Victory Day in Israel: A New Kind of Russia-Ukraine War

The celebration in Israel, where it's a holiday too, is being toned down this year because of Putin's invasion, but some veterans don't understand why

Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Semion Livshitz, left, and David Meltzer in Haifa. Livshitz ran away from home at 12 to fight the Nazis.
Semion Livshitz, left, and David Meltzer in Haifa. Livshitz ran away from home at 12 to fight the Nazis. Credit: Rami Shllush
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

May 9, the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, became an official holiday in Israel five years ago. The parades of veterans, once scoffed at by Israelis, have become a beloved tradition drawing thousands. But not this year; Victory Day is the latest casualty of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The veterans’ groups and the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, which is in charge of the celebrations Monday, are holding a modest ceremony on Mount Herzl near the Red Army fighters’ memorial. But this year no ambassadors from post-Soviet countries have been invited.

The diplomatic solution: During the ceremony on Mount Herzl, the Russian ambassador will be elsewhere in Jerusalem, in Sacher Park, laying a wreath at the memorial to the victims of the siege of Leningrad.

In cities around the country, small wreath-laying ceremonies will be held (some have been moved to different dates), along with concerts in honor of the veterans. The main architect of this creative solution is Avraham Grinzaid, the head of the association of Israeli World War II veterans. It’s a bit disappointing.

“What a plan we prepared in January for May 9. I thought: This is the last time I’ll see it,” says Grinzaid, 96, who has been leading the ceremonies for 18 years.

In addition to veterans, on hand will be former ghetto prisoners, survivors of the siege of Leningrad, veterans’ widows and displaced persons from World War II.

A poster in Rishon Letzion showing ruins in Kharkiv during World War II and the current war. Credit: Ulyana Dryuchkova

Grinzaid joined the Red Army in 1943 at age 17. He was a rearguard soldier and ended the war in Prague. After the fighting, he strove to commemorate the Red Army’s Jewish soldiers – first in the Soviet Union, where he fought against the image of the Jews as “fighting in Tashkent,” meaning far from the front and where they supposedly had been evacuated. He immigrated to Israel in 1990.

He says his mission is “to illuminate and remember the heroism of 1.5 million Jews who fought the Nazis, and to recall the 300,000 who fell in World War II.” As he puts it, “the victory in 1945 came with tears in our eyes, but it’s a victory. If it weren’t for the victory in 1945, who knows where we would be today. That victory led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.”

May 9 became an official holiday after a three-year struggle, Grinzaid notes. “Why May 9 and not May 8, like the rest of the world? Because 47,000 of us veterans and our families came here, and we got used to marking May 9,” he says.

But when Russia invaded Ukraine, the veterans found themselves in a quandary. “I condemn the war; I declared this openly. When it started, I took off my uniform with the medals and said I wouldn’t wear them until the war was over. We, the grandparents who liberated the country from the fascists, and our grandchildren are shooting at each other,” Grinzaid says.

“But then, before Victory Day, I wrote: ‘Guys, put on your medals and go out on the streets.’ I thought the war would be over within a month, but now I see it will continue until the end of the year.”

Grinzaid says a meeting between veterans and officials from the Aliyah and Integration Ministry made him realize that parades would lead to conflict. “People would come with flags – Russian, Ukrainian – and tear up each other’s flags. Do we, the veterans, have to see this?”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on a poster in Rishon Letzion.Credit: Ulyana Dryuchkova

Not all veterans agree. Semion Livshitz ran away from home at age 12 to fight the Nazis after he found out that his father had been killed at the front. He wound up taking part in the first Victory Day parade in 1945. I met him and two members of the veterans’ association at their Haifa branch.

“I think this is an insult to the memory of the fighters,” Livshitz says. “After all, it was the Soviet Union that fought; these were completely different countries. It was a completely different war. Ukraine, Belarus, Russia – they all fought together.”

The head of the Haifa branch, David Meltzer, who as a child was a prisoner in the Mogilev-Podolsky (Mohyliv-Podilskyi) ghetto in Ukraine, is more cautious. “Clearly every veteran wants to march in the streets of Haifa, as has been done throughout the years,” he says. “But because there is such a situation, I think it’s definitely possible to forgo [the parade].” But he adds with a smile: “I’ll certainly have a drink that day.”

Others want more. Telegram and WhatsApp groups of pro-Russian activists in Israel have been roiling for a few weeks now. Both small and large events have been discussed, planned, canceled and planned again. Stormy debates have been held over when to visit the victory memorial in Netanya, which was put up with Russia’s blessing when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister. And it was inaugurated by Vladimir Putin.

