OpinionJewish & Israeli Holidays

The Passover offensive and the Easter(n) promises

Paschal reflections on war, hope and deliverance in Ukraine.

Thousands gather at Tel Aviv's Habima Square to watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy deliver a Zoom address to the Knesset, March 20, 2022. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Thousands gather at Tel Aviv's Habima Square to watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy deliver a Zoom address to the Knesset, March 20, 2022. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Maxim D. Shrayer
Maxim D. Shrayer

As Passover 2022 approached, many Jews, especially the members of the large ex-Soviet and post-Soviet Jewish communities in North America, Israel and Germany, drew parallels between the war in Ukraine and the story of deliverance, with Putin playing the role of a latter-day Pharaoh. However theologically or historically imprecise, such parallels were emotionally genuine while also reflecting a particular wartime zeitgeist, through which myth, folklore and historical memory form the texture of the Jewish imagination.

Both Passover and Easter are, of course, moveable religious celebrations, their dates determined by ponderous calculations based, respectively, on the solar and lunar calendars. Some years Passover precedes Easter in Western Christianity, while in other years Easter happens earlier than Passover. (In Eastern Christianity, Easter occurs after Passover.) While Passover always begins on the fifteenth day of the month of Nissan on the Hebrew calendar (usually March or April), the first seder does not always fall on Erev Shabbat.

When Good Friday coincides with the first Passover seder—and Passover overlaps with Easter—this connection animates Jewish-Christian relations with special significance. In 2022, Passover started on April 15, Western Christians celebrated Easter on April 17, and Eastern Christians celebrated Easter on April 24. Passover and Easter will not align this way again until 2029.

However, what makes the 2022 Paschal season particularly remarkable is that this spring, in a rare conjunction that occurs only about every 30 years, all three Abrahamic religions share a week of religious celebrations. In 2022 the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims celebrate the creation of the Quran, began on the evening of Saturday, April 1 and had its second Friday at the same time with both the first seder and the Western Christian Good Friday.

Thoughts about this religious confluence filled me, a longtime Jewish student of interfaith dialogue, with hope renewed as I celebrated Pesach and enjoyed a quiet weekend at Cape Cod.

On the afternoon of Monday, April 18, I was catching up on work after three days of family time, garden work and a partial internet detox. In a quick succession, three news items flashed across my desktop. First I learned of hundreds of anti-Semitic leaflets left on the doorstops of homes in the Los Angeles area in the early hours of Saturday, April 16, the morning after the first seder. Printed in caps at the top of the leaflets was the sentence “Every Single Aspect of the Ukraine-Russia War Is Jewish.”

The leaflets’ provenance has been linked to a notorious anti-Semitic group. Printed left of the sentence at the top of the leaflet was a Star of David with the word “Jude” inside—just like the ones the Nazis forced the Jews to wear on their clothes; to the right of the sentence were a five-point star and a hammer and sickle, presumably representing Communism and the Soviet Union. At the center of the leaflets, facing each other, were photos of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who is not Jewish. In the photos both Zelenskyy and Putin wear kippot. Printed below the leaders’ photographs are lists of Ukrainian and Russian politicians, all of whom are labeled with small Stars of David, which is supposed to indicate their Jewish origins or connections.

Facts do not matter to the grotesquely freakish imagination that draws inspiration from both the legacy of Christian Judeophobia and the explosions of modern, political, racialized Jew-hatred of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” “The International Jew” and “Mein Kampf” variety. I will not waste the readers’ time on annotating the list of politicians printed on the leaflets. Instead, I will point out that like in many other cases of such blatantly anti-Semitic propaganda disseminated by hate groups, the leaflets peddle the old canard of Judeo-Bolshevism and, more broadly speaking, the tried and false allegations of an international Jewish conspiracy.

By seeking to pin the war in Ukraine on the Jews, such propaganda also makes use of the political, economic and religious conspiracy theories to have surfaced since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. The leaflets thus bring to mind the history of blaming wars, revolutions and disasters on Jews, a history most fully and violently betokened by the Nazi rhetoric on the Jewish question.

In the leaflets’ demented illogic, Zelensky as an apparent Jew conspires with Putin the Jewish puppet to unleash a bloody war that somehow helps Jews control the world. Such reptilian theories, mostly wallowing in the dirt of ultra-nationalist Russian media spaces but occasionally surfacing in the mainstream media both within and without Russia, mash the Jewish origins of Ukraine’s president and of Ukraine’s minister of defense, the position of Jewish oligarchs both in Russia and Ukraine and Israel’s involvement in the conflict into a slimy ball of lies, absurd claims and QAnonian explanations. Who would believe the nonsensical assertion that Jews and Israel would stand to benefit from a war between Russia and Ukraine?

The sheer, rancorous idiocy of the message is probably the reason why the appearance of the anti-Semitic leaflets alleging the Jewish nature of the war in Ukraine has not received much coverage in the national news—this and the actual events of the war. The news that on April 18 Russia launched a new offensive in Ukraine dominated the front pages and news hours. Even though the offensive has become known as “the battle of Donbas,” Russia’s troops are seeking to gain control of a broad swath of territory in Ukraine’s east, southeast and south, including its industrial heartland and what remains of the unconquered Ukrainian coast of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, from Kharkiv down to Donetsk and Mariupol and possibly (I say this with horror and trepidation) all the way to Odessa.

