The Times of Israel called it a “caustic address.” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett expressed qualms about the comparison between the plight of Ukraine in 2022 and the plight of Jews in the Holocaust. Israeli Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel questioned Ukraine’s role in the Holocaust itself, with far-right Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich speaking of the rewriting of history and the erasing of “the involvement of the Ukrainian people in the extermination of Jews.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took his video traveling salvation show to the Knesset earlier this month, following a star turn in, among other world capitals, Washington, D.C.; (where he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.); London (where he channeled Winston Churchill); Germany (where he made allusions to the Berlin Wall); and Ottawa (where he implored Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to imagine his children living through an assault like that undertaken by Russian forces in Ukraine).
Everywhere these remote appearances prompted poignant reflection and enthusiastic praise – everywhere but in Jerusalem, where some of the notes he struck, and overall the tone he struck, produced unease, even bitterness. Israel has played a part in the response to the Russian invasion sponsoring talks, sending humanitarian aid, even sending a field hospital unit the day after the Zelensky speech – even as the country avoids direct criticism of Russia, which supports Syria and the pro-Iranian groups there that pose a threat to Israel.
And yet the Zelensky speech – a stirring moment among many in the tragedy unfolding at the easternmost reaches of the European plain – provides a window not only into the situation in Ukraine but also into sensitivities and sensibilities in Israel. Indeed, a few passages from the speech of the former actor are especially revealing. Here are some annotated excerpts:
We intend to remain alive. Our neighbors want to see us dead. This is not a question that leaves much room for compromise.
This is, as Zelensky noted, a quote from former Prime Minister Golda Meier (1898-1978), whom the Ukrainian President described as “a great woman from Kyiv, whom you know very well.” He said that these remarks were known to “every Jew,” to “many, many Ukrainians,” and “certainly no less [to] Russians. In this passage, Zelensky, who is Jewish, sought to identify with Jewish survival over the centuries and with the persistent struggle of Israel, surrounded as it is by hostile neighbors and often the target of international criticism.
I don’t need to convince you how intertwined our stories are. Stories of Ukrainians and Jews. In the past, and now, in this terrible time. We are in different countries and in completely different conditions. But the threat is the same: for both us and you – the total destruction of the people, state, culture. And even of the names: Ukraine, Israel.
This passage was both especially powerful and especially discomfiting to the Jerusalem audience. Yes, both Ukrainians today and Jews throughout history are under siege in terrible times. Yes, Jews and Ukrainians have faced total destruction. But the Holocaust reference was too searing for many in the audience.
“Rather than stir Israel’s leaders and legislators to action and solidarity, the heavy Holocaust comparisons – from saying Moscow is planning a ‘final solution for the Ukrainian question’ to saying that Israel should save Ukrainians like Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations saved Jews – drew more focus from its audience, which criticized its inappropriateness, than Zelensky’s appeal for weapons,” Latham Harkin wrote in The Jerusalem Post.
Ukrainians have made their choice. Eighty years ago. They rescued Jews. That is why the Righteous Among the Nations are among us.
One of the early sites of destruction in the Ukraine war was Babi Yar, not far from Kyiv itself. There 33,000 Jews were massacred in September 1941. Earlier, 23,600 Jews suffered the same fate in Kamenets-Podolsk, a onetime center of Hasidic life in Ukraine. Overall, about 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews perished during the Holocaust.
Less than a year ago, the Ukrainian government held a Remembrance Day for its citizens who assisted Jews, but that is only part of the story. Though Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to Holocaust victims, awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” to 2,659 Ukrainians, there is considerable evidence that many Ukrainians assisted in the rounding up and murder of Jews.
“Zelensky may not have made the best argument to the Knesset,” Omer Bartov, the Brown University historian and author of “Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz” (2018), said in an interview.
“Clearly, during World War II there were Ukrainian individuals and organizations that collaborated with the Germans in the massacre of the Jews,” he said. “Most of it was in West Ukraine but in other parts as well. In Ukraine there has been a reluctance to recognize that.”
Zelensky clearly made a misstep in Jerusalem, and even his admirers acknowledge that.
“I personally believe that the Holocaust should not be compared to anything,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said. “It is a unique event in the history of nations, of the world – the systematic, industrial destruction of a people in gas chambers.”
Even so, the Ukrainian president remains a sentinel of freedom in a fraught era. His remarks, and the remonstration that followed, likely will not – surely should not – diminish Israel’s commitment to a country that shares the peril of having dangerous neighbors.
“Zelensky’s words pierce the heart,” said Nachman Shai, Israel’s diaspora minister. “The Ukrainian nation was attacked, Ukrainian democracy was attacked, they are in great distress. We have the human, Jewish and Israeli obligation to help them.” So do we all.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.