Jewish historical memory often makes digesting current events a complicated affair.
In the question of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, it is clear that Israel, like liberal democratic countries around the globe, is aghast at what it is witnessing: an unprovoked attack on a peaceful country by an authoritarian neighbor; the shelling of civilian population centers and the killing of innocents; the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes – their lives turned completely upside down overnight.
Jews have been there, have had that done to them, and can sympathize and empathize.
Israel voted against Russia at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned the Russian actions, and Jerusalem has sent humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians.
If the Jewish state has not condemned Russia in as vehement terms as some others, if it has not sent military aid to Ukraine, it is not because it in any way supports Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions, but, rather, because it lives in a very dangerous neighborhood where crossing Russia today could lead to Iranian precision-guided rockets falling on Israeli cities tomorrow.
And that is no exaggeration.
If, as a result of Israel’s position on the current crisis, Russia were to end its cooperation with Israel over Syrian skies, if it were to stop the deconfliction mechanism put into place between the Israeli and Russian militaries concerning Syria, it would be much more difficult for Israel to strike convoys of rockets – many of them precision-guided – going from Iran into Syria, and in many cases onward to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Had the US been in control of Syrian skies, and not Russia, Israel’s voice on the Ukrainian crisis would assuredly have been louder. But the US is not in control of Syrian skies; Russia is.
MANY HAVE taken Israel to task for not being more forceful these days with Putin. For instance, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, in an interview on Tuesday with former US defense secretary William Cohen, blasted Israel for not speaking out as strongly as she thought it should.
“There has to be some kind of outside intervention,” Cohen said. “Countries like China, India, Israel have to give counsel and send the signal to Russia that they are prepared to take action to cut off certain relationships with Russia. Israel is in a position to do that; so is China.”
Warning that the situation could spiral into a nuclear war that could lead to “the end of civilization,” Cohen said: “That’s why I’ve asked all these other countries, even if you are friendly with Russia, especially if you are friendly with Russia, go to President Putin and ask him for a way to move off this.”
Amanpour picked up this theme and ran with it to bash Israel.
“You just mentioned Israel, and you obviously just named all the nuclear states – you mentioned India; Israel is a nuclear state. But Israel is also a US ally, and did not support the US-backed resolution in the Security Council [on Friday], after all the times the US has bent over backward to support Israel, all the times at the UN and in all global forums.
“Can you even understand why Israel has not gone, precisely for the reasons you have said, to read Putin the riot act? Why not? And shouldn’t the United States be urging them to do that?” she said in words that bring to mind Menachem Begin’s comment in Yiddish about the foreign media blaming Israel after the Sabra and Shatilla massacre. “Gentiles kill Gentiles and they hang the Jews,” Begin quipped, drawing from his own Jewish historical memory.
To his credit, Cohen – who did say he was “deeply disappointed that Israel was not supporting the United States in what we are seeking to do” – did at least articulate that Israel finds itself “in somewhat of a conflict of interest” because of Russia’s control of Syrian skies.
“They have been cultivating a relationship with Russia in order to protect, quote, their security interests,” he said. “But now it comes down to are you with the Russians or are you with the United States and the West. And I think they need to make a decision here.”
Amanpour’s response: “I have to say I’m really stunned, like you, that this hasn’t really affected Israel, where their morality is.”
Thank you, Christiane Amanpour. This type of lecturing is reminiscent of the world’s “outrage” that Israel did not stand as strong with the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and was not as excited as the rest of the West at the start of the “Arab Spring” in 2011.
Then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was slammed for urging caution and not abandoning longtime allies. For example, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in a column headlined “Postcard from Cairo, Part 2,” skewered Israel.
“The children of Egypt were having their liberation moment,” he wrote, “and the children of Israel decided to side with Pharaoh – right to the very end.”
Well, no, actually. Israel didn’t support Pharaoh; rather, it was concerned about what would come in the wake of Mubarak’s fall. Israel was concerned that this moment would not lead to a free Middle East, but, rather, that following the Egyptian revolution, Sinai would turn into a terrorist base, the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline would be a constant target of attack, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo would be ransacked, and the Muslim Brotherhood – and Salafists to their Right – would win the country’s parliamentary election.
