When President Zelensky of Ukraine spoke to the US Congress and compared the attacks on his country to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the President received a standing ovation. When Zelensky spoke to the British Parliament and compared the attacks on Ukraine to the battle of Britain and the bombing of London, he received a standing ovation, once again. However, when Zelensky, the only Jewish head of state outside of Israel and a descendent of Holocaust survivors, spoke to the Knesset and dared compare what’s happening now in Ukraine to the Holocaust, instead of a standing ovation, Zelensky received a wall of criticism from Israeli political leaders.
What is it about comparing anything to the Holocaust that has made it the third rail of Israel/Jewish politics? It is true there has never been, and hopefully never will be, another attack as evil and comprehensive on one people, in the history of the world. However, the Holocaust has also become a synonym for the worst of humanity. Can we fault a leader whose country and people have been brutally attacked by a larger neighbor from invoking the Holocaust — especially when that larger neighbor, Russia, is currently attacking civilian targets, and killing as many Ukrainians as possible? Could such tactics be compared to the actions of the Nazis? How is it really any different for those living in places like Mariupol, where hundreds, if not thousands of people have died, or are dying?
I would never question the uniqueness of the Holocaust. I have spent the last two years writing a history of Jewish communities of Poland, including the horrific final chapters, when those communities were savagely eliminated by the Nazis. My research even led me to information regarding the fate of a grand uncle murdered by Nazis early in the war. I can recite the list of communities in which Nazis used Ukrainian police to aid in their genocide. The two unequivocal lessons I learned from the Holocaust are, first, that we Jews can never ever be powerless again; and second, we must never allow pure evil to triumph.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and its subsequent violation of all norms of modern warfare, are the epitome of pure evil. Therefore, I believe it is not wrong to draw comparisons to the Holocaust. History is often the judge of whether genocide has occurred. Sadly, by the time the history of an event has been written, it is long past the time to help the victims.
I have written before (Newsweek)(TOI) why I think Israel must do more in support of Ukraine, which I will not repeat here. However, I will say that over the past decades, the Jewish people have learned my first lesson from the Holocaust extremely well. We will never be powerless, and to the best of our abilities, we will control our destiny. Yet, the second lesson of “Never Again!” (for all humankind) has still not been internalized. We were not at the forefront of those seeking to end the slaughter in Rwanda, Bosnia, or Cambodia. Though, in those places, we could do little. But, when half a million Syrians were slaughtered just over our Northern border, we also chose to remain on the sidelines, instead of doing whatever we could to end the massacres.
It is time for us to internalize that for Jews, the Holocaust and cries of “Never Again” also means — never again will we be powerless to help save others. The Holocaust represents man at his worst. It represents unadulterated evil, which sorrowfully, did not vanish when the last concentration camp was liberated. We need to learn to embrace both essential lessons of the Holocaust and allow the terrible events that befell our people to serve as a warning for the Jewish people, and the world at large.
Most importantly, our leaders should spend less time criticizing Zelensky for making an imperfect comparison, while under profound duress. Instead, leaders must listen to what Zelensky had to say and understand that what is happening to the Ukrainian people is the manifestation of pure evil. Then, each of us must find ways to respond to and combat that evil. If we fail, we will have genuinely not learned the lessons of the Holocaust.