Judging the ‘ethics’ of Israel’s defense and foreign policy - opinion

Israel can do better for Ukraine, it is now a safe country, the strongest power in the region. It must stop presenting itself as an endangered state.

 AN INJURED woman is treated after deadly rocket fire on a residential area of Mykolaiv, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The war threatens civilians, as all wars do, but is not comparable to the Holocaust, says the writer.  (photo credit: State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Reuters)
AN INJURED woman is treated after deadly rocket fire on a residential area of Mykolaiv, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The war threatens civilians, as all wars do, but is not comparable to the Holocaust, says the writer.
(photo credit: State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Reuters)

On June 7, the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) organized a conference: Ukraine, A Case Study – Moral Considerations in Israel’s Foreign Policy. It was held in honor of former Mossad director Tamir Pardo, who is joining JPPI and gave the keynote speech. He criticized Israel’s inadequate support for Ukraine, which he said was morally unsustainable. Israel has not even supplied defensive weapons to Ukraine and did not accept all those fleeing from war, which included non-Jewish refugees from Ukraine.

This speech triggered a lively debate that has been widely reported in the media. Some argue for more moral consideration in foreign policy, others prefer Israel’s more cautious, interest-centered policy approach.

It has been said that Israel made a moral mistake of the same kind in the past. In order to protect its relations with Turkey, Israel refused to call the mass-murder of more than a million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey during the First World War a genocide, a Shoah. Israel’s refugee policy during the Ukraine crisis was compared to Switzerland’s refusal to let in Jews who were fleeing death during the Holocaust.

Israel can do better, it is now a safe country, the strongest power in the region. It must stop presenting itself as an endangered state. It might have to pay a high price in the future for being found on the wrong side of history today, the moral side, the Western side.

Israel is the region’s super-power? Those who lived through the 1967 Six Day War heard similar reassurances after Israel’s victory, yet nobody will forget how this hyperbole ended, in October 1973. Moreover, is there not a certain contradiction between the assertion of Israel’s great power and the complaint that its policy is bereft of morality?

 Russian warships leave a port during naval drills, which are staged by the Baltic Fleet forces of the Russian Navy, part of the military exercises Zapad-2021 opened by Russia and Belarus, in the Baltic Sea town of Baltiysk in Kaliningrad Region, Russia September 9, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/VITALY NEVAR) Russian warships leave a port during naval drills, which are staged by the Baltic Fleet forces of the Russian Navy, part of the military exercises Zapad-2021 opened by Russia and Belarus, in the Baltic Sea town of Baltiysk in Kaliningrad Region, Russia September 9, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/VITALY NEVAR)

Today, even the strongest country’s power and resilience cannot be measured solely by the number of its fighter planes and tanks. Morality and public morale play a major role. Were many Israelis to agree that their country acts unethically, would their state of mind not damage the country’s resilience and power?

Then, comparing the Ukrainian tragedy to Switzerland’s refusal to save Jews during the Second World War makes little historical sense and can even be offensive. My father, Nathan Wald, was already in Switzerland, but the authorities expelled him like many other Jews. He perished in Auschwitz.

The current war in Ukraine threatens civilians, as all wars do, but their case is not comparable to that of the Jews during the Shoah, who were all marked for extermination. Not all and probably not many Ukrainian civilians are running for their lives, and few, if any, are desperately waiting at Israel’s closed borders.

Will Israel one day pay a political and moral price for not supplying weapons to Ukraine? Israel must avoid clashing with the Russians in Syria. More than that, nearly all countries giving the Ukraine weapons are covered by NATO’s collective security pact, but Israel is not.

Is it fair to ask more from Israel?

But must not Israel, a country of refugees and their off-spring, show more generosity to all refugees? Are the larger West European countries, such as the United Kingdom, much more generous? President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to the British Parliament, compared himself to Winston Churchill, no less, and received roaring applause. Immediately after, the UK’s legendary Home Office started to tighten visa requirements.

Not surprisingly, little more than 60,000 Ukrainian refugees live in the UK, much less than in some other Western countries and less than one per thousand of the total population. In Israel, approximately 15,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived since the beginning of the war, or a bit more than one and a half per thousand of population. At least 9,000 or one per thousand of population are estimated not to be Jewish by the Law of Return criteria.

SO BY this accounting, Israel is certainly not less moral than the UK. In the West, the UK is a well-respected country, famous for its old institutions and ceremonies. Human rights organizations in the UK and Israel have asked their governments to be more generous, but nobody in his or her right mind would suggest that the United Kingdom will pay a high moral and political price for its restrictive refugee policies. That county’s right to protect its national interest as it sees fit is widely respected.

Why is Israel not?

In order to understand Israel’s originally hesitant, conflicted attitude to Ukraine, one has to remember history. There is so much that has not been openly said, beyond obvious concerns about the Russians in Syria. Again, I will refer to my personal history because it helps explain the feelings of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Israelis whose families lived and “died” (euphemism for “being murdered”) in Ukraine.

Four years ago, I visited the small town of Jagielnica near Czortkow (today Yahil’nytsya and Chortkiv) where my late mother was born, in a region where most of my maternal family lived and “died.” In 1939, Jagielnica had almost 2,800 inhabitants, 45% of them Jews. Virtually all were exterminated by the Germans and their local helpers. The small-town museum has an exhibition of Ukrainian history, culture and folklore, a guest book which shows that other Israelis have visited before and a vitrine commemorating Ukraine’s greatest national hero, Bogdan Chmielnicki.

He was the Cossack chieftain who led the 1648 uprising against Polish rule, a war during which his bands slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews. He, as well as some much nearer 20th century Ukrainian nationalists, who were responsible for pogroms or were allied to Nazi Germany, are still honored elsewhere in Ukraine.

A guide who accompanied me advised him not to raise the issue: these are Ukraine’s historic heroes, there are no others. Still, in a corner of the exhibition room was a photo and a short text mentioning the suffering of the local Jews at the hands of the Germans.

The past is the past. Jews are welcome in Ukraine and did well until the Russian invasion. Israel criticized Russia’s attack and shows sympathy with Ukrainian suffering. But is it a wonder that so many Israelis and Jews are conflicted and do not want to get involved, and that the Knesset was half-empty when Zelensky addressed it to ask for more Israeli help? Was Knesset Member Smotrich wrong when he sharply rejected Zelensky’s false claim that the Ukrainian people generally helped the Jews during the Shoah?

Many issues of ethics in foreign policy are not clear-cut and easy to solve. What is ethical for one side is unethical for another, what was ethical once is no longer ethical later. Ethics and morality have many facets. For example, decades after the war, Switzerland admitted that its refusal to give shelter to fleeing Jews during the Shoah was unethical.

But Swiss governments of the 1940s were convinced that their first political, as well as ethical, duty was to prevent a German attack and the occupation of their country. The Swiss suspected correctly that Hitler was pondering an attack and they knew that the Nazis did not like to see fleeing Jews being rescued just across their border.

For the Swiss, saving their country was their highest ethical duty. Alas, the fate of the Jews was outside their considerations. Ethical or unethical? For whom?

The writer is a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI).