Reactions to the invasion of Ukraine

Feb 25, 2022 | AIJAC staff

(Image: Shutterstock, Tomasz Makowski)
(Image: Shutterstock, Tomasz Makowski)

Update from AIJAC


02/22 #04


With the world in the grips of the worst crisis of international order in decades, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this Update features some reactions to recent events from Israel and the wider Jewish world.

We lead with an Israeli perspective from David Horovitz, Editor of the Times of Israel, whose articles always insightfully and reliably reflect a thoughtful, centrist Israeli perspective. He notes that two takeaways Israelis are mostly drawing from the current Ukraine crisis are that they must take very seriously threats by rogue adversaries such as Iran, and that American global hegemony, which Israel has long seen as one key element of its security, looks shaky. He also notes criticism in Israel that the US has made serious errors by making diplomacy something like a religion, without providing the punitive measures and demonstrable resolve needed to make diplomacy effective. For Horovitz’s full argument,  CLICK HERE. More on how the Ukraine invasion might increase the threat to Israel from Iran comes from security writer Seth Frantzman.

Next up, Lahav Harkov of the Jerusalem Post looks at another key lesson many Israelis are drawing from Ukraine – namely, that a traditional Israeli credo, “We must be prepared to defend ourselves by ourselves,” is more important than ever. Many Israelis look at Ukraine’s near-helplessness in the face of the Russian invasion, and the inability of the world to do much to help, and are reminded how important a strong IDF is to prevent something similar happening to Israel. Harkov also notes some parallels in what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is telling the world about what it could have done more effectively as Russia prepared its aggression, and what Israel is telling the world it should be doing about Iran. For this eye-opening analysis in full, CLICK HERE. Also making a similar argument that Ukraine sadly failed to follow Israel’s lesson of basing one’s national security on one’s own self-defence capabilities is Israeli security analyst Dan Schueftan.

Finally, Gabe Friedman of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency explores the Jewish aspects of the current crisis. This includes not only the situation of Ukraine’s large Jewish community, and how they are responding to the violence, the implications of the open Jewishness of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but also how Israel is reacting to the current crisis and is likely to be affected by it. Friedman also discusses the way Russian propaganda, including accusing Ukraine of antisemitism, has left Jews caught in the middle of the conflict. For this essential guide to the Jewish aspects of the Ukraine invasion crisis,  CLICK HERE.

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Putin’s derision, the failure of diplomacy, and the stark lessons for Israel


With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world order is being remade, US hegemony is no longer assured, and we are reminded to take seriously foes closing in on the ultimate weapon


Times of Israel, Feb. 24

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei meets Vladimir Putin in 2015: Israeli officials see parallels between US failures to deter Putin, and what they perceive as US mishandling of the Iranian march to a nuclear bomb (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details)

“The Biden administration has turned diplomacy into a religion,” an Israeli official was quoted telling Channel 13 news earlier this week.

It wasn’t intended as a compliment.

The unnamed senior official was speaking in direct relation to the administration’s relentless effort to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran — an effort that has made “substantial progress” over the last week, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday.

But the comments came in a wider context, too — most notably as Vladimir Putin began moving on Ukraine.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world’s sole superpower, self-charged, in principle, with upholding freedom and confronting tyranny around the world while, in practice, understandably also trying to minimize the costs of doing so in terms of American blood and treasure.

It was at once an immensely privileged and an immensely demanding position.

Increasingly — as marked by the failure to foster democracy in Iraq, the chaotic departure from Afghanistan, the gradual reduction of influence in Syria — minimizing those high costs has taken precedence over filling the role of global freedom protector.

At the same time, China has been rising to challenge that single superpower status.

And now Putin is asserting his ambitions, exploiting America’s perceived weakness, brazenly invading a Ukraine whose reformist, anti-corruption president was trying to draw closer to the US and the West.

From the particular perspective of Israel, Putin’s untrammeled pursuit of his expansionist goals, in open defiance of American warnings and threats, resonates deeply.

It is a reminder — one that Israel did not need — to take with the utmost seriousness threats issued by rapacious adversaries, first and foremost Iran, who have the capacity, or are working to gain the capacity, to implement them. (As Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told me less than two weeks ago, “I’m looking at Ukraine and saying, thank God for the IDF and for our ability to defend ourselves.”)

