President Zelensky: Stop invoking the Holocaust - opinion

Equating Russia’s conduct with the Holocaust is flat-out wrong.

 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news conference for foreign media in Kyiv, Ukraine March 12, 2022. (photo credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news conference for foreign media in Kyiv, Ukraine March 12, 2022.
(photo credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)

Over the past two weeks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s Jewish president, has emerged as a wartime hero, rallying his battered nation amid a brutal and vicious Russian onslaught. 

He has delivered daily videotaped messages, stirring in their calls for defiance, and his determination in the face of daunting odds has justifiably earned him lavish praise both at home and abroad.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Zelensky “has inspired and mobilized not only his own people, he is inspiring and mobilizing the world.”

An AP story earlier this week likened him to a modern-day Winston Churchill, albeit without the lyrical prose, and a prominent American academic went so far as to offer a comparison with Benjamin Franklin, who convinced France’s King Louis XVI to side with the American colonists in 1778 against the British in the Revolutionary War.

But for all the varied leadership and communication skills that he has displayed since the start of Russia’s unprovoked invasion, there is one grave error that Zelensky has made which warrants correction, and that is his comparison of the conflict with the Holocaust.

 Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a press conference on Russia's military operation in Ukraine, Feb. 25, 2022. (credit: Presidency of Ukraine/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a press conference on Russia's military operation in Ukraine, Feb. 25, 2022. (credit: Presidency of Ukraine/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This past Monday, speaking to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Zelensky repeatedly invoked the German mass-murder of European Jewry, saying that Russia’s actions are “pure Nazism.”

He also drew a direct analogy between Russia’s demands for Ukraine’s surrender to the deportation of the continent’s Jews, saying, “All of this happened during Nazi times when the German army rolled through Europe and everyone gave the Jewish people away.”

While there is no doubt that Russia’s conduct has been monstrous and dastardly, equating it with the Holocaust is counter-productive, historically inaccurate and flat-out wrong.

To be sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin has undoubtedly earned himself a place in history’s pantheon of evil.

The Russian army’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Ukraine, along with its bombing of schools, hospitals and even refugees seeking to flee the fighting, are horrific war crimes and savage acts of murder.

Putin’s ruthless attempt to live out his fantasy of restoring the Russian empire has indeed caused immense and immeasurable suffering unseen in Europe in nearly 80 years.

But simply because it is the largest and most malevolent ground war on the Continent since World War II does not mean that it is its equivalent.

Comparisons with the Holocaust may make for effective sound bites, but they only serve to demean the uniqueness of Hitler and Germany’s systematic attempt to destroy the Jewish people, which remains unparalleled in all of human history. 

The moment that another event is classed together with the Holocaust, it necessarily diminishes and devalues the memory of the 6 million precious Jewish souls who were murdered.

Zelensky, many of whose grandfather’s relatives were victims of the Holocaust, should be cognizant of this basic truth.

The issue is even more emotive when one considers what happened to Ukraine’s Jews during World War II. Historians estimate that more than 1 million Jews in Ukraine were murdered by the Nazis, who were assisted by large numbers of enthusiastic Ukrainians.

In September 2016, then-Israeli president Reuven Rivlin delivered a speech to the Ukrainian parliament in which he highlighted the fact that “many collaborators” in the atrocities committed at Babyn Yar and elsewhere in the country “were Ukrainians.”

Sadly, this is not the first time in recent years that a Ukrainian leader has sought to compare other historical events with the Holocaust.

In January 2019, then-Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko equated the Holocaust with a 1930s Soviet famine that killed millions, a comparison that Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center labeled as “the height of chutzpah.”

As the Russians continue their gruesome assault, the entire free world is standing in solidarity with Ukraine and marveling at the courage of President Zelensky.

The English language, and I am sure this is true of Ukrainian as well, is rich in descriptive terminology to capture the depths of evil being perpetrated by Russian forces. 

Hence, out of respect for the past, I have a request to make for Mr. Zelensky: Please stop invoking the Holocaust. It is both unnecessary and wrong. ■

The writer served as deputy communications director under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term of office.