March 24, 2022

In Israel, one of the most-shared videos in recent weeks shows a Ukrainian soldier named Alex revealing the contents of his military backpack. After waving his night-vision goggles at the camera, he pulls out a Ukrainian-language translation of Golda, a 2009 biography of Kyiv-born former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Alex, who is not Jewish, explains that he intends to take the book with him into battle. He says his nickname is Zion, “because I am a Zionist”.

Golda Meir is very popular in Ukraine these days, with a version of her saying about Israel and Arabs still circulating on social media: “If Russia lays down its weapons, there is no war. If Ukraine lays down its weapons, there is no Ukraine.” Yet in his speech to the Knesset on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy quoted a different Meir remark: “We intend to remain alive. Our neighbours want to see us dead. This is not a question that leaves much room for compromise.”

Had Zelenskyy continued in this vein, his speech may have had a warmer reception. Israelis, even those who weren’t yet born in 1973, have a sense of what it’s like to be attacked by larger armies who think their country should not exist. The Israeli army’s ethos is largely about being a smaller, scrappier and smarter force that can successfully take on those who seek to annihilate us. So when Ukrainians quote Golda Meir’s pithy remarks, it resonates in Israel, because we understand — first-hand or through our close family members — what Ukraine is experiencing.

Israelis also see parallels between Ukraine and its current situation because, as politicians in Jerusalem often say, Israel must be able to “defend itself, by itself”. While grateful for military aid from the US, Israel never expected other countries’ soldiers to take part in its wars. Many of its politicians and pundits — myself included — watched the world do next to nothing when Russia amassed its tanks on the border, concluding it was yet further proof that Israel can and must rely on itself. Plus, as Zelenskyy could have pointed out, Russia is an ally of Iran, which is bent on Israel’s destruction.

But rather than highlight this, Zelenskyy chose to focus much of his speech on the Holocaust, a rare misstep in his video tour of parliaments. Israelis, of course, know all about the horrors of the Holocaust. They know, for instance, that it was not a war between the armies of two nations. Rather, it was Nazi Germany’s attempt to erase all Jews from the earth. It was industrial-scale genocide, with gas chambers, death marches and — as at Babyn Yar in Kyiv, which Zelenskyy mentioned — the mass execution of thousands of people lined up in front of ditches.

Zelenskyy referenced Righteous Among the Nations, the more than 2,600 Ukrainians documented as having saved Jews. “Ukrainians made their choice 80 years ago,” he said. “They rescued Jews. People of Israel, now you have such a choice.” But many Israelis know the role that many more Ukrainians played in the Holocaust: roughly 80,000 Ukrainians volunteered for the SS, and the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police rounded up Jews to be massacred at Babyn Yar, Lviv, Zhitomir and elsewhere.

None of this should be relevant to a war in which Russia invaded Ukraine and is brutally bombarding its cities. Polls show that Israelis overwhelmingly support Ukraine, and that is reflected in the Knesset, as well.

Yet many Israeli politicians expressed discomfort with Zelenskyy’s speech. “It is impossible to rewrite the terrible history of the Holocaust,” Israeli Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel said. “The war is terrible but the comparison with the horrors of the Holocaust and the Final Solution is outrageous.” Likud former cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz suggested that, had the speech not been given at wartime, people “would have it bordered on Holocaust denial”.

Still, as Soviet-born American writer Alex Zeldin has observed, Zelenskyy’s speech demonstrated a very Soviet way of speaking about the Holocaust, which is focused more on Jews who fought in the Red Army during World War Two — and therefore suffered in the same way as other Soviet people — than the Nazi goal of extermination of the Jewish people. In Israel, too, many agree that we should cut him some slack, considering his desperate situation.

For instance, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who brewed a diplomatic crisis with Poland over accusations of Holocaust distortion, sent a simple message of support for Ukraine after the speech. And when Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett were asked about Zelenskyy’s comments the following day, they both started by saying they didn’t want to judge someone fighting for his country’s survival — though they did add that his comparison was inappropriate. Hendel, who was one of the first to complain about Zelenskyy’s Holocaust remarks, said the same to me: we must also remember that he is managing a crisis.