And it is disturbing confirmation that the world order is being remade before our eyes, with America’s previous hegemony no longer assured.

The United States has been Israel’s key ally for decades, and remains so. But crucial to that alliance for Israel has been the knowledge that an America firmly and boldly engaged in this vast region provided stability for little Israel, helping to deter regional aggressors.

Today, that engagement is fading, and so too the deterrence. Iran’s march to the bomb is the most dangerous case in point.

The Iranian regime, far closer to a nuclear weapons capability than it was when the original lousy deal was reached in 2015, is evidently moving closer to accepting the revived accord proffered by the US — several of whose key clauses expire in the next few years, and under which Iran will apparently be allowed to keep its advanced centrifuges. The agreement will reportedly also bring the immediate release of billions of dollars in frozen assets to help finance Tehran’s regional warmongering. How gracious of Iran’s supreme leader, forgive my sarcasm, to consider consent.

As was the case in the run-up to the 2015 deal, Israel, although directly threatened by Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons program, has been neither a direct nor an indirect participant in the negotiations, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s preference for behind-the-scenes efforts to influence the American stance would appear to have been no more effective than his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu’s openly confrontational approach.

Iran’s progress toward the status of nuclear threshold state has been marked by a succession of the worst of all possible lurches by the US.

The JCPOA agreement announcement in 2015 – in Israel’s view, it was an agreement which failed to achieve the necessary goal of dismantling the Iranian regime’s rogue nuclear program (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details). 

The original Obama-era accord failed to achieve its necessary goal: dismantling the regime’s rogue program and ensuring it could not be resuscitated. The Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal predictably prompted Iran to openly breach the accord’s generous terms and further advance its enrichment and bomb-making knowledge and capabilities. And the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign had shown no sign of weakening the ayatollahs’ nuclear resolve even before it was doomed by Donald Trump’s electoral defeat. Now the Biden administration is desperately seeking to reinstate an accord that the president himself acknowledged needed to be longer and stronger.

Diplomacy is anything but a dirty word. Effective diplomacy, if backed by punitive measures and demonstrable resolve, might just have given Vladimir Putin pause. Effective diplomacy, backed by punitive measures and demonstrable resolve, could yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the Iranian nuclear showdown.

Not so, however, diplomacy when turned “into a religion,” as the unnamed Israeli official, likely located not a million miles from the office of the prime minister, put it. Not so, that is, when diplomacy is pursued as some kind of act of faith, unrelated to or blinkered from realities shaped by increasingly emboldened, even derisive adversaries.

Ukraine war again reminds Israelis: We can only rely on ourselves – analysis


Russian warplanes flying over Kyiv are a reminder: Israel must always be prepared to defend itself, by itself


Jerusalem Post,  February 24, 2022

A bombing victim in eastern Ukraine – when Israelis see scenes like these, they are reminded of Israel’s need to always be able to defend itself without relying on outside intervention (Photo: Twitter)

The war in Ukraine is an event the likes of which the West has not seen in decades, with yet-unknown reverberations likely to be felt around the world for years to come.

But there is already one obvious lesson for Israel: we can only rely on ourselves.

It is true that this is a refrain that comes up again and again in Israeli politics, most recently as the world negotiates an agreement with Iran that probably will not come anywhere close to reasonably protecting Israelis against a regime bent on Israel’s destruction.

“We will protect ourselves by ourselves,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last month.

“Israel must do what it needs to do to defend itself against this extraordinary threat to its existence,” opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu told i24 News this week.

But in case anyone doubted it, the war in Ukraine has brought that message into stark relief.

Russia has been an ongoing threat to Ukraine, at least since 2014, and Western leaders have spoken often about opposing Russian aggression. They did place sanctions, but did not have the focus nor the will to make them really hurt Moscow for long.

In the run-up to the Russian invasion, the West stepped up the rhetoric and the sanctions, but it’s looking like too little, too late, for Ukraine.

Just a few days ago, American, German, British and European Union leaders at the Munich Security Conference applauded their “unity” in opposing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confronted them, saying that while they’re united, his country is being left to face Russia on its own.

