Ukraine, obviously, is on everyone’s brain. The unfolding humanitarian crisis is ghastly. The breadbasket of Europe is a mere crumb on its way to being reduced, once more, to one of Russia’s satellites. A similar fate has already befallen Crimea, Chechnya and Georgia.
While we were distracted by Monica Lewinsky, 9/11 and global terror, appeasing the ayatollahs of Iran, conducting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and American culture wars involving gender-neutral bathrooms and erasing Abraham Lincoln’s name from school buildings, Russia has been busy reconstituting its empire.
Someone should be warning Belarus and Moldova, along with NATO nations Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, that they are next on Vladimir Putin’s recovery list.
Apparently, the Cold War never truly ended. It simmered on, out of sight and mind. All that Marxist mumbo-jumbo was replaced by the Oligarchs’ Manifesto. Forty years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Putin decided that it was time to once again install some drapes. And now his nuclear preparedness threatens anyone who dares interfere with his conquest of neighboring states.
The United States has imposed economic sanctions on Russia and delivered miniscule aid to Ukraine, but is otherwise sitting this one out. Our overall tentativeness says a lot about the maintenance of the liberal world order and how far the United States is willing to go in defending democracies around the world. Apparently, not very far.
Switzerland, known for its time-honored neutrality, and Luxembourg, with its army numbering fewer than 1,000 troops, have shown more saber-rattling resolve than the United States. Confiscating oligarchs’ yachts is not quite the same as storming the beaches of Normandy, however. It is doubtful that Steven Spielberg will ever direct “Saving Roman Abramovich.”
Much of the moral anguish over Ukraine involves the civilian casualties, now numbering 600. But humanitarian intervention is unlikely. Wars are fought over strategic interests, defending national security and vengeance. It was Pearl Harbor, after all, and not Auschwitz, that drew the United States into World War II.
For this and other reasons, watching from the sidelines has been especially excruciating for Jews.
First, there is a large population of Jewish Ukrainians. There are at least 50,000 Jews in Ukraine, and arguably as many as 200,000 who don’t even know they are Jewish. Hundreds have recently fled and arrived in Israel.
None of this accounts for the millions of Jews who once lived in Ukraine over the centuries who either emigrated or died at the hands of neighbors and invaders. The ghosts of Jewish Ukraine are watching recent events with great interest.
Then there’s the matter of the combatants in this war: Ukraine, the scrappy David standing against Russia’s Goliath. Ironically, the part of David in this theater of war is being portrayed by an actual Jewish president—Volodymyr Zelensky. Stacking the Jewish deck even further, the nation’s last prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, was also Jewish. At no point throughout the Diaspora, in the upper echelons of government, have Jews ever wielded this much electoral power.
The czars would have had a stroke.
And yet, this is a country on the cusp of losing its independence. So desperate is the situation that its Jewish president has aligned himself with an openly neo-Nazi paramilitary group, the Azov Battalion—who serve on the front lines and are notoriously Ukraine’s fiercest fighters and ultra-nationalists.
In such times of national emergency, with chaos everywhere, looking the other way can be contagious. The Azov Battalion has ties to America’s alt-right, and yet it has been, improbably, receiving American military aid. Apparently, demonstrating great heroism against Putin’s advance will earn even avowed racists and anti-Semites valuable goodwill. Azov is no longer banned on Facebook.
Ukraine, among other countries, has had trouble disassociating from long-standing Nazi flirtations. Soldiers serving in the Azov Battalion, in combat right now, wear insignias vaguely similar to those worn by certain World War II Nazi units. A former commander once defined their mission to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led sub-humans.”
When Putin claimed Russia’s invasion was necessary because neo-Nazis controlled Ukraine, he was referring to the Azov movement. Everyone scoffed since Zelensky is Jewish. But Zelensky, who has discovered that the West is not coming to Ukraine’s rescue, understandably has made common cause with those who would do anything to defend Ukraine even though, on another day, they would have no misgivings seeing him and his people exterminated.
Striking deals with odious bedfellows is not unusual for the otherwise unfriended. For example, both the shah of Iran and the Afrikaners who brought Apartheid to South Africa counted Israel as an ally.
In every century, Jews have faced such moral dilemmas.
Indeed, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently undertook his own shuttle diplomacy, paying Putin a visit just as the bombardment of Ukraine began. Wasn’t Bennett on the wrong side of the conflict even though his purpose was to mediate a ceasefire? Not when Iran is ensconced in Syria, and Israel depends on its friendly relations with Russia in order to destroy Iranian weapons bound for Hezbollah.
This is the realpolitik that levels Israel’s moral high ground. Befriending tyrants, beholden to hypocrites, aligning itself with outlaws—all the consequence of finding itself disproportionately condemned in the United Nations, always in the dock at the ICC, and a pariah on campus.
And when this war comes to an end, it will doubtless not be over for Jews. Right-wing anti-Semites will blame Jewish oligarchs for using Putin as their puppet. Progressives are already making twisted analogies between civilians in Kyiv and the “innocents” of Gaza. The situation would be identical but for the tens of thousands of rockets that Ukrainians never fired at Moscow, or their disinterest in stabbing Russians in St. Petersburg, or that Ukrainians are pleading for humanitarian corridors rather than using their dead women and children as propaganda, or in never claiming all of Russia to be Ukrainian land: “From the Matai River to the Caspian Sea.”
The greatest irony of all is that the United States will soon enter into yet another disastrous “deal” with Iran to temper its nuclear ambitions. Our chief negotiator, it seems, the one moderating voice who might be able to sway the Iranians, will be Putin himself, who is making the most noise now and stands ready to use, and would never curb, his own nuclear arsenal.”
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. His latest work, “Saving Free Speech … from Itself,” was just published. He can be reached via his website.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.