jewish blood. But these butchers aren’t consigned to history. As Ukrainian nationalism rises, they are celebrated in today’s Ukraine, with dozens of statues, parades, street signs and even a bank note. The neo-Nazi Azov brigades form part of the Ukrainian National Guard.
So what should Jews make of this?
Ukraine’s problem confronting its history isn’t unique. The same issues can be found across Europe, in places like Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Hungary and Croatia. Indeed, former Prime Minister Netanyahu famously cultivated relationships with countries like Hungary and Poland, and they in turn became Israel’s principal defenders in Europe.
Recent developments have improved the image of Jews in Ukraine, with President Zelensky enjoying an approval rating over 90%. It’s a sign of the times, that former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who’s earliest memory was of her father boarding their door shut to keep out an antisemitic mob, is now celebrated in her native Kyiv as a hero of Ukraine.
Ukraine has an ugly history vis a vis its Jews, and Ukrainians and Jews need to work through these issues. However, with Ukraine facing an existential threat, now isn’t the right time to explore complex matters with no bearing on the conflict.
But it’s Zelensky, married to a Christian and who reportedly had his children baptized, who has repeatedly attempted to make this a Jewish issue. Zelensky told Jewish leaders that Russia bombed the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial, a claim later revealed to be untrue. He made a similar dubious claim about the Jewish pilgrimage site of Uman.
Ukraine’s President has attempted to drag Israel into the conflict on numerous occasions, and lashed out with a special venom, reserved for Israel when it hasn’t gone his way. He accused Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet of ‘not being wrapped in our flag’. That’s the same religiously observant Bennet, who broke Shabbat flying to Russia attempting to negotiate peace.
Zelensky demanded to speak at Yad Vashem. When this was rebuffed, a Ukrainian official called it a corrupt institution. Zelensky did speak to the Israeli Knesset, though some Arab MKs boycotted his speech. He again compared Ukraine’s situation to the Holocaust and urged Israelis to help Ukraine in the same way the Ukrainian nation helped Jews during World War II. Needless to say, his Holocaust revisionism did not go down well in Israel.
Ukraine’s foreign minister falsely accused El Al, Israel’s national airline and the carrier of significant Israeli humanitarian aid to Ukraine of using a sanctioned payment system. He apologised for his smear that “some prefer to make money soaked in Ukrainian blood”, but the damage was done. Airlines in countries like China and India, who actually do still use the payment system, conspicuously escaped Ukraine’s wrath.
Zelensky’s ‘discovery’ of his Judaism is a recent phenomenon. He has always played down his Jewish heritage, and even today his domestic messaging is very different to his messaging to the Jewish world. At a ceremony at Babyn Yar, his bland speech failed to mention that his own family was murdered there.
Having a Jewish president has had no impact on relations with Israel. According to UN Watch, since Zelensky’s election as Ukraine’s first Jewish President, there have been 17 UN votes on Israel. Ukraine has not voted with Israel once. In December, Ukraine dangled the prospect of recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but this appears to have been an attempt to secure Israeli weapons. Ukraine refuses to join the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) or adopt the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism.
This isn’t an attack on Zelensky. He was elected to protect Ukrainian interests, not Jewish interests. But he doesn’t need to twist everything into a Jewish issue to get Jewish support. Israel and the Jewish world have responded tremendously. There’s the Israeli field hospital in Ukraine, the prayer rallies, the tens of millions in donations, as well as the plane loads of aid, reportedly Israel’s largest aid operation in history. Israel will take more refugees per capita than any country not bordering Ukraine, including hosting tens of thousands of non-Jewish Ukrainians. Israel does this, not because the war is a Jewish issue, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Zelensky should also understand that Israel is similarly in an existential struggle. Biden’s pending nuclear deal with the Ayatollahs of Iran is hanging over its head. Zelensky has never expressed concern over the threat to Israel from a nuclear Iran
By the same token, while Russia points a finger over Ukraine’s blemished history, it needn’t look too far. It’s true that pogroms largely occurred in Ukraine and were fewer in Russia proper. The reason though, was because Jews were banned from living in almost all of Russia for most of its history. Antisemitism has an equally rich history in Russia, from the KGB and the Russian Orthodox Church to the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Whether under the Tsars or under Stalin, Jews faced horrific discrimination.
Of course, if Putin is so concerned about Nazis, he needn’t look further than his allies, the Ayatollahs of Iran, who want to wipe the Jewish State off the map. Putin himself bears a not insignificant responsibility for Iran’s nuclear program.
Both Ukraine and Russia have come a long way. Statistics show neither of them are amongst the worst offenders globally regarding antisemitism. A Jew is far more likely to be the victim of an antisemitic attack in the streets of Paris or London than Moscow or Kyiv.
Despite the attempts of Putin and Zelensky, Jews must resist their efforts to turn this into a ‘Jewish War’. The images from Ukraine are devastating. We should always oppose unjustified aggression and war crimes, but as a matter of principle, not because of how either country treated us.