One of the most consequential geopolitical events of the twenty-first century is unfolding in Ukraine. Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked invasion of its sovereign neighbor not only has ramifications for the forty four million people of the former Soviet state but the entire world.
Just a week after the end of the controversial Beijing Winter Olympics, the eyes of millions around the world are on a conflict that escalated dramatically all because of Vladimir Putin’s personal whims, desires, and dreams rooted in revisionist history.
By unleashing a deadly direct invasion on Ukraine, Putin has united NATO and given the badly bruised post-Afghanistan withdrawal alliance an almost new meaning and purpose. Perhaps most consequentially, Putin’s assault against Russia’s supposed Slavic “brothers” has shown the world what true heroism, courage, and sacrifice are.
People with more expertise than myself will analyze and pontificate on whether or not we are in the midst of a new Cold War, Putin’s overarching goals and mental state, and the geopolitical ramifications of the largest conventional conflict in Europe since World War II. What is abundantly clear is that the military and people of Ukraine are fighting for democratic values and freedoms everywhere. We must do more to help them fight against an expansionist dictator and wannabe modern tzar.
Ukraine has largely strived to be free of the Russian yoke since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Particularly since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and ousting of their president for reneging on a deal to sign political association and trade deal with the European Union, Ukrainians have worked to grow closer to the west and built a genuine democracy. The country has been plagued by countless issues, ranging from corruption to ongoing conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the difficulties of building and maintaining democratic institutions.
Nevertheless, the people of Ukraine have persisted. They have made clear they do not want to be part of Russia. They are not welcoming Putin’s invading forces as liberators, but fighting back for their country and the right to make their own sovereign decisions on their political, diplomatic, and security future.
There are numerous Jewish angles to what is happening. Modern Ukraine has a strong and vibrant Jewish community (a 2018 study by famed Jewish demographer Sergio Della Pergola of Hebrew University put the core Jewish population of the country at approximately 50,000; an enlarged Jewish population of those eligible for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return is estimated to be in the 200,000 range).
Hundreds of Chabad emissaries call the country home. There are dozens of congregations from across the denominal spectrum. Countless Jewish organizations are active in everything from youth engagement and education to caring for Holocaust survivors. The grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is located in the city of Uman and the site of a massive pilgrimage.
Perhaps the most significant Jewish element to this story is none other than President Volodymyr Zelensky himself being a member of the tribe. Zelensky, a former comedian and actor, has become a symbol of freedom as he remains in Kyiv to lead his people and is said to be Putin’s “target number one.”
Israel, which has good diplomatic ties with both countries, has been playing a delicate balancing act amidst the crisis for two main reasons. Russia, a close ally of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, controls the skies over Israel’s northern neighbor. Israel and Russia have a “deconfliction” mechanism that was put into place after Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War on behalf of its ally. This has allowed Israel to maintain a level of coordination with the Russians when the Jewish state strikes Iranian targets and weapons shipments intended for Hezbollah and other proxies.
A Russian decision to stop looking the other way when Israel hits Iranian targets without fear of engaging the Russian air force would likely have serious security consequences. Russia is also home to hundreds of thousands of Jews who, for all intents and purposes, can live openly as Jews because Putin allows it.
Unlike almost every other western democracy, Israel has been wary of openly antagonizing Russia. While Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called Russia’s invasion “a grave violation of the international order,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s comments have avoided direct condemnation of Russia. Israel most recently announced the shipment of one hundred tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine and has offered to mediate talks between the sides. Few are optimistic Putin will agree to the proposal. While there are external factors explaining Israel’s response thus far, I hope more forceful condemnation and action will be taken by Jerusalem as the Russian assault continues.
Finally, it is important to make plain how Putin’s ostensible reasoning for this war is complete nonsense. The Russian president’s claims that the war is intended to “denazify” Ukraine are utterly baseless, an affront to history and truth, and cheapen the memory of the Holocaust.
Ukraine’s president is Jewish. His first prime minister was Jewish, making the country for a time the only one outside of Israel in which the heads of state and government were both Jews. As Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich recently tweeted, “the Jewish community is an integral part of Ukraine and stands with the Ukrainian people, government and armed forces in defending Ukraine. The Government of Ukraine has stood by the Jewish community since Ukraine became independent in 1991.” In 2021, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law outlawing antisemitism, and earlier this year amended it to include criminal punishment if convicted.
None of the above is to say the country is free of antisemitism or has had a rosy history with Jews. Throughout history, millions of Jews have been murdered simply for being Jews in the territory that makes up modern day Ukraine. Like many countries in central and eastern Europe, Ukraine has not yet fully come to terms with the darkest parts of its history and the complicity of some of its people in the Holocaust.
Yes, thousands of Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis and murdered Jews. Some of these collaborators, like Stepan Bandera, are venerated as national heroes by some Ukrainians today because of their anti-Soviet activities, and that is unacceptable. Millions of Ukrainians, however, fought against the Nazis as members of the Red Army. President Zelensky’s grandfather, whose brothers and father were murdered by the Nazis, was one of those people.
Putin needs to look in the mirror. Russia’s record on antisemitism over the centuries is atrocious. Under the tzars, Jews were legally barred from living outside of the Pale of Settlement (which included most of modern day Ukraine) and faced other legal restrictions. Pogroms were either actively supported by, or at best ignored, by the tzarist authorities.
Thousands of Russians collaborated with the Nazis following the German invasion of the Soviet Union just as locals in every Nazi occupied or allied country and territory did. The Soviet Union suppressed Jewish religious and cultural life, persecuted Jews, banned Jews from making aliyah, proliferated virulently antisemitic propaganda across its republics and around the world, armed the militaries of countries dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and was the power behind the infamous and despicable Zionism is racism U.N. resolution. Today, Russia is a close ally of both Assad’s Syria and Iran. Not exactly two countries that love Jews.
Ukraine is under attack. The values we profess to hold dear are under attack. There are often few clear cut cases of good and evil in our complicated and messy interconnected world. This is one of them. We must stand for democracy and peace. We must stand with the brave people defending their country from Russian aggression. We must stand with the citizens of Russia who are protesting against Putin’s senseless war. We must stand with Ukraine.