The Resilience of Ukraine and Its Jews

By | Feb 28, 2022
Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Jewish politics and power

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1. The most important Jewish leader in the world

The past week has turned us all into experts on Ukraine, now at the center of every conversation. Did you know how big it is? (When you lay it over the U.S. map, it stretches from New York to Chicago.) Who knew that we were actually using the Russian city names and not the Ukrainian ones (it’s Kyiv, not Kiev; Lviv, not Lvov; and Kharkiv, not Kharkov). And their president—did you know that he is Jewish?

Volodymyr Zelensky is probably the most admired Jewish leader the world has to offer right now. Before entering politics in 2018, Zelensky was a popular comedian (and you can’t get any more Jewish than that); he does not often speak about his Jewish identity, but he has never tried to hide it. In a country like Ukraine, which is still struggling with a painful legacy of antisemitism, Zelensky’s Jewishness has always been present.

For Jews across the world, Zelensky is now a source of pride: a young, inexperienced leader who is putting his life at risk for his people by leading a nation of 40 million people in opposing a ruthless Russian aggressor.

In his inauguration speech, Zelensky famously told lawmakers not to hang his portrait on their walls. “I do not want my picture in your offices: The president is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”

True to form, Zelensky maintained his unassuming, direct style when crisis hit. His video messages, posted several times a day, have been helping reassure the Ukrainian people. He spoke from his office and from the streets of Kyiv, even as Russian troops closed in on the capital, and when the fighting intensified, Zelensky candidly shared with all Ukrainians the fact that he has been marked by the Russians as “target number one” and that his family is “target number two.” But when the U.S. offered to evacuate him from Kyiv to somewhere safer, he responded: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

I’m writing this column on Sunday, as Russian forces, bogged down and weakened by courageous Ukrainians armed with AK-47s, Molotov cocktails, or sometimes just a large pole they picked up on the side of the street, still threaten the capital. Zelensky is leading the effort to save his nation, though most foreign intelligence services still think he’s fighting a losing battle.

Either way, the 44-year-old father of two is now a rare source of hope for all, in a region plunging into darkness.

2. Playing the Nazi card

The gravity of the situation does not preclude a moment to appreciate the irony of Vladimir Putin’s bellicose rhetoric. When announcing his decision to invade Ukraine, Putin stated he was sending in his troops to carry out a “denazification” campaign.

It would be a waste of time to analyze Putin’s outrageous abuse of history. But for the record, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem issued strong statements calling out Putin’s use of the term for what it is: “irresponsible,” “inaccurate,” “groundless” and “egregious.”

Putin also does not deserve the attention spent dissecting his claim that the only country in Europe led by a democratically elected Jewish president is somehow in need of “denazification.”

By playing the Nazi card, Putin believes he can evoke memories of the Soviet “great war” against Nazi Germany and rally Russians around the cause. It may or may not work. Spontaneous demonstrations throughout Russia suggest that Russians are not necessarily buying into Putin’s claim that invading Ukraine is somehow akin to fighting Hitler.

But if and when this war is over, world leaders should hold Putin accountable not only for his decision to attack a peaceful neighbor leading to the death of  innocent civilians, but also for his Holocaust denial and trivialization.

3. Sitting on the fence at the worst possible time

As one Jewish leader stands up to Russian aggression, another has yet to choose sides.

In Israel, the prime minister and his government have been going to great lengths trying not to stand up to Vladimir Putin.

While nations across the world lined up to express their unequivocal condemnation of Russia’s invasion, Naftali Bennett and foreign minister Yair Lapid were working hard at having it both ways—expressing sympathy for Ukraine without calling out the aggressor, condemning the breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty without condemning those responsible for the breach.

Israel believes that this is what realpolitik requires: standing alongside Ukraine, but not being too harsh on Vladimir Putin, whose cooperation is crucial in Israel’s battle to fend off Iranian influence in Syria.

The choice to remain noncommittal comes at a price—a steep price, in this case.

