In my previous articles, I proposed an approach to Zionism that emphasizes its relationship with and dependence on universifiable axioms that tie its adherents to the rest of humanity. I argued that under “Ethical Zionism,” the national liberation, sovereignty and self-determination of the Jewish people are categorical imperatives that must be seen to the moral agent to be as worthy – no more and no less – than those of other peoples, and that, consequently, the moral Zionist must strive to protect the rights of others – whether personal or collective – in exactly the manner that they would wish their own to be protected and respected by others.
In past columns, I examined the potential application of this theory – and its limitations – in various conflicts and pressure points around the world, along with some here on our doorstep. But nowhere has the call to action been as stark and compelling as it is today, amongst the surging global response to Russian aggression against Ukraine – a response unthinkable a mere two weeks ago in its scale, its resonance, and the unity and diversity of its members. For an American-Israeli such as myself, it has been refreshing to watch the United States once more assume its place of leadership on the world stage in heading this relentless – but peaceful – campaign to isolate the Russian regime.
And, in no less measure, it has been bitterly disappointing to see the response of my other homeland. At a time when Ukrainian cities are enduring a holocaust of firepower and wanton contempt for human life not seen since the second world war, and with hundreds of thousands of refugees finding shelter in Poland, Moldova and elsewhere – Israel has once again fumbled a dear opportunity to make good on its promise of “Never Again.”
Yesterday, as the nations of the world opened their doors to refugees fleeing the war, reports surfaced that Israel was turning back refugees, and demanding costly collaterals from those allowed to stay. At a time of such rare and ubiquitous humanity being displayed around the world, these acts are particularly glaring in their callous indifference to human suffering. And, for a moral Zionist, they are a senseless betrayal of our country’s founding values.
To be clear, every country is grappling today with a challenge unprecedented in its scale and impact: How to counter the boundless aggression of a nuclear superpower? Russia’s spheres of influence extend well beyond the Asian steppe, dominating countries on other continents and forcing even the most distant of uninvolved parties to measure their responses carefully. And, for all of that, Israel faces a particularly unique challenge: Russian soldiers are entrenched in Syria, a country that Israel exists in a state of indefinite and active attrition with. Israeli forces play a daily perilous game of roulette (very well, Russian roulette) in their efforts to keep its citizens safe from Syrian aggression without triggering a response from Russian forces invested in propping up the Syrian regime. Security coordination between the IDF and the Russian Army is as constant and indispensable to preventing the outbreak of regional war as it is tense and fragile. Under these circumstances, it is easy to understand how Israel would think seven times before poking the bear, even in such unthinkable circumstances as today’s.
Indeed, when even the powerful and unified NATO dares not intervene, there is certainly no point advocating for direct Israeli intervention in the war in Ukraine. Furthermore, it is likely that traditional diplomatic recourse, such as direct sanctions, would trigger the cessation of our abovementioned vital security coordination with Russia in the Golan. So, beyond belated condemnations, what can the Zionist state do to meet its moral obligations to the Ukrainian people and their right to self-determination?
Normally I shy away from the more practical aspects of the implementation of Ethical Zionism to specific cases – but the urgency of the hour compels. And for those who doubt, yes – there is a lot that Israel could and should be doing right now to help.
First and foremost – there is absolutely no excuse for this macabre display of ambivalence toward the refugees. Israel is not only uniquely equipped to accommodate Ukrainian refugees, it is also possessed of more than sufficient assurances that they will not stay and become a drain on the country’s resources – the traditional excuse given for rejecting refugees. Unlike other recent refugee crises, the Ukrainian refugee crisis is born of sudden, overwhelming and indiscriminate violence against a population that was otherwise possessed of a very cohesive national identity and functioning government, and quite content to stay at home. While refugees from places like Syria or Guatemala are driven by conditions of deprivation and violence that are decades in the making, and with no clear end in sight – it is very likely that peace and stability will return to Ukraine in the very near future, regardless of the military outcome of the conflict. And when that happens, the refugees will want to return to their homes. This being the case, the question of absorption is a distant and unlikely eventuality, even if it must be considered at least to the extent that it informs our immediate holding capacity. Why else have other European powers – including those that as recently as last year were rejecting Kurdish refugees at their borders – have thrown the gates open so easily?
Furthermore, there is a population of more than 1.5 million Russian-speakers in Israel – comprising more than 20% of the country’s population and the largest population of Russian-speakers in the world outside of the former Soviet bloc – who are able to assist in accomodating refugees to whatever extent needed. Considering overcoming language and cultural barriers is one of the primary obstacles to resettling refugees even temporarily, such an advantage cannot be overlooked.
Combine these factors with the efforts that Israel has gone to – and thus, the clear capabilities it possesses – to evacuate Jews from other conflict points in the world, and it becomes plainly evident how arbitrary and disdainful our government’s response to this refugee crisis has been. We watched our own children suffer in bomb shelters scarcely a year ago. We’ve seen the impact that sudden disruption to our daily lives and routines has on them. We’ve seen the pain of our compatriots who lost loved ones in their thousands during this pandemic. Are we really so quick to forget our humanity for others?
But that is not all.
That Israel should accept Ukrainian refugees to the best of its capabilities – and that we must pressure our government over its embarrassing conduct in this regard – is a moral certainty. But it is not all that Israel can do. Beyond resettling refugees, the greatest need of the Ukrainian people in this hour is for advanced weaponry and munitions. Did we suddenly forget that Israel is a global powerhouse of weapon systems exports? If we are able to supply weapons to Myanmar, the Phillippines and other autocratic regimes, why are we suddenly unable to assist Ukraine in its hour of need? In this respect, as well, our leaders have fallen woefully short.
Obviously, it would be more complicated than openly supplying such weapons, as doing so would trigger a dangerous Russian response as certainly as sanctions would. But this has never stopped Israel from getting weapons to where it wanted them in the past. One of the very founding legends of our country is the story of how Jewish ships smuggled weapons into the fledgling state of Israel in its bid to win independence and stave off the onslaught of invaders. On the more practical side, Israel already has the capabilities and the infrastructure to move large quantities of advanced weapon systems to places more remote and more fraught than Ukraine. Not only is there an open land route through allied countries, those same countries are currently openly sending massive shipments of weapons themselves. This would serve to both mask the movement of Israeli arms, and to mitigate the possibility of a Russian response. After all, can Russia really threaten and sever ties with every country that is currently providing aid to Ukraine, not least those that do so under the reasonable cover of plausible deniability?
There are many more arguments to be heard for and against this action. It is a course of action not devoid of risk – but risk alone has never deterred Israel from protecting its own, and it should not deter us from at least attempting to meet our moral obligations as a Zionist state.
Israel must immediately open its gates to Ukraine’s refugees, and should do everything in its considerable power to provide Ukraine with the means it so desperately needs to preserve its independence without endangering security coordination with Moscow. The Ukrainian people deserve and need our help – and we owe it not only to them, but to ourselves, to reject this festering indifference our government has adopted to the self-determination rights of another people, lest it infect the rest of us as well.