Should the Jews be helping Ukraine? - opinion

I still maintain that the answer is a resounding yes.

 FRIENDS, THERE are no ‘Little Jerusalems.’ Pictured: Worms, contemporary view. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
FRIENDS, THERE are no ‘Little Jerusalems.’ Pictured: Worms, contemporary view.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Even as tons of bombs and missiles rain down on Ukrainian cities, Jews worldwide are being bombarded with countless pleas for help from numerous organizations and individuals working to aid the beleaguered Ukrainians.

Donations of food, clothes, medicine and money pour into Kyiv, Kharkov, Kishinev and elsewhere, while Hatzalah volunteers wait at the borders to greet the stampede of fleeing immigrants. There are even Jews who have come from Israel and the West to take up arms alongside the Ukrainian defenders in the trenches.

“But should we really be reaching out to Ukraine?” many are asking. After all, Ukraine has a long and bloodied history vis-à-vis its Jewish population, dating back many centuries.

Perhaps the most barbaric episode are the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49, when Bogdan Chmielnicki – known infamously as “Chmiel the Wicked” – led bands of Cossacks on wild rampages against Jews that destroyed 300 Jewish communities and left more than 100,000 Jews murdered in the most savage of ways. Other Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity or sold into slavery; countless Torah scrolls were ripped into shreds and the parchment made into sandals. Despite his barbarism, Chmielnicki was made into a hero by Ukrainians, who in 1954 renamed the town of Proskurov Khmelnytskyi, in his honor.

The Chmielnicki massacres comprise the single-greatest act of genocide against Jews until World War II, when Ukraine was again the scene of arguably the worst single event of the Shoah, the massacre at Babyn Yar.

 The Babyn Yar Memorial (credit: BABYN YAR HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL CENTER) The Babyn Yar Memorial (credit: BABYN YAR HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL CENTER)

On September 29-30, 1941, just outside of Kyiv, 33,771 Jews were rounded up, stripped naked and shot, their bodies shoved into mass graves. Though the mass shooting – the largest during the war – was ordered by the SS, the Nazis were avidly assisted by large numbers of Ukrainian policemen and civilians. Even today, marches are held in Lviv and Kyiv honoring the Waffen SS, and neo-Nazi symbols and sympathizers are a part of Ukrainian society.

Yet having said all this, I still maintain that the answer to our question – “Should we help the Ukrainians?” – is a resounding yes. For one thing, Putin is conducting a war of naked aggression of a manner not seen since the Nazi era or perhaps since the attack of seven Arab nations against the fledgling Jewish state in 1948.

As Jews, we hold dear two primary values: justice and mercy. We are compelled to aid all those who suffer from acts of injustice, and practice compassion and acts of loving-kindness on behalf of those in need. We have a sacred principle of “Al ta’amod al dam ray’echa” (do not stand idly by while your brothers’ blood is shed) and long ago the rabbis ruled that saving the life of anyone, Jewish or not, is a meritorious act and a Divine imperative. Certainly, the fate of 100,000 or more of our Jewish brethren compels us to act.

We should be deeply proud of our prime minister’s valiant attempts to mediate an end to the fighting, and his call to uphold our moral responsibility to assist the victims.

It is a badge of honor for our entire country and for the Jewish people globally that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has earned the respect of both sides in the conflict and so was granted, out of all the world’s leaders, the chance to step into the breach and seek a resolution. Those impetuous, self-serving cynics who once mocked his ability to lead Israel have hopefully learned their lesson.

Secondly, this is a war that already impacts directly on Israel – Russia’s involvement in Syria puts Putin right on our border – and can have untold implications for us in the future, should the fighting spread worldwide. As has often been said, it’s easy to pinpoint where wars begin, but much harder to know where they’ll end.

Yet, even as we act to save these souls, we should not lose sight of another sacred belief: Israel is the one and only homeland of the Jewish people. For almost a century, we have advised and urged Jews worldwide to come home. While we see ourselves as the defenders of Jews, wherever they may live, it is infinitely easier to keep our people safe right here within our own borders.

Indeed, had the Jews of the Ukraine heeded our warnings and answered our many calls to emigrate, they would not be caught in the crossfire in which they find themselves today.

It is completely meritorious to rescue orphanages and schools and to bring escaping Ukrainian Jews here to Israel, but it should hopefully be with a one-way ticket only. It is ludicrous to pull people out of an inferno only to have them return right back into it when the hostilities end.

It is not in their interest nor ours to populate, promote or prop-up the ever-dwindling Jewish communities of the Diaspora, which would only set the stage for even more crises such as this one. The Talmud assures us that eventually all the synagogues and yeshivas of the exile will be uprooted and reestablished in Israel and we should be helping to speed up that process for the good of us all.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has spoken in the past of building up the Jewish institutions of Ukraine, among them the city of Uman. He says he wants to create a new, expansive complex surrounding the synagogue of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a site that has become a popular happening for Jews each Rosh Hashana, and he wants to call it Little Jerusalem.

This phrase is echoed in a famous elegy of the 9th of Av, which mourns the calamity that decimated and destroyed the Jewish communities of the Rhineland – Worms, Speyer and Mainz – in the year 1096 CE, during the First Crusade. These communities were founded by Jewish exiles who made their way to Germany following the destruction of the first Temple in 70 CE. While many Jews did return from Babylon to Israel, none were willing to leave Worms, despite numerous pleas from the leaders of Jerusalem to join the new settlement in the Holy Land. The Jews of Worms dismissed the invitation out of hand, and arrogantly responded:

“You stay where you are in the Great Jerusalem, and we will continue to stay right here in our Little Jerusalem!”

Friends, there are no Little Jerusalems: Not in Worms, nor Berlin, nor Brooklyn. There is only one Jerusalem, one Israel, one homeland, and that is the blessing and the challenge of our generation. It is also echoed in the story of Purim, which the rabbis say was only included in the eternal books of the Bible, because of its ultimate outcome: Not only does Queen Esther secure the rescue of Persian Jewry and cause the evil Haman to be hanged, but her and Ahasuerus’ son, Darius II, will give permission for the Jews to return to Israel and for the Temple to be rebuilt.

That is truly the “light and joy, gladness and celebration” famously proclaimed at the megillah’s end.

May the war end soon, God willing, and may all of us come together in Israel and Jerusalem to celebrate a spectacular Purim. ■

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]