The start of the second phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine—both the movement of ground troops in the east and the massive artillery and air bombardment of other regions, most notably Lviv, located in the Western part of the country only 40 miles from the border with Poland, a NATO member—overshadowed an attack on Israel which would have otherwise received more coverage. On April 18, Gaza terrorists fired a rocket into Israel, which the Iron Dome defense system successfully intercepted. Occurring just a little less than a year since the start of the May 2021 conflict in Israel, when scores of rockets were fired from Gaza by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the latest hostility came amid escalating Arab-Israeli tensions in Jerusalem. I hope I am terribly wrong here, but this feels like the beginning of a new round of confrontations and rocket-launchings.

Why the timing of this particular strike by the sworn enemies of Israel? By shifting the attention away from Israel, the war in Ukraine has emboldened the Palestinian extremists. At the same time, the war has reignited Jewish repatriation to Israel from both Russia (and, concomitantly, its close ally Belarus) and Ukraine, while also creating an influx of refugees into Israel. Finally—and I would not put this past Putin and his native KGB culture—renewed tensions in Gaza have the potential to divert Israel from getting more involved in supporting Ukraine.

To summarize: Last Monday, as the world resumed its daily tasks following a weekend of triple religious celebrations, Russia’s new offensive deafened out both a local outburst of anti-Semitic hate in Los Angeles and a rocket strike from Gaza into Israel. Both the new Russian offensive and the rocket strike from Gaza started on the Western Christian Easter Monday, six days before Eastern Christian Easter, three days into Passover and over two weeks into Ramadan. While the offensive and the rocket firing are not causally connected in a clear or direct sense, a measure of intersectional thinking offers some keys to understanding the historical moment.

There is, of course, a long history of linking Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious dates and tropes with the timing, meaning and significance of historical violence and wars. This is hardly surprising, and I probably would not have brought it up were it not for the conspicuous timing of the April 18 Russian offensive in Ukraine and the rocket strike against Israel. Many times, the holiday of Easter has either occasioned or lent its name to outbursts of anti-Jewish violence and commencements of military operations. Think, for instance, of the Easter 1389 Pogrom in Prague, of the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom, or of the so-called 1940 Easter Pogroms in Poland. Recall, for example, the spring 1972 offensive in Vietnam, often called the Easter Offensive. But we should also not forget that in Egyptian (shall we say, revisionist?) historiography, the 1973 Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli War is celebrated as the Ramadan War.

Like most totalitarian leaders who are no longer fighting for the legacy of their rule but for their own survival, Putin badly needs a measure of military success that his propaganda machine will then spin into a full-blown victory. In the barrage of anti-Ukrainian ideological warfare that Putin’s regime employs to brainwash its people into Orwellian submission, the Russian Orthodox Church has been given a distinct, predictable (and particularly sickening) role as the anointer of Russia’s war against Ukraine. I do not know to what extent the religious timing played a part in the decision by Putin and his henchmen to launch the 2022 Easter Offensive in Eastern Ukraine. However, there is no doubt that another date looms large ahead of Putin’s advancing troops. Historical rather than religious, this date is cloaked with the mythology of Holy Russia as the savior of the world. I am thinking of May 9, the Soviet—and Russian—Victory Day.

As a student of the Second World War and the Shoah in the Soviet Union, I cannot resist fleshing out one more historical parallel. The late April 2022 situation in the Ukrainian war theater invites a comparison to the state of affairs on the Eastern Front in the spring of 1942—almost exactly 80 years later. After an attempted blitzkrieg of late February 2022, Russia’s troops failed to take Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Like Nazi Germany following its defeat at Moscow in December 1941, Putin’s Russia has regrouped and refocused the direction of its main strike. And like Hitler’s troops in the late spring of 1942, Putin’s troops have concentrated their new offensive in the east and southeast (except they are moving not eastward but westward).

The late spring 1942 Nazi offensive led to their retaking of Eastern Crimea, to the Soviet defeat at Kharkiv and to the rapid advances across the Don toward the Volga and Caucasus. It was then that the very survival of the Soviet Union was at stake, and it was not until the end of 1942 that the Nazi armies were finally stopped and defeated at Stalingrad.

What will be the Stalingrad of this war? Kharkiv? Dnipro? Zaporizhzhia? It is hard to tell. But I am certain that the bleeding, devastated Ukraine will win her Patriotic War. And I only hesitate a little when I paraphrase the famous Soviet slogan of WWII: “Ukraine’s cause is just. Victory will be hers.”

This, finally, brings me to the question of what we as the Jewish community and as individual Jews can do to help Ukraine repel Putin’s troops and achieve her victory. While I am still in favor of Israel’s guarded neutrality coupled with tacit strategic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, I believe that American and Canadian Jews could do more to convince our leaders and elected officials to engage a different kind of assistance. While I am well aware of the many risks of NATO’s military involvement, I also wonder if this is not the time to push hard for a no-fly zone. And I certainly believe that the United States and the NATO alliance are not doing enough for Ukraine.

And so I say to you, Jewish-American supporters of Ukraine: Call your congresswomen and congressmen, call your senators. Ask your non-Jewish friends and neighbors to do the same. The time to act is now, during this Passover Offensive—as Ukraine’s destiny hangs in the balance. Back on March 16 I called the local office of Representative Jacob Daniel Auchincloss of Massachusetts’s 4th Congressional District, for whom I voted in the last congressional election. Born to a Jewish mother and raised Jewish, Congressman Auchincloss is an ex-Marine and a first-term congressman. I will not wait for another week to pass before making another call to ask my congressman to do his part in supporting Ukraine.

Maxim D. Shrayer is an author and a professor at Boston College. His recent books include “Voices of Jewish-Russian Literature” and “A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas.” Shrayer’s newest book is “Of Politics and Pandemics.”

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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