Ukraine, Israel and Jewish Freedom
Nothing is more central to Jewish identity than Passover–our Festival of Freedom. For over two thousand years, we were the wandering Jews — a people with no country, no army. Every year at Passover, we said, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
After the Holocaust, we realized that “Never Again” requires having the military power to prevent Jews from ever again becoming the world’s perennial victims. Jews from every corner of the world joined together to make possible the birth and growth of the modern state of Israel. We see Israel’s success as the realization of our 2,000 year-old dream–being a free people in our land.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ripped open an unprecedented new chapter in the history of Jewish power. This chapter reverses the basic assumptions that have defined us as Jews and it raises painful moral dilemmas.
Seeking Israel’s help
For centuries, Ukraine led antisemitic nations in turning its Jews into victims. Ukraine perfected the pogrom. And Ukrainians enthusiastically assisted the Nazis in murdering their Jewish neighbors. Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine plunged Europe into crisis. When assistance from America and Europe fell short, whom did Ukraine turn to for help? The Jewish State.
The only world leader who flew to Russia to meet with Putin to mediate was Israel’s Prime Minister Bennett. Israel also sent medical relief and field hospitals. IsrAID has established support for all Ukrainian refugees fleeing the border, Jewish or not. But Ukraine wanted even more from Israel.
World leaders often make unreasonable demands on Israel. But in another reversal, the world leader demanding more of Israel, is himself a proud Jew–President Zelensky. He first requested Israeli military aid and then asked that peace talks be hosted in Israel. He even turned Ukrainian Jews’ historical escape from Ukraine into a positive, arguing that “Ukrainian immigrants were among Israel’s founders, who brought with them their history and their desire to build a great country, as it is now.”
Sadly, Israel’s desire to provide military aid to Ukraine is currently constrained. Israel needs her positive relationship with Russia to defend her people because Russia controls the territory inside Syria that Iran uses to launch proxy attacks on Israel. Israel understands the moral dilemma this creates—how to weigh her responsibility to protect her own people against her newfound power to help another people seeking to live freely in their land.
Among all these reversals, one thing that has not changed is how American Jewish communities step forward to help Jews under fire no matter where. Ukraine’s estimated 200,000 Jews continue to rely on the network built over decades of Jewish Federation support. Even before the crisis, every day of the year we have been there on the ground through our partner agencies, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), helping the vulnerable, including over 7,000 Jewish elderly and 2,500 poor Jewish children.
As we sit down to our Passover Seders let us recognize the miracle born of our yearning for freedom—the miracle of a powerful, democratic Jewish State that can protect Jews anywhere and that other freedom-loving people increasingly turn to for help. And let us remember the power each of us can have so long as we continue to join together to support Jews in need and all those fighting for freedom.