“The architecture of world security is fragile and needs to be updated,” Zelensky said. “The rules that the world agreed on decades ago no longer work. They do not keep up with new threats. What do attempts at appeasement lead to? The question ‘Why die for Danzig?’ turned into the need to die for Dunkirk and dozens of other cities in Europe and the world at the cost of millions of lives.”

Zelensky suggested active steps that the West could have taken to try to prevent an attack, instead of punishing Russia after the fact, such as more sanctions, sending more advanced weapons to Ukraine, greater financial support, and more.

A Russian invasion is not just an attack on Ukraine, he said, but on the world.

“We will defend our land with or without the support of partners,” Zelensky stated. “These are not noble gestures for which Ukraine should bow low. This is your contribution to the security of Europe and the world, where Ukraine has been a reliable shield for eight years.”

Just change the name Zelensky to Bennett, and the countries to Israel and Iran, and the messages are very similar, from the demands for more sanctions and better weapons down to the World War II appeasement comparison, and being a vanguard against a broader threat: Islamic extremist terrorism in the Middle East and an expansionist Russia in Europe.

The comparison is not one-to-one, of course. Most importantly, the US-Israel relationship, including its military and intelligence cooperation, is very strong.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke for many Israelis when he said a few weeks ago, “I’m looking at Ukraine and saying, thank God for the IDF and for our ability to defend ourselves.” (Photo: Flickr, Ralph Alswang)

Russia already invaded Ukraine, while there is still time to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon – though Iran is already attacking Israel through its proxies. Israel and Iran are better matched militarily, while Russia overpowers Ukraine. And Israel has access to and develops its own advanced weaponry – though the US refusal to sell bunker bombers that could have helped stop the nuclear threat years ago still smarts.

Israel also seems to generally have more success than Ukraine at getting the world’s attention, for better or for worse, though it seems likely that the “shorter, weaker” Iran deal, as Bennett called it, will be completed under the radar while the focus is on Ukraine.

Regardless of the differences, it’s very clear that the West’s appetite for taking preemptive steps to stop existential threats to its allies is lacking. That is true even if they say all the right things, like the mantra that they won’t let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon.

Russian warplanes flying over Kyiv are a reminder: Israel must always be prepared to defend itself, by itself.

Who are Ukraine’s Jews, and how is Russia’s invasion affecting them?


Jewish Telegraphic Agency, February 24,

In better days, Orthodox Jews on a pilgrimage in the central Ukrainian city of Uman to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, an important Jewish holy site in that city. (Photo: Shutterstock, Halinskyi Max)

(JTA) — All of the posturing and fears and hypothesizing became reality early Thursday morning in Ukraine, as Russia launched a full-scale armed invasion by land and sea.

Tens of thousands of Jews live in Ukraine, making it home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities — one with a complicated history, tainted by persecution and upheaval, that is tangibly affecting their response to the attack.

Here’s a breakdown of who they are, where they live and what they are experiencing.

What’s going on in Ukraine right now?

After weeks of ominous reports on Russia’s plans to attempt to annex parts of Ukraine — a former member of the Soviet Union that has over time grown close to NATO and Western powers, a fact that infuriates the Kremlin — Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on television early Thursday that he had initiated a “special military operation.” As he did so, explosions were heard in the capital Kyiv and several other large Ukrainian cities.

This is the second time in the past decade that Putin has invaded parts of the country — in 2014, Russia annexed territory in the Crimea region, kickstarting months of fighting near the two countries’ borders. But early signs show that this new conflict could quickly progress to a larger-scale affair.

Explosions and Russian troops have now been reported all the way from Crimea in the east to the Lviv area in the west, and Ukrainian officials are estimating dozens of soldiers and civilians are already dead. Most analysts are calling the escalation Europe’s most significant armed conflict since World War II.

Over 10,000 Russian and Ukrainian troops were killed in the 2014 war.

How many Jews live in Ukraine today?

This is a difficult question to answer with specificity, complicated by the cultural makeup of Ukrainian Jewry and its history. A 2020 demographic study of European Jewry puts the number of Ukrainians who identify as Jews at 43,000. But some estimates of people with Jewish ancestry quadruple that number.

