Herzog welcomed in Ukraine on first state visit

Israeli President Isaac Herzog flew to Ukraine on Tuesday to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre.

  Israeli President Isaac Herzog on his visit to Ukraine, October 5, 2021.  (photo credit: ORI LEWIS)
Israeli President Isaac Herzog on his visit to Ukraine, October 5, 2021.
(photo credit: ORI LEWIS)

KYIV – President Isaac Herzog was welcomed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an auspicious ceremony at the presidential palace in Kyiv on Tuesday.

His first state visit since taking office is centered around Wednesday’s inauguration of a project to turn the Babyn Yar ravine where Nazi forces massacred tens of thousands of Jews, which is now a verdant public park, into a commemorative site 80 years after the atrocity.

Herzog received a gun salute and inspected an honor guard at the rococo-style Mariinsky Palace after a military band played the national anthems.

Israel’s head of state was due to address the parliament, but an internal political row forced it to be canceled.

The Ukrainian parliament speaker was facing a vote to remove him from his post, and local politicians considered it inappropriate for a speech by a visiting leader to take place, a senior official traveling with Herzog told The Jerusalem Post.

“It’s all because of internal political matters, and we are not involved in the decision,” the official said. “It has nothing to do with us.”

 Israeli President Isaac Herzog on his visit to Ukraine, October 5, 2021.  (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO) Israeli President Isaac Herzog on his visit to Ukraine, October 5, 2021. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

Ukraine was planning to present a resolution to the United Nations by the end of the year over Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the Donbas region in the east of the country, Zelensky said in a statement to the media following his meeting with Herzog. The conflict is raging hundreds of kilometers to the east and does not noticeably affect daily life in Kyiv and other regions of the country of some 44 million people, but it has touched a sensitive nerve among proud Ukrainians who are incensed by Russia’s actions.

Israel and Ukraine are important friends and partners in many fields, but Jerusalem has been careful to maintain a neutral stance on the issue, not wanting to upset either adversary.

In his statement to the media, Herzog told Zelensky: “Concerning the conflict between you and Russia, we always say, consistently, that we believe that a diplomatic solution is the correct solution. We shall support it and all efforts to reach a solution.”

Herzog spoke about issues of mutual interest to both countries and said he had invited Zelensky to visit Israel and that the invitation had been accepted.

“Our relations are centered on the past, the present and the future,” he said. “The Jewish people have a proud history in this country; some of the great personalities of the Jewish people and of Israel were born and grew up here.”

  Israeli President Isaac Herzog on his visit to Ukraine, October 5, 2021.  (credit: ORI LEWIS) Israeli President Isaac Herzog on his visit to Ukraine, October 5, 2021. (credit: ORI LEWIS)

Zelensky said: “It is very symbolic that your first visit as president is to us, here in Ukraine. I see this as a great honor. Israel is a friend and partner of ours in everything concerning diplomacy, trade, security, politics and humanitarian issues.”

“I am very grateful to the Israeli delegation, which has come to mark 80 years since the tragic massacre at Babyn Yar,” he said. “The memory of the victims is sacred for us, for every Ukrainian. With the president of Israel, we spoke about how a tragedy like the Holocaust must never happen again. I am confident that our meeting will strengthen the partnership between us.”

On Wednesday, Zelensky and Herzog will be joined by German President Frank Walter Steinmeier at Babyn Yar for a large formal ceremony to mark the inauguration of the commemoration site where 33,771 Jews were systematically shot dead and buried in a ravine over a period of 48 hours on September 29-30, 1941. As many as 150,000 people, including Ukrainians, Roma and Soviets were murdered by the Nazis over a longer period.

“The Jewish People also have a tragic and painful history here in Ukraine,” Herzog said. “From pogroms in previous centuries to the horrific massacre at Babyn Yar… In my view, this past leads us to the present – a present in which Ukraine bears the important responsibility for the memory and history of the space and culture of the Jewish community that lived here throughout the ages, from the much-needed preservation of Jewish cemeteries to the establishment of memorial centers to commemorate the murdered Jews of Ukraine.”

“They form the important foundation for a brave partnership, in the here and now, in the war against all forms of antisemitism and the construction of a shared, productive, successful and promising future,” he said.

Herzog thanked Zelensky and lawmakers for pushing through a law against antisemitism and for Ukraine’s decision to refrain from participation at the Durban Conference.

“We must learn from history,” he said. “The whole of humanity, and Europe in particular, cannot tolerate any form of antisemitism – not at protests, not in the erasure and denial of history and not in the glorification of murderous figures from the past.”

The two countries would mark 30 years of diplomatic relations toward the end of the year, Herzog said, adding that “these relations, with one of our country’s greatest friends, were important to us then, and they are much more important to us now.”