Russia Just Hit a Holocaust Memorial in Ukraine. Israel Doesn't Want to Talk About It

Ukrainian calls for the Israeli government to condemn apparent attacks on Jewish sites is as yet going unanswered. Is it due to realpolitik, fear of Moscow, or a credibility problem in Kyiv?

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
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The Drobytsky Yar memorial menorah on the outskirts of Kharkiv, pictured a day after Russian shelling on Saturday.
The Drobytsky Yar memorial menorah on the outskirts of Kharkiv, pictured a day after Russian shelling on Saturday. Credit: SERGEY BOBOK - AFP
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

On Saturday afternoon, Russian forces shelled the Drobytsky Yar memorial complex on the outskirts of Kharkiv. Pictures seemed to show that the attack left a memorial menorah at the site, where between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis in December 1941, a twisted and blackened wreck.

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign affairs minister, tweeted out a picture of the damaged menorah, asking: “Why Russia keeps attacking Holocaust Memorials in Ukraine? I expect Israel to strongly condemn this barbarism.”

But except for a statement by Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky, official Israel has remained silent on the issue. The following day, during separate appearances with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said they stood “firm with the people of Ukraine.” However, they failed to mention Saturday’s attack, as well as other strikes on Jewish targets in the eastern Ukrainian city.

Asked about the silence, a spokesman for the Diaspora Affairs Ministry said his office was “not commenting on that incident,” while the Foreign Ministry replied that it had not issued a statement about the Drobytsky Yar strike nor responded to Russia’s claim that it was forced to invade Ukraine in order to denazify the former Soviet republic.

And while Bennett criticized Zelenskyy’s recent comparison of Russian wartime actions to Nazi war crimes, he has refrained from making any comments regarding Russian rhetoric and has taken great pains not to upset Moscow.

‘Two realities’

Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, both sides have compared their opponents to Nazis and accused them of committing genocide. On the morning his forces first entered Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that “the purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime.”

In response, Zelenskyy has accused Russian forces of carrying out a “genocide of the Ukrainian people” and stated that Moscow is plotting a “final solution” for his country.

Since the beginning of the war, artillery and missile strikes have destroyed or damaged multiple Jewish sites across Kharkiv as Russian forces attempted to wrest control of the eastern Ukrainian city from government forces.

These sites include the local Hillel house, the Or Avner Jewish day school, the Chabad synagogue and the dormitory of a yeshiva. Last week, a 96-year-old, non-Jewish, Holocaust survivor was killed when a Russian bomb hit his apartment block.

“The sad part, I think, is that there are two realities,” said Kharkiv Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, who recently escaped to Israel. “There’s the reality that is happening in Ukraine, especially in Kharkiv, and the suffering of the people over there. And then there’s the way the Israeli government portrays [it] or a lack of comments on what is going on over there.”

While Israeli government representatives were unwilling to discuss the matter on the record, a former Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he believed Zelenskyy’s increasingly strident rhetoric about the return of Nazism has given Jerusalem pause when thinking about how to respond to events there.

An inscription at the Drobytsky Yar memorial on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a day after Saturday's shelling attack hit the site. Credit: SERGEY BOBOK - AFP

The attack on Drobytsky Yar “didn’t make headlines here. I haven’t seen anything in the Hebrew media and I don’t think it has any traction with the public, so they won’t say anything,” he said. He noted that while Lapid condemned the March 1 strike on a television transmitter tower adjacent to the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial site, subsequent reports indicating that the memorial was undamaged undermined Ukrainian credibility in the eyes of Israel.

“It didn’t happen as [Zelenskyy] said it did, so I think that’s why people are more careful. Ukrainian exaggeration is detrimental to their credibility when it comes to Jewish sites,” the former ministry official said. “They’ve lost credibility by crying wolf.”

On Saturday evening, Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Kornichuk said, without providing any proof, that Russian forces had damaged “hundreds of historical Jewish places … all over the country.” He added that “the ones coming to Ukraine, to denazify Ukraine, are actually the Nazis themselves.”

Ksenia Svetlova, a former Israeli lawmaker who is in touch with members of the Ukrainian Jewish community, expressed annoyance at Israel’s stance throughout the war.

“Russia is killing Jews at this very second [in Ukraine], so what’s the deal? Why is nobody upset about it and reacting to it?” she asked. “There’s always this explanation that we have to play nice with Russia to protect Jews – but Jews are dying now,” she added.

Dan Meridor, a former cabinet minister who now serves as president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, echoed Svetlova’s comments, saying that if he were currently in the government, he would have handled things very differently.

A Jewish state founded by refugees from antisemitism and genocide “should be on the side of those who seek refuge,” he said. He stressed that condemning attacks on Ukrainian civilians was unlikely to undermine security coordination with Russian forces in Syria, which is in Moscow’s interest, he argued.

“We are hearing no condemnation of the barbaric bombing of Mariupol, where hundreds of people were killed,” one Ukrainian official told Haaretz, noting that the local embassy had issued “condemnations of every single terrorist attack” against Israeli civilians.

However, while many in Ukraine – both Jewish and non-Jewish – have expressed anger at Jerusalem’s approach to the conflict, Ukrainian Jewish Committee Director Eduard Dolinsky said he did not believe it necessary for Israeli officials to specifically mention Jewish sites.

“The Israeli prime minister is condemning the aggression and war – and that means, of course, that Israel is condemning the attacks on the Jewish sites,” he said.

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