Despite centuries of antisemitism and pogroms that condensed Jewish populations into pockets of Eastern Europe, such as the Pale of Settlement, which included a large portion of modern Ukraine — and was known for its shtetls, and as the setting of “Fiddler on the Roof” — it is estimated that over 1.5 million Jews lived in what is now Ukraine on the eve of World War II.

Approximately 1 million of those Jews were killed in the Holocaust, but a 1989 census estimated that close to half a million lived in Ukraine in 1989, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Under Soviet rule, Jews were persecuted and additionally denied the right to emigrate, forced to hide much of their religious practice in a society rife with antisemitism.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, close to 80% of those Jews left for Israel and elsewhere. Many of those who remained are elderly and poor, and others are disconnected from their Jewish heritage, perhaps from the decades of persecution.

For example, the 2020 demographic survey estimated that besides a “core” population of 43,000 Jews, around 200,000 Ukrainians are technically eligible for Israeli citizenship, meaning that they have identifiable Jewish ancestry. The European Jewish Congress says that number could be as high as 400,000.

Where do most of Ukraine’s Jews live?

Most of Ukraine’s Jews live in the country’s largest cities, but some, especially elderly ones, live in smaller cities and scattered impoverished villages. So this list — which contains estimates of people with Jewish heritage, some provided by the communities themselves — is not comprehensive. Because Russia’s attack has taken aim at the entire country, all Jewish communities face exposure to violence and the consequences of war.

Kyiv: Ukraine’s capital city of close to 3 million people is home to about 110,000 Jews and half a dozen active synagogues.

Dnipro: This eastern city, which was off limits for unauthorized civilians during the Communist era because of its multiple military complexes, now has about 60,000 Jews, according to communal figures. It houses kosher restaurants, a synagogue, a mikvah and multiple Jewish-owned businesses, and in 2012 construction finished on a 22-story building that’s shaped like a menorah.

Kharkiv: This industrial city near the Russian border is one of Ukraine’s largest, and about 45,000 Jews call it home, according to the community’s own statistics.

This map shows the distribution of the major Jewish communities in Ukraine. (Getty Images/Design by Grace Yagel)

Odessa: This southern port city of about a million people also has 45,000 Jews, according to communal statistics, four active synagogues, a Jewish museum, two Jewish community centers and no fewer than a dozen Jewish schools or kindergartens. It also is home to four orphanages for Jewish children, run by the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement. In the late 19th century, Jews made up over a third of the city’s population.

Uman: This small city houses the grave of the 18th-century Hasidic Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, which attracts ten of thousands of Hasidic Jews in an annual tribute pilgrimage. But a few hundred Jews, mostly Israelis, now live there year-round.

Lviv: This western city, near Poland, is home to a few small Jewish communities of 100-200 people each.

How are they responding to the violence?

Given their traumatic history, Ukrainian Jews are feeling more than a little frightened at the possibility of a protracted war.

In Odessa, Rabbi Shlomo Baksht explained to his orphan children that “there was a war but that they are not being targeted.” He told our Cnaan Lipshiz that some were assured by that, “but others not really and the fear stayed in their eyes.”

Last month we reported that some were getting their suitcases ready. But due to the widespread nature of the violence, erupting from all sides — which led Ukrainian airports to cancel all commercial flights — many local Jews, like non-Jews, are being forced to stay put for now.

For many of the elderly experiencing poverty, anxiety and seclusion already worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation will bring new physical and psychological challenges, said Amos Lev-Ran, a senior employee of the former-Soviet-Union division of the U.S.-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee charity, or JDC, which is a major provider of care to needy Jews in Ukraine.

”As things worsen, those needs are becoming more pressing,” Lev-Ran said.

The JDC has already been stepping up its contributions in recent months, adding $4.4 million in aid spending since November.

Some others — mostly of a generation removed from the Soviet Union era — have assimilated into Ukraine’s patriotic culture, and want to protect their homeland at all costs.

“I put off making any big purchases. I want to buy weapons,” Vlodymyr Zeev Vaksman, the 40-year-old chair of Odessa’s Tiferet Masorti community, told JTA earlier this month.

That said, thousands of Ukrainians are also fleeing into nearby countries such as Poland and Hungary.

