Opinion |

We Jews Know Where Putin’s Dehumanizing Language on Ukraine Leads

Putin is preparing the ground to commit atrocities in Ukraine. Here in Kyiv, I am waiting for the Russian military invasion, and for Israel to choose the right side of history

Josef Zissels
Josef Zissels
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"Get out of Ukraine": A message to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a pro-Ukraine protest outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel
"Get out of Ukraine": A message to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a pro-Ukraine protest outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, IsraelCredit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty
Josef Zissels
Josef Zissels

Kyiv, Ukraine – I am a Ukrainian Jew. I am a dissident, imprisoned for speaking out for human rights during the Soviet era, who continues to oppose violence and lies in all its forms. I am also one of the 300,000 Jews who have lived in peace and security in Ukraine since the end of the Soviet Union.

Right now, I am in Kyiv. Whilst we watch the UN evacuate, and await the 40 mile convoy of heavy Russian artillery, all is calm. We are organizing financial support, food and medical supplies, ensuring our people have shelter, helping our brave defenders – and waiting.

Last week, Russian missiles hit the hallowed ground of Babyn Yar, the site where many Ukrainian citizens. including 70,000 Jews, were killed by Nazi Germany. The world watched on in shock but, as a Ukrainian Jew and dissident, it did not shock me.

The world has spent more than a decade failing to listen to Vladimir Putin, or rather refusing to hear him when he spoke – turning a deaf ear to his unambiguous intentions to reclaim control over Ukraine. He said Ukraine as a country did not exist; that Ukrainian people and culture do not exist; and that those of us who dispute these statements of Putin are fascists.

On February 26, an article published and then quickly removed by the Kremlin-controlled RIA Novosti news site, declared the "special operation," inaugurating a "new world order," was a "solution" to the "Ukraine question."

A Ukrainian soldier and a territorial army officer help a family crossing the Irpin River in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine this weekend fleeing Russia's bombardmentCredit: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

The Jewish people are all too aware of how language can employed to "other" an ethnic or religious group, de-humanize them and prepare the ground for actions that justify their destruction. Putin’s rhetoric underpins a process that Stanford philosopher Albert Bandura calls "moral modification" – the narrowing of our moral aperture that enables people to commit atrocities, war crimes, and genocide.

We should be in no doubt that war crimes by the Russian military in Ukraine are taking place in ever greater numbers. Cruise missiles have been fired at hospitals, kindergartens and homes; Russian soldiers have disguised themselves as civilians or members of the Ukrainian army to launch attacks on ordinary people; and medical personnel who come to help the wounded have been shelled.

Ukraine was once home to the second-largest Jewish population of Europe. The pogroms of the later 19th and early 20th century prompted a huge emigration, mostly to North America and the U.K., with tens of thousands arriving in the Middle East in the first and second aliyah. Half of those who remained in Ukraine were obliterated: It is now estimated that a quarter of the victims of the Holocaust were Ukrainian Jews.

Putin is using the "de-nazification" of Ukraine as a pretext for the invasion. Russian audiences are being bombarded with the narrative that the Ukraine is a Nazi state – yet, in its 30 years of independence, not one antisemitic statement has ever been made in the Ukrainian parliament; Ukraine is led by a president and defense minister with Jewish roots; I know many Israelis who live and do business in Ukraine.

Firefighters hose down a burning building after Russian bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, last week Credit: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

The real reason Putin is invading because the people of Ukraine dared to choose freedom and democracy. In 2004 and again in 2014 the people of Ukraine rose up against a kleptocratic post-Soviet elite that was supported and protected by Russia.

Despite huge challenges, Ukrainians built a society from the bottom up. Ordinary people, entrepreneurs, civil society groups and artists created a dynamic, confident, and forward-looking country that strove to integrate with the democratic community of nations. And that is exactly what Putin fears above all else.

The people of Israel know all too well how it feels to be a small democratic state, with large autocratic neighbours close by that deny your right to exist, that wish to see your country wiped off the map and are willing to use force to achieve it. They know that it takes courage and commitment, but also friends and allies to survive against the odds.

Yet Israel has remained largely silent, hiding behind vague statements from Naftali Bennett wishing peace on the region. Last week’s vote to condemn Russia’s action at the UN General Assembly and comments from its Deputy Ambassador to the UN are a step in the right direction, but still do not unequivocally condemn Moscow’s actions and make clear that it is to blame.

A young girl holds a placard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel last weekendCredit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Moreover, Israel is failing to support appropriate sanctions and to provide military aid: it has refused to provide weapons or UAV electronic components to Ukraine since Russia illegally annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas in 2014; blocked the transfer of the Iron Dome system to help Ukraine’s beleaguered citizens; and its condemnation of the bombing of Babyn Yar did not even mention Russia by name.

There is much more that Israel and the rest of the international community can do. I am one of 100 civil society representatives who have come together to forge the #KyivDeclaration, endorsed by former world leaders including Carl Bildt, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and Alexander Stubb.

The Declaration calls for six key demands from the international community – including forming safe zones where civilians can be protected from bombs and missiles; providing immediate military aid including anti-tank and aircraft systems; and support recording war crimes so one day Putin and his henchmen can be held to justice in a court of law.

The #KyivDeclaration has six key demands from the international community from safe zones for civilians, military aid to recording war crimes so Putin and his henchmen can be held accountableCredit: Kyiv Declaration

Russia’s invasion has once again divided the world into two camps: those who are willing to stand for democracy and freedom and the authoritarians who believe that might makes right. I know Israel will choose to be on the right side of history.

Josef Zissels is a human rights activist and dissident. He was a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki group, involved in the samizdat movement and a former political prisoner. He is the co-president of Vaad Ukraine (the umbrella association of Ukraine's Jewish organizations and communities) and Vice-President of the World Jewish Congress

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