Addressing students of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem on June 23, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a foolish, unnecessary and strategic mistake in opening an anti-Semitic battlefront while his very real war with Russia rages on.
In his Zoom rant to students in Jerusalem, Zelenskyy accused the Israeli government of not providing Ukraine sufficient help to defend itself, or sufficient humanitarian support.
By holding Israel to standards to which he does not hold others, Zelenskyy is stoking anti-Semitism, in general, and particularly at home, by holding Israel at fault as Ukraine is battered.
Though Zelenskyy himself is Jewish, his singling out of Israel continues the anti-Semitic tradition that has marred Jewish life in Ukraine for generations. This is not his first time calling out Israel for not doing enough to help Ukraine in their defensive war with Russia.
As leader of a country where Jews have been subject to anti-Semitism for generations, Zelenskyy should know better. He should know that even his baptized children will not be spared when Ukrainian Jews are in the crosshairs.
The Ukrainian president did acknowledge the help of the Israeli people, but let the shoe drop in criticisms of Israel’s government, “We thank the Israeli people, but we also ask for the support of your government.”
Zelenskyy continued by saying how disappointed he is with Israel.
Stating that Ukraine and Israel have a shared past, he cited examples of Israeli leaders who came from Ukraine: Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Golda Meir and (mistakenly) Shalom Aleichem. In so doing, he overlooked the fact that this Jewish-Israeli leaders’ generation largely fled Ukraine due to anti-Semitism. Sadly, that is the shared past that Ukraine has with its Jews.
Zelenskyy did call Russia a “terror state,” but saw it fitting to blame Israel nonetheless.
“The Ukrainian people are grateful to the Israeli people for waving our national flag on the streets. … We thank the Israeli people, but we also ask for the support of your government,” he said. “Luxembourg, with a population of some 600,000 people, provided us defensive aid equal to 15% of their defense budget. But what about Israel? We understand this is not an easy situation, but we would like to see greater support.”
I suppose in rising from actor to president, Zelenskyy missed the class that explained that Luxembourg does not have enemies surrounding it, which threaten its very existence.
Maybe that was the lesson that taught not to open a second front in a war you’re losing. But that’s exactly what Zelenskyy did.
No, Israel is not going to attack Ukraine like Russia did; but the Ukrainian president has diverted attention, resources and goodwill from the real war by making the legitimate suffering of Ukrainians about anything other than Russia.
Zelenskyy added that he expects Israel to join the international sanctions against Russia.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t seen Israel joining yet,” he said.
Maybe after the first anti-Semitic rant, he could be forgiven. But this is not his first. In March, Zelenskyy addressed Israel’s Knesset, making similar demands. He inappropriately drew parallels between events in Ukraine and the Holocaust. And he concluded that Israelis, therefore, certainly should understand, and should be more sympathetic and more helpful. That’s where he lost his sympathetic audience.
Does Zelenskyy not realize that Israel has 150,000 rockets aimed at it from Hezbollah in Lebanon alone? Does he not realize that Israel has an active “war between the wars” in Iran and Syria, or that Israel recently called all its citizens to flee Turkey because of credible threats of Iranian terror there?
Does he not realize that Israel straddles a very narrow line, to maintain its security and access to targets in Russian-controlled Syria, which are more existential than anything Ukraine has suffered?
In expecting “more” from Israel, Zelenskyy overlooked the Israeli field hospital set up outside of Lviv, and the other medical and humanitarian aid Israel has provided both in Ukraine and among those who have fled. He overlooked the airlifting of Jews and non-Jews alike to Israel, the offering of citizenship to those eligible and the provision of services to Ukrainian refugees.
But from Israel, Zelenskyy wants more.
Whether following a script or just the president’s negative tone, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk added fuel to the flames by demanding that Israel provide Ukraine with Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. Ambassadors are not military strategists, but anyone who asks for the Iron Dome should know that it is designed to counter short-range rockets, not long-range missiles Russia is using. To expect ill-suited military equipment is foolish at best.
Most recently, Korniychuk threatened Israel with a revoking of Israelis’ visa exemptions in Ukraine, including for the thousands who make pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.
While noting that Ukraine is a war zone and tourism is the only thing not “booming,” the threat of a quid pro-quo – that Jews could only visit Ukraine and the rabbi’s grave if Israel provided military support – is profoundly anti-Semitic. One would think that if travel to Ukraine were safe and possible, Ukraine would welcome a desperately needed injection of foreign currency.
Ukraine is shooting themselves in the foot by keeping people who want to from supporting Ukraine. Rather than doing everything possible to build sympathy and support, the ambassador complained that Israel is “unfairly” imposing restrictions on Ukrainians entering Israel, as if Israel were not a sovereign country with the right and obligation to determine who and how many can enter.
What makes this anti-Semitic is that Zelenskyy and Korniychuk are holding Israel to a double standard, not applied to the rest of the world.
Forget acknowledging the significant aid that Israel and Israeli organizations have provided (which one could forgive; after all, they are at war). One has to ask if President Zelenskyy is also calling out other countries for not doing more. Or, as he would say, “not enough.”
Let’s just look at the “I” countries. Did he call out Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, or even Iraq and Iran? Did Ukraine’s ambassador to these “I” countries also threaten to prevent their nationals from visiting Ukraine if their governments didn’t do more?
The double standard and the anti-Semitic undertone are profound. While one should be sympathetic to and supportive of Ukraine, and pray the war ends soon, Israel and Ukraine don’t have that much of a “shared past,” to be honest. Unless you want to count pogroms and mass murder of Ukrainian Jews.
One can overlook the past; but the current relationship between Jews and other Ukrainians hasn’t been all that great, and Ukraine has been far from a reliable ally for Israel at the United Nations.
Rather than looking to build upon an exaggerated “shared past,” for getting help in the midst of a war, a little honesty, accuracy and integrity would go a long way.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. Throughout his life and career, he has become a respected bridge between Jews and Christians and serves as president of the Genesis 123 Foundation. He writes regularly on major Christian websites about Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He is host of the popular Inspiration from Zion podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.