Among his daily (occasionally, even hourly) pronouncements to the world, Ukraine’s President Zelensky keeps on returning to comparisons between his country and Israel. Interestingly, they aren’t always about what Israel should be doing for the Ukraine (in fact, it’s doing a fair share) but rather what he foresees as an Israeli model for a post-war Ukraine. But does he have it right?
Before the war began, Zelensky offered this back in December 2021: “We know what it’s like not to have our own state. We know what it means to defend one’s state and land with weapons in hand, at the cost of our own lives” (https://www.timesofisrael.com/alluding-to-conflict-with-russia-zelensky-likens-ukraine-to-jewish-people/). On the face of it, this indeed has defined the Zionist ethos from the very start.
However, it also contradicts his subsequent pleas for others to join the war against the Russian invasion. In fact, here the parallel does continue: the West (including Israel) are willing – even eager – to send aid to the Ukraine, whether military, medical, diplomatic, or economic, but not soldiers. That’s been Israel’s policy throughout its many wars: “help us, but only we will do the actual fighting”. Of course, foreign soldiers are welcome to join the battle against Russia on a volunteer basis – just as American Jews (and a few Gentiles) did during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. But again: individually, not as a national troop delegation. (Compare this to the Russians now drafting or paying Syrian and Chechnian mercenaries to join the battle against Ukraine.)
Post-war, Zelensky again gets it sort of right but basically wrong. Two weeks ago, he was widely quoted thus: “We will become a ‘big Israel’ with its own face. We will not be surprised if we have representatives of the armed forces or the national guard in cinemas, supermarkets, and people with weapons.” However, anyone visiting Israel in the past few decades has come away surprised as to how few weapons one sees in public. Even the “guards” at the door of supermarkets and cinemas (basically wrong: guards are generally found only at the entrance to entire malls, and not specific shopping or entertainment venues) do not have weapons. Yes, on Friday afternoons and Sunday mornings the country is awash in soldiers going to, or returning from, their weekend furloughs, rifles slung around shoulders – and then this armada of armaments disappears from the public eye for the rest of the week.
Indeed, for a country like Israel beset by threatening neighbors and constant terrorist incidents, it is almost amazing how few guns can be seen in public. This point came to the fore recently during the current spate of terror stabbings and shootings. Israeli PM Bennett called for all Israelis with gun licenses to carry them in public – causing a spirited, public debate as to whether that was the wise thing to do. On the one hand, more guns mean more shooting mistakes of innocent bystanders; on the other hand, unlike the U.S., licensing of guns to civilians in Israel is a very strict affair. Only those having a real need for a gun, filling out a detailed form (costing money), then willing to undergo a stringent background check, an interview with the relevant government official, and have a medical/psychiatric meeting with a doctor, and finally taking a real course in practical gun use, are permitted to even own a gun!
Israel has the reputation of a militarized state – one that President Zelensky has bought into. But such “militarization” is far more “beneath the surface” than in the public eye. When the current war’s dust settles, he would do well to learn how Israel really protects itself domestically: through a highly professional “internal security” service (the SHABAK) rather than civilian militarization. That’s the best way to have a continually threatened state enable its citizenry to conduct their lives in relatively normal fashion.