I never met my wife’s grandmother, Luba, but she is apparently her double. Born just outside Lviv into a wealthy family, she was 18 when the Nazis invaded in 1941. Within months, both of Luba’s parents had been rounded up and murdered by German death squads and their Ukrainian ultra-nationalist lackies. Luba survived the occupation by passing herself off as a Christian maid in a grand house. She hid her 12-year old brother in a nearby clock tower, secretly taking him food.
I have no idea how someone can have that much courage and emotional wherewithal at such a tender age. Miraculously, both survived. The Red Army finally liberated the city, in 1944, after which Luba made aliya to Israel where she became a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. She was a formidable woman.
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Putin also imagines himself a liberator, his soldiers being some sort of new Red Army freeing Ukraine from latter day Nazis. For years, Russian state-controlled media has repeatedly cast the Ukrainians as neo-Nazis, never fully freed from the wickedness of anti-Semitism. “Mojem povtorit” the Russians say. We can do it again. We can defeat Nazism again.
Putin wants to recruit Jewish suffering — the suffering of my wife’s family, among millions of others — as some sort of ghastly pretext for his wicked war on the Ukrainian people.
Yes, there is a small far-Right element to Ukrainian politics. But the same could be said of modern-day Poland and Hungary, even in France or Germany. And I won’t dignify Putin’s narrative of liberation by arguing with it. You don’t rain down bombs upon innocent civilians if you want to liberate them. And you don’t bomb the holocaust memorial site at Babi Yar if you are intent on freeing the country from “Nazis”. And let’s not forget that the current and elected president of Ukraine is Jewish.
What is particularly disappointing, however, is that various Israeli leaders have allowed themselves to be manipulated in the service of Putin’s dangerous historical revisionism. In 2018, the then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood next to Putin in Moscow’s Red Square, watching Russian tanks roll past, commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the Russian victory over the Nazis.
It helps Putin’s anti-Nazi narrative to be filmed being close to Israeli prime ministers, so it is no coincidence that one of the only world leaders to have met Putin over the past two weeks of the war has been the new Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett. Israel may have voted to condemn the Russian invasion at the United Nations, but you can be pretty sure that all Russian TV will show is the Russian and Israeli leaders shaking hands and smiling at each other. The message is clear: the Jews approve of what we are doing. But both Netanyahu and Bennett were always being played.
They probably knew it too. But both had domestic reasons for being there. First, Israeli voters like to see their leaders fraternising with big players on the world stage, and 1.2 million of them are originally from Russia. Also Israel, like London, is the home to several serious Russian oligarchs, such as Roman Abramovich, with billions invested. But most important is the fact that Russia has been an important ally in the fight against Isis in Syria —and Israeli politicians hope that Russia may even be persuaded to block any new nuclear deal that the Americans want to revive with Iran.
It is because of the politics of the Middle East that Israeli politicians are prepared to stand grinning beside Putin. “It is necessary to ensure the continued security coordination between the Russian army and the Israel Defence Forces,” Netanyahu said, before he flew out to admire Putin’s tanks. Which is why, when the Russians invaded Crimea in 2014, the Israelis said nothing. So despite the fact that Ukraine was for centuries the absolute centre of world Judaism (which is why, for the ultra-Orthodox especially, it contains a number of important pilgrimage sites – such as the birthplace of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov), modern Jews don’t really see this part of the world as particularly important. The Pale of Settlement is the old Jewish world; Israel the new one. The Russian invasion is not our fight.
But it should be. Not only for obvious humanitarian reasons. But also, as a recent editorial in the Israeli liberal newspaper Haaretz rightly claimed: “Putin’s attempt to liken the invading Russian army to the Red Army that liberated East Europe and the extermination camps from Nazi Germany borders on Holocaust denial.” To requisition the mass murder of Jews as justification for the present invasion of Ukraine is a perversion of history so vast that it threatens to undermine the very purpose for which the state of Israel was established.
Last week, my two youngest children received their Israeli passports in the post. I felt a sense of relief that I find difficult to explain. “Home is the place where they have to let you in,” as Rabbi Sacks once explained it to me. His point was that whatever happens in the world, having an Israeli passport guarantees Jews a safe place if ever they need it. I want this option for my boys. Their great great grandparents, Luba’s Mum and Dad, were murdered by genocidal Nazis in Lviv. They are remembered at Yad Vashem in the Hall of Names alongside so many others whose blood was spilt in Ukraine.
The memory of their deaths is profoundly disrespected by Putin’s cynical exploitation. Israeli leaders have allowed themselves to become stooges in some sordid Russian conspiracy where they are forced to play act the narratives of the second world war for a gullible TV audience. And Putin has taken the memories of dead Jews and used them as an excuse to conduct a war of aggression against a civilian population and to target their Jewish leader for assassination.
Uncovering and maintaining the truth of what happened during the holocaust is quite properly a modern Jewish commandment — both a sacred and a secular mitzvah. “Though shalt not grant Hitler posthumous victories”, was how Emil Fackenheim described it. Putin’s manipulation of the history of the Jews to deliver a patently fraudulent casus belli is a lie that must be kept a million miles away from the story of the Jewish people during the holocaust. Russian propaganda is an insult to their memory.
Once again in Europe millions of people are on the move, terrified families, women and children fleeing violent men in uniforms, elderly people hiding in freezing basements, cities reduced rubble. It looks like history, but it is today. Dressing up as liberators, the Russians have come as the aggressor. They have now become the very thing that they say they hate. And there is a special place in hell for people such as this.