Passover is my favorite holiday, the rite of spring, when families, friends and communities come together to commemorate the liberation of the Jewish people. American Jews have long related the story of the Exodus to current events, whether to the Civil Rights movement in the sixties or to the plight of Soviet Jewry in the seventies and eighties. Passover serves as a reminder of the human drive for freedom and dignity, transcending space and time.
The conflict that has erupted in Ukraine is emblematic of this, as the Ukrainian democracy fights to save itself against the predations of the Kremlin. One aspect of the conflict appears to be of particular interest to Jews: the regular Holocaust comparisons made by both sides in the conflict. False analogies and distortions of the historical record must be called out, regardless of who propagates them. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he is performing the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine is a statement as offensive as it is fallacious. Ukrainian nationalism does indeed have a baleful history of antisemitism – the bloodiest pogroms prior to the Holocaust were carried out by such actors after World War I. However, that is not the Ukraine of today, targeted because it has turned toward the West, under the leadership of a Jewish president.
Russia is using the memory of the Holocaust to invade a neighboring country and rain down death on its inhabitants. The resulting refugee crisis in Europe is leaving a trail of devastation and heartbreak that I saw for myself on a recent trip to Poland and its border with Ukraine.
There is no moral equivalence in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian side, too, would do well to avoid distasteful Holocaust comparisons. Ukraine states that Russia is targeting their homeland for a genocide. When Russian munitions struck near the Babyn Yar War memorial, Ukrainian leaders stated that history was repeating itself, implying that another Holocaust was now underway . The atrocities of the Russian campaign, including what appears to be the deliberate execution of civilians in the town of Bucha and elsewhere are undeniable. However, one can condemn this abominable violence without denying the singularity and uniqueness in human history of the Holocaust.
Eastern Europe is not the only place where freedom faces strong headwinds. Israel has seen a spike in terror attacks, as Palestinian terrorists attack public spaces in scenes that are sometimes reminiscent of the Second Intifada. Just this month, an infiltrator from Jenin unleashed gunfire at a bar in Tel Aviv, slaying three and injuring many more. Israel’s fight for peace and security – which extends from the battlefield and the diplomatic realm to the streets – is surely not over. We will never waver in ensuring Israel’s safety. This includes our steadfast support for funding the Iron Dome system and promoting programs that train Israeli police and security services.
Yet not all the news is bad. Even as antisemitism continues to rise in the United States and Israel, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is steadfastly leading efforts to convince governmental bodies to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The internationally-accepted IHRA definition is critical because in order to combat something, one must first define it. I was very gratified to see Washington, DC’s Council join over 30 countries, and dozens of other governmental bodies in recognizing the importance of the definition.
I wish each of you a good and kosher Pesach. This age-old holiday holds out the promise of freedom for all – so long as we are willing to work for it. As I celebrate the holiday in the heart of Tel Aviv, please join me in holding the people of Israel, the people of Ukraine, and all Jewish communities in our hearts at the seder table.