Opinion |

We Jews of Ukraine Ask: Why Is Israel Abandoning Our Country?

We are facing a humanitarian catastrophe for Ukraine and for our community, but Israel is failing to stand up for us. The Talmud teaches: Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire. It’s not too late for Israel to remember it

Ilya Bezruchko
Ilya Bezruchko
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Anti-Putin poster on a traffic light as pro-Ukraine demonstrators protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in London
Anti-Putin poster on a traffic light as pro-Ukraine demonstrators protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in front of the Russian Embassy in London Credit: AP Photo/Alastair Grant
Ilya Bezruchko
Ilya Bezruchko

Israel takes great pride in its moral responsibility towards Jews all over the world, an ethos of solidarity that it has acted on with care and gravity since the Jewish state’s founding.

But something is going wrong, and it’s going wrong in relation to Ukraine. Israel’s government is not demonstrating enough courage or commitment to protect the Jews of Ukraine.

I grew in the vibrant Jewish community of Konotop in north-eastern Ukraine. During his work for the Jewish Agency for Israel in the early 1990s, my grandfather worked with Israelis who participated in humanitarian operations all over the world, wherever Jews were in need, such as during the civil war in Tajikistan in the 1990s. I became an active member of a Jewish youth movement.

One of the key lessons I would teach my chanichim, the young people in my care, was that the Jewish state was unique in the world in that it would go to any lengths, from the barely possible to the impossible, to aid and assist its coreligionists in their hour of need.

This week, Konotop was surrounded by Russian forces who threaten to raze the city to the ground if it didn’t surrender. But in Israel, the top echelons of government can barely bring themselves to call out Russia by name for its war of aggression. Israeli TV hosts commentators who justify the Russian terrorists who fire Grad rockets at the Jewish communities of Donetsk, Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernigov, the invaders who bomb Kyiv and Kharkiv, the occupiers of Kherson.

From the viewpoint of Ukrainian Jews, Israel’s insufficient engagement with their suffering is both disillusioning and ineffective. From where we stand, under Russian bombardment, the State of Israel seems more interested in public relations than in real action to help us and to help our country.

The State of Israel can definitely should do more. I believe there are three key ways for Israel to help the Jews of Ukraine – and each one starts from the recognition that because the Jewish community is an integral part of Ukrainian society, Israel must direct its support to Ukraine and its citizens as a whole.

1. Humanitarian: The home front, in which Israel has unparalleled experience.

Home front civil defenders help an old woman crossing a bridge destroyed by artillery as she tries to flee Russia's bombardment ofKyiv, Ukraine this weekCredit: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

  • Manage the logistics of organizing refugee camps in Western Ukraine and deployment of field hospitals
  • Creation of humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of people from areas under heavy shelling (Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Mariupol, Kyiv): currently, this is being done very poorly, often by religious communities with no physical protection
  • Assistance for military hospitals from doctors with combat experience

2. Diplomatic: Israel must step up and explicitly back Ukraine and sanction Russia

Ukrainian and Israeli flags at a memorial event at Babyn Yar in Ukraine's capital Kyiv where in 1941 Nazis massacred 33,000 Jews in 48 hours. Russia dropped a bomb near the site this week Credit: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

  • Follow on from its UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion, Israel’s leaders must publicly condemn Putin’s war
  • Join the West’s sanctions against Russian oligarchs close to Putin who have economic interests and representatives in Israel
  • Cancel all military contracts with Russian subcontractors
  • Ban Israeli military and IT companies from aiding the Russian war machine, including a ban on cooperating with any Russian business in the sphere of cyber security, software development and military technology

3. Military: Deliver Ukraine defensive equipment and weapons

A car driving along a road is visible from a Ukrainian army position through the viewfinder of a Dragunov sniper rifle in the northern part of Kyiv, Ukraine this week Credit: AP Photo/Ricard Garcia Vilanova

  • Clear out the IDF’s warehouses of equipment that is no longer is current use and transfer it to Ukraine: Helmets, vests, uniforms, military radios, particularly for the use of home front civil defenders, who are in desperate need
  • Israeli anti-rocket radar: Identifies Russian rockets trajectories and which could save lives
  • Lethal weapons: Galil rifles, operational but no longer IDF current issue; AR15 rifles, Spike – an Israeli fire-and-forget anti-tank guided missile; MATADOR – a portable, disposable anti-armor weapon system, as well as medical kits for soldiers
  • Organize a group of Shaldag special unit commandos to evacuate Jewish refugees from the most dangerous areas of Ukraine.

My native town is now under Russian fire, together with so many other towns and cities in Ukraine. Many members of the Konotop Jewish community, like elsewhere others in Ukraine, are Holocaust survivors. Who will take care of them? Who will be their voice? Who in Israel will call out, in a clear voice, who is responsible for their repeated suffering?

As a Ukrainian Jew, as a member of the Jewish people, I ask Jews all over the world to become the voices of those who cannot speak for themselves. I ask you to become the advocates of the elderly and children who seek shelter in damp basements from unrelenting Russian bombing, and demand Israel call Russia to account.

We speak all the time about "Never again," but what do words mean when Russia defiles the hundred thousand dead of Babyn Yar and Israel still stands aside from confronting them, and sidesteps what it has always declared it an unbreakable duty towards Jews in need?

We in Ukraine are in need now: we are witnesses to a moral and humanitarian catastrophe here. The Talmud tells us: Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire. It’s not too late for Israel to remember it.

Ilya Bezruchko is the CEO of the Kyiv co-working network BeeWorking, a native of Konotop, Ukraine who lives in Kyiv and is a member of its Jewish community

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