True, the world understands Israel’s constraints. Making Putin into an enemy could put an end to Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Russian-controlled Syria. It could help Iran build up advanced missile capabilities for its proxy Hezbollah, capabilities that will likely be used down the road to attack Israeli cities and population centers.

But understanding doesn’t mean acceptance.

With the world rapidly withdrawing into a Cold War-style bipolar division, Israel might end up trapped on the wrong side of history. Short-term gains in its regional security stature could mean heavy losses in the long term.

Will the Ukrainian people forgive and understand? Will the U.S.? And what about American Jews?

As of now, Israel is successfully maintaining its balancing act. Jerusalem’s careful public policy has yet to cross the line with either Washington or Moscow. But there’s no long game here. Every tank rolling into the streets of Kharkov, every car packed with women and children joining the endless line of refugees trying to reach border crossings forces Israel closer to making a choice: security interests, or global responsibility.

4. Chabad’s moment

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has put a spotlight on the country’s 200,000-strong Jewish community, among the largest in the world. Stories of Jewish perseverance, despite deteriorating conditions, have also shed light on the key role Chabad-Lubavitch plays in Ukrainian Jewish life.

Chabad is the leading Jewish force in Eastern Europe, and especially in the countries that were part of the former Soviet Union.

With 200 Chabad homes in 35 cities across Ukraine, the movement makes up the backbone of Jewish life in the country, and during the crisis it has been providing refuge, security and communal support for Jews in need. In Kyiv, Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch and his wife Inna turned their synagogue into a shelter for dozens of Jews seeking a safe place to spend the night. In Odessa, Rabbi Avraham Wolf made sure to stock up the Chabad orphanage, home to some 120 children, and to reassure them that they will be cared for even as shells began raining on the city. Chabad volunteers across the country, many with foreign passports, declined offers to evacuate and chose to stay behind with the community in its time of need.

U.S. Jewry has, by and large, sidelined this Hasidic movement, which, despite its popularity and visibility, has not been an integral part of the Jewish communal leadership. This could be the right moment to reconsider and pay tribute to Chabad’s oversized role in regions of the world where other American Jewish denominations have little to no reach.

5. What to watch for next

While we hope and pray for an end to the war, there is a distinct possibility that fighting will continue for weeks, or that Ukraine will experience an enduring Russian occupation or a Russian-forced regime change.

Here are some points to watch for in the coming weeks:

  • Zelensky: Will he prevail and go down in history as the little-known hero who defeated Putin? Or will the charismatic leader be forced to bow to reality and compromise with Russia, or go into exile?
  • Immigration: So far there has been a small uptick in numbers of Ukrainian Jews showing interest in immigrating to Israel. Most seem to prefer to either stay in place or seek temporary shelter in nearby Poland or Moldova. But if the conflict deepens and conditions on the ground worsen, aliyah to Israel may become an attractive—or necessary—option for many Ukrainian Jews.
  • Refugees: How will the American Jewish community act if a major refugee crisis emerges as a result of the war? It would be reasonable to expect U.S. Jews to take on their traditional role as key advocates for refugee resettlement and aid in America and across the world.
  • Israel: How long will Israel keep up its balancing act, and how long will American Jews accept its policy of sitting on the fence?

Learn more about Russian and Ukraine and stay up-dated with Moment’s Guide: “Russian& Ukraine, Explained”

Top image: Volodymyr Zelensky at his inauguration in 2019. (Credit: Mykhaylo Markiv / The Presidential Administration of Ukraine via Wikimeda / CC BY 4.0)

3 thoughts on “The Resilience of Ukraine and Its Jews

  1. Nicholas Rostow says:

    “And Irresolute princes, in order to escape present dangers, follow that neutral way most times, and most times come to ruin.”–Machiavelli, The Prince, H. Mansfield Trans., p. 90. “To govern is to choose.”–Pierre Mendes France

  2. This article is so helpful. Thank you!!

  3. allen eli segal says:

    Nathan Guttman, provides a very good overview on the current situation in Russia/Ukraine. He may be the journalist on KAN11 from Israel, whose got the same name, and equally excellent.

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