As Israel faces elections, I think of Ukraine - opinion

Israelis of different persuasions and beliefs cannot let themselves be turned into enemies. Instead, we need to reclaim our 3,000-year-old heritage of brotherly love, of treating each other as family.

 A VOLUNTEER assists Ukrainian Jewish refugees at a Vaad Hatzalah-sponsored facility in Moldova.  (photo credit: VAAD HATZALAH)
A VOLUNTEER assists Ukrainian Jewish refugees at a Vaad Hatzalah-sponsored facility in Moldova.
(photo credit: VAAD HATZALAH)

"We need to bring a cancer patient and her family from Russian-controlled territory to Israel,” a Kishinev rabbi WhatsApped me the yesterday. This is just one of the thousands of such messages, that our all-haredi team and hundreds of volunteers have addressed in recent months.

For Israel, this seems so odd, that the other day, I got an offer to appear in a major Russian-language Israeli media outlet. The “man bites dog” interest for the producers was that for the past four months, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, an ultra-Orthodox organization, of which I am a part, has been at the forefront of assisting Ukrainian Jews.

The producers perceived the work of Vaad Hatzalah as highly unusual for the Israeli political scene, where “Russians” and haredim are typically, tragically, positioned as archenemies. Educated under the atheist communist regime, many Russian speakers utterly reject the idea of God and view religious sentiments in general, and the haredim in particular, as uncouth, boorish and backward.

This attitude is intensified by the propaganda spewed by politicians, making political capital on identity politics, as well as a constant stream of anti-religious agenda in certain Russian-language news outlets. The haredim, on the other hand, chafe at the demands to change the religious status quo often advanced by the political representatives of Russian-speaking Israelis in the name of this demographic.

With Israel on the brink of yet another election campaign and as party hacks are brewing new batches of toxic negativity meant to pit Israelis against each other, it is high time to dispel these poisonous political myths. Israelis of different persuasions and beliefs cannot let themselves be turned into enemies. Instead, we need to reclaim our 3,000-year-old heritage of brotherly love, of treating each other as family, even when we do not agree.

 Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata greets Ukrainian immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport. Since the start of the Ukraine war, 20,000 new immigrants have arrived in Israel. (credit: NOGA MALSA) Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata greets Ukrainian immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport. Since the start of the Ukraine war, 20,000 new immigrants have arrived in Israel. (credit: NOGA MALSA)

Over the past four months, I have been immensely privileged to see just such an outpouring of mutual support and assistance, brought upon by the tragic events in Ukraine. While Israelis from across the spectrum contributed generously to Ukrainian Jewry, the haredi community in Israel and abroad has enlisted as one to do everything possible to rescue, feed, and help resettle our brothers and sisters.

Being involved in the rescue effort since the first days of the war, I have seen them all. The Chabad rabbis – who stayed in Ukraine despite the dire predictions – and risked their lives to organize buses and rescue people from under shelling and mortar fire; the rabbi of a tiny community in Kishinev, who almost overnight undertook the colossal task of provide for thousands of refugees, making sure each one had a bed and a hot meal.

The Belzer Hassid from Vienna, who worked around the clock to send trucks of food to Kishinev, so that the abovementioned rabbi had what to feed the refugees. That effort turned into an international team, which has since provided millions of dollars’ worth of food to Jews in Ukraine and throughout Europe.

THERE WAS the rebbetzin from Kyiv, who despite being on the run herself, set up a refugee hotel in Romania and was thoughtful enough to put flowers on the dining room tables to give people their dignity back. The 25,000 haredi households around the world, which have donated to the Vaad Hatzalah’s rescue projects and untold thousands of others, who contributed through other organizations.

And now that the rescue mission is mostly over, there are hundreds of haredi activists throughout Europe and Israel, who continue to accompany Ukrainian Jews in setting up a normal life for themselves, whether by helping them see a doctor, iron out bureaucracy in government offices, help find housing, or set up career training. While many others have moved on, these selfless men and women still work 16-18 hours a day to do everything in their power to improve the lives of the refugees from Ukraine.

None of these activists care what the Ukrainians think about religion and state, how they dress, or which party they will vote for come elections. Their motivation is simple. At the core of their religious faith is the belief that all Jews are one family.

Whatever our outlooks, each Jew is a brother or a sister. We may argue and disagree vociferously on a variety of topics, but when a crisis hits, we show up to help. This is what happens in every normal family and this is what should happen in our larger Jewish family.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we are good at being there for each other in times of crisis. Our challenge is preserving this attitude for times of peace. As we face a four-month-long Israeli election campaign, we cannot afford to lose our connection, to let politicians play us against each other to gain Knesset seats, or to allow media companies to trade hate for ratings.

Oceans, religious beliefs and politics cannot stand in the way of the bond between Jewish hearts. This has been the secret of our national preservation. It is incumbent upon each one of us to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the hateful memes, the urban legends and the political toxicity; none of these stand the test of reality.

Just ask the Kishinev rabbi, the Israeli medical activist and the ZAKA ambulance team, who worked together to save one Ukrainian Jew’s life. This is what really matters.

The writer is the director of operations at Vaad Hatzalah – The Committee for the Rescue of Ukrainian Jewry.