Russia or Ukraine? For Some Israelis, Holocaust Memories Are Key

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Pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, Ukraine. They have kindred spirits in Israel. Credit: AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself and his government in an awkward dilemma vis-à-vis the superpower – the United States, and the no-longer-super power – Russia. Not for the first time. Now, Russia plans to invade eastern Ukraine and perhaps annex it more or less forcibly.

Some Israeli officials have been perversely calculating aloud which great power we owe more to — perversely, because every Israeli child knows the answer, in terms of military supplies, diplomatic support at the United Nations and political support around the world. They also know how much we could lose if the White House and the State Department got really mad at us.

Nevertheless, some officials defend a pro-Russia position, on grounds that are unclear and certainly unexpressed. In this respect, the present dilemma is reminiscent of the last, at the end of the 1990s, when Washington naturally expected support from client states like Israel for its anti-Serbian Balkans policy – and found the Israeli foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, much less than enthusiastic. This happened despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated urgings that Israel broadcast its support for its patron.

Sharon’s motives were unclear. They were never fully explained. Senior Foreign Ministry officials pointed to Jewish interests. He was thinking, they suggested, of the still-very-large Jewish community in Russia and its still-precarious situation.

Others suggested the Holocaust as the source of his policy making. The Serbs had been persecuted by the German SS. Many had been shot alongside Jews and Gypsies. Jewish refugees brought stories of Serbs saving Jews and standing up to Germans. (Late politician and journalist Tommy Lapid told such stories. He, like Sharon, was loath to join the NATO-led anti-Serbian front.)

In the late ‘90s, though, the Serbs under Slobodan Milosevic were unpopular worldwide. But Sharon chose to recall that “today many bad things are being done to the Albanians; not long ago bad things were done to the Serbs.”

Ukrainians were among the most infamous Nazi collaborators during the Holocaust. Jews suffering then would have found it impossible to imagine that an independent and tough Jewish state, 60 years later, would kowtow to Ukraine and turn its back on Russia. Those Jews were waiting desperately for the Red Army to rescue them. Russia under Stalin was no great benefactor of Jews. But it was the country that, paying a vast price in dead and injured, stopped Hitler.

If these are the thoughts and memories affecting the Foreign Ministry now, as they affected the foreign minister 20 years ago, Netanyahu’s dilemma is truly cruel. He is a man infused with sensitivity to history, especially Jewish history and most especially the history of the Holocaust. He has been criticized for over-invoking the Holocaust. But there can be no over-invoking for the leader of the Jewish state barely half a century after the slaughter stopped.

Ariel Sharon. A giant of Israel, and a friend of Serbia. Credit: AFP