Seeking solace: Tens of thousands of Ukrainians of Jewish ancestry are expected in Israel.
Purim has come and gone, but its theme of heroic efforts to protect innocent citizens from a murderous villain are echoed in our daily headlines. And the holiday story’s sense of v’nehafechu – topsy-turvy inversions and ironies – remains as well.
In truth, the horrific drama playing out on the world stage defies imagination. But it is all too real, and presents a personal moral challenge to each of us as we bear witness to the deadly, unprovoked assault on more than 40 million citizens of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin.
Who could have foreseen that a Ukrainian professional actor and comedian who gained fame for his comic role in a TV show portraying the president, would actually be elected to that office – a proud Jew in a country with a long and tragic record of anti-Semitism?
Who would have believed that a 44-year-old political novice, largely unknown, would become the world’s most admired leader? But Volodymyr Zelensky earned that reputation as he has stood firm in the face of deadly attacks this past month, rallying his people and inspiring the free world. By defying Vladimir Putin’s would-be genocidal assault, Zelensky is challenging civilized countries to save Ukraine and, with it, affirming a commitment to political democracy and human decency at a moment in history when both have been threatened.
As a brave leader he has literally stood his ground, and, as a savvy communicator, he has addressed the leaders of key nations – and their citizens – by speaking their language. He has made reference to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in addressing Americans, recalled Winston Churchill’s inspiring oratory to Brits and invoked the Holocaust to Israelis, and to Jews everywhere.
How fate brought Zelensky to this pivotal moment reminds me of the deeply poignant message Mordechai conveys to Esther in the Purim story. He urges her to risk her life by asking King Achashveros to save the Jews of Persia from Haman’s genocidal decree, noting: “Who knows whether it was just for such a time that you attained your influential position?”
Israel’s Deep Dilemma
Reading the reports and seeing the videos and photos each day of the Russian assault on Ukraine’s civilian population, I can’t stop thinking about what it must have been like for American Jews during World War II to have learned of Hitler’s horrific, years-long efforts to destroy European Jewry. Surely there was a sense of profound sadness, helplessness and frustration, and perhaps even an element of disbelief, since the news came out sporadically and in such muted tones, buried in the back pages of the press.
Subsequent generations, all too aware of the inability of their elders to save European Jewry, have pledged “Never Again” to be silent or helpless in the face of such evil. But the sad truth is that the Nazi genocidal campaign to eradicate an entire people was followed in various parts of the world, including Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, and currently in the Uyghur region of China.
The creation of the state of Israel was, in part, a response to the persecution of Jews over the centuries, culminating with the murder of six million European Jews. As a result – and what a dramatic one it is – tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees are seeking safety in Israel, and being embraced by a society that knows full well what it’s like to be victims and homeless.
The tiny state has been a leader in humanitarian efforts, from medics and first-aid supplies to food and clothing , since the assault on Ukraine began. The first flag that hundreds of thousands of refugees see on crossing through Polish checkpoints is that of Israel. And we can see inspiring photos and videos of Israeli and diaspora humanitarian efforts everyday on our smartphones.
Welcome signs abound: JRoots is one of many non-profit Jewish organizations assisting Ukrainian refugees. (Photo: Jeremy Lustman)
But despite Israel’s humanitarian response, which far exceeds that of many other far larger countries, its leaders in Jerusalem are caught in a complex political and moral bind. They have refused Zelensky’s pleas for use of Israel’s Iron Dome of protection and other military equipment, resisted sanctions against Russia and soft-pedaled direct criticism of Putin for three key reasons. One, Russia has a strong military influence in Syria and Lebanon, but has looked the other way when Israel attacks rocket supplies intended for Hezbollah terrorists in the region. With differing goals in the region, Jerusalem and Moscow have managed to reach an understanding with each other, a delicate situation the Bennett government wants to maintain.
Second, Russia has played a key role in the ongoing talks over renewing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that President Trump canceled during his tenure. On the eve of what appears to be a renewal of the deal – a source of deep controversy within Israel and among diaspora Jewry – the Bennett government is loath to alienate Putin and make things worse. (The fear of a nuclear Iran, and now the war in Ukraine, are among the key factors in previously unimagined alliances between Israel and Arab countries in the region, leading to this week’s Negev Summit with Bahrain, UAE, Egypt, Morocco and the U.S.)
And third, an estimated 200,000 Jews, a significant proportion of them elderly, including survivors of the Holocaust, remain in Russia. They have not been persecuted during Putin’s more than two decades in power and in fact have been allowed to maintain their communal activities. But Jewish leaders in Israel and the diaspora fear that the Russian president could use his Jewish citizens as hostages at some point.
When The Truth Loses Its Power
One significant lesson for all of us as Americans is to see first-hand what happens when facts and information are turned into conspiracies and lies. Russia’s citizens have been largely unaware of the brutal aggression their leader unleashed on Ukraine because, as a dictator, he has shut down outside sources of news. Ironically, Americans have become increasingly and dangerously divided in recent years through a form of democracy that allows falsehoods and wild theories to thrive via social media and politically driven news outlets. We have created our own Tower of Babel, talking to each other in language that seems incomprehensible to our neighbors. Through different methods in Russia and the U.S., the result of deliberate misinformation is the same: a society suffers because the truth has lost its power to inform and promote common cause.
Given the range and severity of the crises we face today – the deadliest war in Europe since World War II and the specter of it becoming nuclear in the midst of a stubborn pandemic – it’s difficult to remain hopeful.
But our history reminds us that even in days far darker than we have known, Jews have maintained their faith in the future. Soon we will celebrate Passover and will read and re-live at the Seder the story of a people released from slavery and suffering, of a wicked Pharoah brought low, and of a dramatic march toward a promise fulfilled in a land of milk and honey.
Miraculously, after thousands of years, that land is again a sovereign state and home to the Jewish people – a state that each day is welcoming large numbers of Ukrainian refugees seeking solace. What a stunning contrast to the Holocaust years when European Jews had nowhere to turn, when Ukrainians were to be feared…
Amidst our sadness and anxiety over world events, we have much to be grateful for as the never-ending story of our people continues.