As it seems now, some of the pro-Russian activists will come to the Russian Embassy’s wreath-laying event around noon Monday, and some plan to take part in a protest at the site in the afternoon. In addition, the pro-Russian activists in the groups Eternal Battalion and Bridge to Memory plan to hold a parade in Haifa.

Boris Nevler is a leader of Bridge to Memory, whose motto is “defend history, defend the future” and is cooperating with the Russian Embassy and the Russian government organization that oversees cooperation between Russia and the Russian diaspora.

An invitation to an event in Tel Aviv honoring the survivors of World War II and the current war. Credit: Ulyana Dryuchkova

He said by phone that the organization, which was founded two years ago, seeks “to protect the historical memory of World War II and what unites the Soviet and Russian people, the shared history of the Jews and the Russians among the peoples of the Soviet Union.”

According to Nevler, the Russian people’s key role in the victory over the Nazis is underappreciated in Israel. So this year, with parades canceled, the organization decided to act. “Some of the veterans are no longer alive, but we’re their children and grandchildren,” he says.

“The veterans and the municipalities can’t make this decision alone. It’s disrespectful to us. I don’t understand why events outside our country should influence what happens here. Our citizens, who came are, are the successors of that victory; this event is for them. It’s a state holiday in Israel. What’s the connection to Russia and Ukraine?

“Our Jews took part in those battles. We’re doing them an honor. The Ethiopians don’t cancel their holidays if something happens in Ethiopia, and the Moroccans don’t cancel if something happens in Morocco, and they don’t put flags on their [social media] profiles. And here they decide to take advantage of the situation to cancel this holiday.”

The group the Israeli Ukrainian Alliance is emphasizing May 8, the day the victory over the Nazis is celebrated in the West. The group says the connection can’t be broken between the memory of World War II and the current war in Ukraine.

On Sunday evening, pro-Ukrainian activists are holding a commemoration on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard for both the victims of World War II and the Ukraine war. Later in the evening, survivors of both wars will tell their stories at the Anu Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. In Rishon Letzion, the Israeli Ukrainian Alliance has had billboards put up showing photos of ruined Ukrainian cities in both wars.

In Rishon Letzion, photographs of a Kharkiv subway station during World War II and the current war.Credit: Ulyana Dryuchkova

“A country that’s an aggressor can’t dictate the rules,” says Anna Zharova, the group’s CEO. “May 9 has become an important tool of Russian propaganda and the concept of the Russian world. In Israel, we see the implications of this propaganda.”

When Zharova, who grew up in the now-occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson, says it’s all right not to celebrate the May 9 date that everyone knew in the Soviet Union.

“I remember May 9, I remember how we’d go out on that day,” she says. “My grandfather fought. I remember how I’d wait for the fireworks of May 9, I remember the marathon of war films I would watch every year and cry. I grew up on this. After I came to Israel, I saw the change in the rhetoric of May 9 and how it became alienating for people.”

Zharova says her group had long discussions on the date for holding alternative events and on whether the pro-Ukrainian activists should show up at events organized by pro-Russian activists.

“We want to avoid a picture of conflict and provocations that would certainly happen,” she says. “Our goal is to change the attitude to this date.”

And what do people think who experienced both World War II and the current war? The veterans’ organizations disagree.

Livshitz, Meltzer and Liliana Weiner, who was born as her mother fled a ghetto in the Mykolaiv area of Ukraine during World War II.Credit: Rami Shllush

Meltzer, Livshitz and their friend Liliana Weiner, who was born as her mother fled a ghetto in the Mykolaiv area of Ukraine, argue about the antisemitism that plagued the Soviet Union, particularly in Ukraine. Liliana says she was named after her two grandmothers who were killed by Ukrainians.

“Everything is in dispute,” she says. “One thing is clear: This war is useless, it’s a war of ambitions on both sides. And Ukraine is miserable; it’s suffering so much and only now are the European countries meeting it halfway.”

Grinzaid feels differently. “There’s a pretext and a reason for every war. The pretext is that there’s fascism [in Ukraine]; antisemitism, nationalists, Banderites,” he says, referring to a far-right Ukrainian leader who took part in the Holocaust.

“I agree, it’s true. But in other countries there’s no antisemitism? I don’t see that in America there’s less antisemitism than in Russia. And the reason for the war I still don’t understand. And I think that those who started the war don’t know the reason either.”

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