Passover: Israel's national responsibility for Ukraine's refugees - opinion

The Passover message of freedom could not be more relevant to the current war being waged by Russia against Ukraine.

 A UKRAINIAN WOMAN who fled Kharkiv holds one of her children as she meets with the writer at a refugee center run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Poland, last month. (photo credit: DIASPORA AFFAIRS MINISTRY)
A UKRAINIAN WOMAN who fled Kharkiv holds one of her children as she meets with the writer at a refugee center run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Poland, last month.
(photo credit: DIASPORA AFFAIRS MINISTRY)

Just a few weeks ago, standing on the border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, I saw with my own eyes and in the starkest circumstances what deliverance from brutal oppression looks like.

I saw a never-ending stream of refugees fleeing the savage war that has torn apart their lives.

I witnessed women and children escaping the clutches of a power which has scant regard for the value of human life and wishes to stamp out their personal freedom, as it has done for its own citizens.

The Passover Haggadah instructs us that in every generation we must see ourselves as having personally been delivered from the yoke of Egyptian servitude.

On Passover this year, I will be able to relate to this idea and to the experience of those fleeing persecution, to a greater degree than ever before, after the scenes I saw in Europe.

Ukrainian refugees at an emergency shelter in Chisinau, Moldova, March 5, 2022 (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)Ukrainian refugees at an emergency shelter in Chisinau, Moldova, March 5, 2022 (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

In the most basic sense, the freedom that we are celebrating on Passover is the fundamental human desire to determine ones own fate and future.

Jews were denied this right in ancient Egypt and subjugated by a brutal and rapacious tyrant, who put his personal and national interests above those of the people he oppressed.

And throughout our long history since the emancipation from Egypt, the Jewish people became all too familiar with further efforts to suppress our freedom and destroy our national independence.

The Passover message of freedom could not be more relevant to the current war being waged by Russia against Ukraine, which sees the forces of oppression and despotism arrayed against the ideas and values of liberty and democracy.

The Kremlin’s very motivation in seeking the destruction of Ukraine’s sovereignty is that nation’s embrace of the liberties and freedoms, which Russia denies its own people.

The regime in Moscow is so abundantly aware of the raw power and appeal of freedom that it sought to snuff out its neighbor’s democracy so its own citizens would not be tempted by the blessings liberty bestows on those who enjoy it.

This assault on an independent nation has also served as a reminder to us in Israel we can in no way take our freedom and independence for granted. We are still surrounded by enemies and hostile forces who wish to erase the sovereignty of the Jewish people, be it Hamas to our south, Hezbollah to our north or Iran, the patron of both these groups, to our east.

These are bitter and powerful enemies of our country, who seek to erase Israel off the face of the earth. Iran continues to seek the ultimate weapon with which to threaten our lives and well-being, and funds its proxies to terrorize us.

The events unfolding in Ukraine should be a stark reminder to us that if we face attack from Iran or Hezbollah, or both together, we can in no way rely on anyone else other than ourselves to put their lives on the line in defense of our freedom and sovereignty.

But the message of freedom inherent in Passover goes beyond mere physical liberty. In the Biblical account, God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh to set the Israelites free “so that they may serve Me.”

The purpose of emancipating the Israelites was not mere physical freedom, but to allow this people to serve a higher purpose, to become a nation committed to a set of values and principles that would shine out into the world and lift it up.

Freedom and sovereignty without commitment to our national values and deeply held ideals would be a hollow, superficial and unworthy existence.

Deeply embedded in our national collective memory is the afflictions of slavery in Egypt, the trauma of a seemingly endless exile from our homeland and the horrors of the Holocaust.

As Israelis, Jews and human beings, our history calls on us to be attentive to those who face similar suffering to that we experienced in ancient and modern history.

We must not look at those in Ukraine fleeing indiscriminate bombing, deliberate starvation, and barbaric massacres and think only of ourselves. We must recall when we were in desperate need of help and refuge, and extend our hand to assist those who have been caught up in this merciless war.

During my visit to Poland last month, I visited the Warsaw central train station and saw with my own eyes women sleeping on the floor with their young babies, elderly men and women who fled Ukraine with almost nothing.

These scenes evoked within me images of what my own family experienced after they were uprooted from their home in Poland following the Nazi invasion in 1939. Images of how my grandparents and my aunt fled for their lives and, like the Ukrainians I saw, also found themselves in Warsaw’s central train station, having suddenly become refugees.

After the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, we created the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center and it created the concept of the Righteous Among the Nations to honor those individuals who willingly and selflessly helped our people at their most desperate hour.

The war being waged against Ukraine gives us, the Jewish people, the opportunity to be the righteous among the nations, not as individuals but as an entire country.

Our deep and personal understanding of how it feels to be refugees fleeing for our lives, denied liberty and national sovereignty, is exactly why the Jewish people and Israel must always stand on the side of those fighting for their freedom and liberty.

It is why we must always extend our hand to assist those facing such dangers, Jew and non-Jew alike. We must always bear this calling in mind right now regarding Ukraine and in everything we do as a people.

May we all have a Passover imbued with the true spirit and purpose of freedom.

The writer is the minister of Diaspora affairs.