As Ukraine remains consumed by fierce fighting, fresh geopolitical calculations are taking shape worldwide. Jolted into action, European nations led by Germany have promised to increase their military budgets and impose harsh sanctions on Russia. Few countries have remained neutral about this conflict.
Given its “special friendship” with the United States, Israel’s tepid response to the crisis has surprised some analysts. While the Israeli foreign minister has condemned Russian aggression towards Ukraine, the official line from Tel Aviv has been remarkably muted. This ambiguity is all the more shocking considering Ukraine’s sizable Jewish population because it pits Israel’s understanding of the national interests of the Jewish people against the narrow interests of the Israeli state. The Ukrainian crisis demonstrates the limited extent to which Israel will place the interests of Jewish people above that of statecraft.
Since its founding, Israel has used the threat of global anti-Semitism as its raison d’etat. After the horrors of the genocide against Jews in Europe, the Jewish people cannot exist without a state and army of their own. This line of argument has proven to be remarkably useful for the Israeli government in defending its own aggression against Palestinians and other nations in the Middle East. Israel regularly invokes the interests of the Jewish people to explain its actions such as the occupation of East Jerusalem and the settlement of the biblical lands of the West Bank.
For millions of Jews living outside of Israel, their support for the country stems from a deep-seated feeling that Israel is their only refuge. If an outbreak of anti-Semitism forced them to flee, Israel would be there to protect them. Powerful pro-Israel advocacy groups such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) play on these emotions in order to drum up support for Israel’s political objectives and silence critics of Tel Aviv’s aggressive treatment of the Palestinians.
The Ukrainian crisis presents a fascinating challenge to this core tenet of Israeli propaganda because Ukraine is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Eastern Europe. There are an estimated 50,000 practicing Jews in the country and Jewish life is visible from places of worship to cultural centers. The number of Ukrainians with Jewish ancestry (and eligibility to immigrate to Israel) is estimated at between 200,000 and 400,000. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and some of his key ministers are also Jewish. Outside of Israel, Zelensky is one of the world’s only Jewish heads of state.
Given the sheer scale and visibility of Jewish life in Ukraine, one would think that Israel would be on the front lines of finding a solution to the conflict and aiding the Jewish community there. That hasn’t been the case.
As the conflict drags on, Israel’s approach will become increasingly difficult to sustain. A Russian attack on Kyiv’s main TV tower on Tuesday damaged the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial site nearby and killed five people. The site marks one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during World War II. Zelensky said Russia’s attack showed history was repeating itself. Israel denounced the strike but did not single out Russia as the perpetrators.
It’s easy for Israel’s leaders to express concern about the well-being of Jews around the world but when push comes to shove, Israel is a country like any other with its own geopolitical concerns. In this case, Tel Aviv doesn’t want to disturb its relationship with Russia. Not only does Russia play an important role in regional politics (most notably in Syria) but it is a vital trading partner for Israel. “It is so important for us that Russia turns a blind eye to what we have been doing in Syria, acting against the transfer of weapons, the entrenchment of the Iranians,” Orna Mizrahi, a former deputy national-security adviser for Israel, told the New Yorker.
In the early days of the conflict in Ukraine, Israel rejected a request from the US to co-sponsor a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s assault. Tel Aviv walked this position back, saying that it would join a resolution but wouldn’t support sanctions against Russia. It would seem that Realpolitik trumps Israel’s hollow rhetoric about protecting the Jewish people around the world.
For its part, Israel has reiterated its support for any Ukrainian Jew wishing to immigrate to Israel but it has stopped short of offering support to Jewish Ukrainians who wish to remain at home and fend off Russian aggression. What’s remarkable about this position is that it doesn’t make any attempt to protect Jews where they are. As a Jew living in Ukraine, Israel seems to be saying, you are basically on your own.
Let’s be clear, Israel has no binding duty to protect Jewish people (or any people) outside of its borders. Many Jewish people actually have a moral problem with Israel claiming to represent them since they have made a conscious decision not to immigrate to the country. Israel will continue to speak in the name of the Jewish people when it finds it convenient. That’s what this crisis is revealing in obvious detail. Because it isn’t in Israel’s interest to challenge Russia, the Jews of Ukraine have been left to essentially fend for themselves. The next time Israel invokes worldwide Jewry in explaining its own actions, it will be instructive to remember the battle for Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in the UAE exploring change in emerging markets.