Cars wait to cross into Romania at the border crossing in Solotvyno, Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2022. (Andreea Campeanu/Getty Images)

Are they safe?

Last weekend, a letter that Bathsheba Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sent to the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights began circulating. In it, Crocker wrote that the United States believes that in the aftermath of an invasion, Russia will look to target a list of specific people “who oppose Russian actions” through “killings, kidnappings/forced disappearances, unjust detentions, and the use of torture.”

On that list, Crocker wrote, alongside political dissidents, LGBTQ activists and others, are “vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities.” That prompted some on social media to speculate whether that includes Jews.

We don’t yet know whether this list is real and what actions, if any, will befall those who might be on it. But we do know two things: Putin has carried out the actions Crocker outlined for years against his political opponents and anyone prominent who protests his autocratic reign.

He has also strived to project a pro-Jewish image on the global stage, cultivating close relationships with Chabad rabbis and Israeli leaders, including former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, not all Russian Jews are convinced by Putin’s gestures — one prominent case a few years ago involving the expulsion of multiple rabbis from the country, for alleged national security reasons, left many questioning his motives.

Ukraine’s president is Jewish — here’s how that comes into play

In the spotlight is Ukraine’s first-ever Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a 44-year-old political neophyte whose most recent job before being elected in 2019 was acting on comedic TV shows. Although not religious, Zelensky has begun referencing his Jewish identity and publicly proclaiming solidarity with Israel in recent years.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is proudly Jewish – which appears to make a mockery of Russia’s claims that Ukraine’s leadership are “Nazis.” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details)

Despite winning the 2019 election in a landslide — after being hit with some antisemitic attacks during the campaign — Zelensky’s approval ratings have plummeted over time as his image as a maverick reformer determined to tackle the country’s corruption problem has thinned.

At the same time, rising rates of antisemitism, at times connected to rising rates of hypernationalism, have become an issue in Ukraine over the past decade. Russia, likely seizing on this fact, has made antisemitic disinformation a key component in its accompanying online proxy war against Ukraine, and its efforts to galvanize support for war among citizens at home.

For example, during the 2014 Maidan Revolution, a series of violent protests that ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally, the Kremlin embarked on a disinformation campaign “to divide Ukrainians along ethnic and religious lines and delegitimize the Ukrainians by painting them as Nazis and fascists,” former JTA correspondent Sam Sokol explained.

“The Russians planted fake news stories about imaginary antisemitic incidents and allegedly engaged in antisemitic provocations,” said Sokol, author of “Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Antisemitism, Propaganda, and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry.” “In response, the Ukrainians lobbed similar accusations against the Russians. The Jews found themselves used by both sides.”

The trend has continued — in his speech announcing the war, Putin compared Ukraine’s leadership to Nazis, something he has done repeatedly since 2014. (Ukrainian leaders have in turn continued to make similar accusations against their Russian rivals.)

“[The] goal is to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide… for the last eight years. And for this we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine,” Putin said on his reasoning for the invasion.

Zelensky, who had family members die in the Holocaust, is particularly attuned to the rhetoric. On Thursday, the Ukrainian government’s official Twitter account shared a cartoon image Thursday morning that showed Adolf Hitler smiling and touching Putin’s cheek. “This is not a ‘meme’, but our and your reality right now,” the account wrote.

How is Israel involved in all of this?

On the diplomatic side, Israel has tried to balance the close relations it has to both Ukraine and Russia as the conflict has grown more heated. It’s a complicated series of connections — especially because Russia is a close ally of Syria, one of Israel’s foremost enemies — but until Thursday, Israeli leaders had not named Russia specifically in their statements on the conflict.

That changed Thursday, as Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, strongly condemned the invasion.

But Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in a statement expressing solidarity with Ukrainians, stopped short of issuing a similar condemnation.

Israeli officials have also been promoting and preparing for increased immigration by Ukrainian Jews and their families to Israel, primarily through the Jewish Agency for Israel, a semi-governmental body for promoting this immigration, called aliyah, but also from Nativ, another agency with a similar mission that focuses exclusively on Jews in the former Soviet Union.

The Agency has been “flooded” with requests on Thursday. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a pro-Israel philanthropic group, helped the Jewish Agency fly approximately 100 Jews out of Ukraine last weekend.


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