All things that duly transpired. Israel wasn’t pulling for the Pharaohs; it was worrying about its future.
THE SAME is true now. Amanpour probably knows that Israel’s reading the riot act to Putin is likely not going to be the determining factor in avoiding a nuclear war. What will make a huge difference for Israel, however, is if Putin allows Iran to entrench itself in Syria and transfer game-changing armaments to Hezbollah.
Amanpour also surely knows that Israel stands with the West and Ukraine – Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said so clearly on Wednesday. And it does so despite some painful Jewish historical memories connected to Ukraine.
Such as that in 2018 the Ukrainian parliament declared an annual day of national commemoration for Stephan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis and whose forces killed thousands of Jews.
Such as the massacre at Babyn Yar where Ukrainian guards stood watch as the Nazis gunned down 33,771 Jews in two days.
Such as that there were Ukrainians – like Ivan Demjanjuk – who served as sadistic concentration camp guards.
Such as that some 50,000 Jews were killed in pogroms in Ukraine in 1918-1919 – 20 years before the Holocaust. Such as that the pogroms in Russia began in Odessa in 1821. Such as the Chmielnicki massacres that killed an estimated 100,000 Jews in the mid-17th century, and which have been seared into Jewish communal memory by dirges written by rabbis who witnessed those atrocities.
True, those gallant, freedom-seeking young Ukrainians facing down Russian tanks and armored cars today with their own bare hands had nothing to do with any of that. Granted, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is a proud Jew.
But still, the Jewish people’s tragic history with Ukraine is part of the Jewish historical memory; it is there when Jews turn on the news and hear the names of places like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Lviv – names that hold frightful connotations for Jews.
Not as though Russian history toward the Jews has been any better. Far, far from it. That, too, is in the Jewish subconscious and penetrates the Jewish mind when judging current events.
Then there is the Jewish people’s own history as refugees, and how that infuses watching images of Ukrainians fleeing the bombs, looking for some safe refugee across borders often difficult to cross. That historical memory colors the way many Jews hear reports that Israel – as the Ukrainian ambassador charged on Tuesday – is putting hurdles in the way of arriving Ukrainian refugees.
A Chabad emissary from Kyiv, Rivka Katz, described in painful detail on KAN Reshet Bet this week how bureaucrats at Ben-Gurion Airport were less than empathetic and sympathetic toward refugees fleeing the fighting, and how bureaucratic hurdles were placed in the way of the exhausted refugees because all their papers were not in order. Holocaust historian Dina Porat, who was interviewed after Katz, said she was shocked at what she heard.
“As Israelis, as Jews, we need to receive everyone with open arms, and [only] then go through their papers,” she said, reflecting an attitude that is also born of the Jewish experience.
Finally, there is Germany, a continual source of Jewish conflicted feelings. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who amid the fighting in Ukraine still came to Israel on Wednesday for his first visit as Germany’s new leader – a sign of how important he holds this relationship – gave a speech on Sunday to the German parliament during which he reversed German foreign policy and announced a massive buildup of the German Army.
On the one hand, it is understandable why this is something welcomed in Washington. Germany is a large, powerful country upon whose shoulders the physical defense of Europe should, by all rights, heavily rest.
Yet there is still something jarring for Jews at the thought of Germany, 77 years after the Holocaust, rearming what must be going through the minds of Holocaust survivors when they read that Germany is embarking on a massive campaign to rebuild its military – $113 billion this year, and 2% annually of its GDP in the future?
Germany has done much over the years to arm Israel with sophisticated weaponry, enabling the country to defend itself. But it is one thing for Germany to sell Israel nuclear-powered submarines, and another for Jews to witness the rearming of a German army.
Everyone brings to every story or event their own unique baggage, which shapes how they view it. Jews have a very long history with a lot of baggage. Part of it is tragic – which is difficult, if not impossible, to just check at the door when looking at contemporary events. •