Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has justly become a global hero for his courage in rallying his nation against Russian tyranny, even as he daily faces the possibility of assassination by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s death squads.
But in his address to the Knesset, he was wrong to compare Ukraine’s plight to the Holocaust. Putin does not seek the annihilation of the Ukrainian people but, rather, its submission.
Yes, I believe he is prepared to level the entire country and murder as many Ukrainian civilians as possible in order to obtain it. But if the Ukrainians tomorrow bend their knees to the tyrant and agree to his ownership, he will stop his aggression.
That is incomparable to Hitler, who sought the annihilation of every Jew in Europe regardless of any political or nationalist inclinations, and sent in the Einsatzgruppen and built gas chambers to murder six million Jews, including 1.5 million children. There is simply nothing in history that can compare to the Holocaust, and let’s hope there never again will be.
This does not in any way minimize the barbarous Russian invasion of Ukraine or the incomparable suffering of its people. I mourn the unspeakable tragedy of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters.
But comparisons to the Holocaust are inappropriate, especially since Zelensky spoke of Ukraine’s support of Holocaust victims during the war, when the statistics show that beside approximately 2,600 Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations, more than 80,000 volunteered for the SS and participated in the atrocities of Babyn Yar, Lviv and other Nazi mass murders.
But, indeed, Zelensky need not invoke the Holocaust to describe the inhuman aggression against his people. I have many times said, and will now repeat, that Putin is a monster whose brutality the world immorally overlooked for decades but can now no longer ignore.
The only crime of which the Ukrainian people are guilty is the desire to live free. The American colonists were guilty of the same. They faced a superpower whom the world said could never be defeated, yet they ultimately triumphed, even as we dare not compare George III to the ogre Putin. We can only pray that the valiance and courage of the Ukrainian people will be rewarded with the same outcome.
But where Zelensky may have gotten it painfully right is in the increasingly untenable posture of Israel in the conflict.
We’ve heard ad nauseam that Israel cannot alienate Putin, as he controls Syria and allows Israel to attack Iran-backed militias. We’ve also heard that Israel taking a stand against Putin may endanger the large Russian Jewish community in that country.
But aren’t all these arguments a tacit acknowledgment that Putin is such a devil that he is actually holding Russia’s Jews as hostages? And why is Putin allowing Iran such a decisive presence in Syria and on Israel’s border in the first place?
To be sure, Israel has not been neutral on the invasion as Zelensky somewhat implied. Israel voted to condemn Putin’s aggression at the UN and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has repeatedly condemned Putin by name. Yet, even as Israel commendably sends humanitarian aid teams to Ukraine, it refuses to participate fully in Western sanctions against Russia, Putin and his cronies.
Some say that Israel is uniquely suited to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, as it has good relations with both countries. Yet Zelensky – who on the one hand welcomes Israel’s offers to mediate, yet on the other says that Israel needs to make up its mind which side it’s on – still implies that Israel’s mediation efforts give the impression of neutrality.
While this may seem contradictory, in the eyes of the world he’s right, lest Israel come off as the new Switzerland, largely neutral in the face of aggression, even as the actual Switzerland this time got off the fence and announced sweeping sanctions against Putin and Russia.
Let me be clear. I’m concerned that Israel’s attempt to navigate the barbaric Russian assault against Ukraine with even a modicum of impartiality will ultimately accrue to Israel’s tremendous disadvantage and is a betrayal of Israel’s and Judaism’s core values.
In the final analysis, it is not Israel’s army or intelligence services or Iron Dome that make it militarily dominant but, rather, it’s moral excellence. Israel is a supremely principled and ethical nation and therefore earns the admiration of powerful allies throughout the world that are themselves moral, especially the United States, the world’s greatest democracy.
Yes, I am well aware that being moral never guarantees strength and survival, as we’ve seen throughout history and especially in the Holocaust. But, as someone who fights Israel’s battles in global media, I know that what gives Israel victories both in public relations as well as on the ground in places like Gaza is our ability to articulate that ultimately Hamas is evil and Israel is good, Iran’s government is darkness incarnate and Israel’s democracy is the Middle East’s great light and hope.
The moment those binary choices disappear and morality becomes muddled – as Israel’s BDS opponents are constantly seeking to achieve – is the moment Israel could, God forbid, lose the esteem and support of the forces of freedom throughout the world, as well as its sense of mission as a light unto the nations.
Are some Israelis really going to embrace Kissingerian realpolitik in foreign policy, choosing alliances and security over the moral good? Will that, in the long run, really help to protect the people of Israel?
It’s one thing for Israel to be allied with, say, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, who lacks a democratic mandate but to whom the alternative is the murderous antisemites of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Sisi is not invading his neighbors or bombing maternity hospitals. Putin is.
Before the fall of apartheid South Africa, many in the Jewish state felt there was no choice but to purchase essential raw materials from the mineral-rich nation, given the worldwide antisemitic boycott of Israel by so many Arab-aligned nations. Yet I wonder, given that justice ultimately triumphs and the apartheid regime was destined to fall, would those who advocated that policy go back on it if they could?
Are Putin’s days numbered? Who knows? We can only hope. He is a war criminal – a bully, a murderer, and thug – who will hopefully be apprehended and turned over to the ICC for prosecution. But even if he remains in power, Israel should begin to completely and utterly distance itself from this cold-blooded killer.
What will happen with Syria and the Iranian proxies there? Israel should make it clear to the United States that part of boycotting Russia and diminishing its influence is to reverse course on the American withdrawal from Syria, where Putin was left to reign supreme. Israel has every right to demand from America and its allies, including the EU, that as it takes unique risks in cutting off Putin, it needs security guarantees from the rest of the world.
This includes, most importantly, telling the United States that sanctions against aggressor nations should be the new international norm without exception, including maintaining sanctions against Iran, which promises not a figurative but an actual Holocaust against Israel by annihilating the six million Jews who live there.
And the world Jewish community should launch a global public outreach effort – as we at the World Values Network have already inaugurated with our full-page ad at the front of The New York Times last week – to make it clear that we condemn the barbarism of Putin and the genocidal plans of Iran, and demand sanctions against both these death stars of evil.
The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 36 books, including most recently The Israel Warrior and Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.