During his speech, Zelenskyy asked the Knesset the same question that he has asked every parliament in recent weeks: why can’t Israel put more economic pressure on Russia or send weapons to Ukraine?

Israel has condemned Russia at the UN and in repeated statements since. It has sent several planes full of humanitarian aid and on Tuesday became the first country to open a field hospital in Ukraine . The main reason why Israel has not done more is that it does not want to antagonise Russia, which looms over its northern border with Syria. We should also remember that, unlike Baltic states which have an actual border with Russia, Israel is not a member of Nato.

Of course, it is still reasonable for Zelenskyy to demand more from the Knesset, considering his country is fighting for its survival. But many of his specific requests didn’t make much sense. For example, Zelenskyy strongly implied that Ukraine needs Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, saying: “Everyone in Israel knows that your missile defence is the best. It is powerful. Everyone knows that your weapon is strong… And you can definitely help us protect our lives, the lives of Ukrainians, the lives of Ukrainian Jews.”

But the Iron Dome would have very little effect in helping Ukraine fight Russia. For starters, the rockets and UAVs that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad launch at Israel from Gaza are much cruder than Russia’s ballistic missiles and other projectiles. Meanwhile, Israel barely has enough Iron Dome batteries to cover its own territory, which is a fraction of Ukraine’s size, and you can be certain that Hamas and PIJ would immediately take advantage of a situation in which Israel sent its Iron Dome elsewhere. On top of that, it would take a long time to transport an Iron Dome interceptor and make it operational, and the US Congress only just approved the $1 billion Israel needed to replenish the Iron Dome batteries used during the war with Gaza in May.

Zelenskyy surely knows all of this; his own Ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Kornichuk, said at the beginning of the war that “Russia uses completely different weapons from the Palestinians, so Iron Dome would probably not help us”. In a similar vein of asking for the irrelevant, Hendel told me that Ukraine has repeatedly requested that he ban Moscow’s official news stations, on the grounds that they spread dangerous disinformation — even though the channels are not actually broadcasted in Israel.

In another section of his speech, Zelenskyy criticised Bennett’s mediation efforts between Ukraine and Russia. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle; the jury so far is out, and Bennett himself says he is not sure what impact he can have, though he is willing to try in order to end the war and save lives.

But Zelenskyy’s sharp remarks that “indifference kills” belie the fact that it is Zelenskyy himself who drew Bennett into the role of intermediary. Zelenskyy has been asking Israel to mediate between Ukraine and Russia since February 2021, citing Jerusalem’s good ties with Moscow. How could Bennett do this while also showing as much support as the West?

Despite this, some Right-wing American pundits have speculated that the speech was, in fact, the Biden administration using Zelenskyy as a way to pressure Israel to get in line with the West. My sources in Washington have told me this is not true, but that US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and others did warn Bennett that assuming the role of a mediator may put him in the line of diplomatic and rhetorical fire.

It’s striking that after his speech to the Knesset, Zelenskyy somewhat backtracked in a video message on his Telegram channel: “Of course, Israel has its interests, strategy to protect its citizens. We understand all of it. The prime minister of Israel, Mr Bennett, is trying to find a way of holding talks, and we are grateful for this. We are grateful for his efforts so that sooner or later we will begin to have talks with Russia, possibly in Jerusalem. That’s the right place to find peace. If possible.” Whatever the motivation or strategy behind Zelenskyy’s zigging in the Knesset and zagging on Telegram, it seems he is aware that, contrary to his speeches in Washington, London and Brussels, his instincts or advice were off when it came to Jerusalem.

One suspects that, had he not made crude Holocaust comparisons and impractical demands, there may have been public pressure in Israel for the government to do more to help Ukraine. That being said, the misstep doesn’t seem to be hurting him much in Israel. Bennett is still willing to mediate between Russia and Ukraine and even said he would visit Kyiv if there is progress in the talks. Meanwhile. a public opinion poll taken before the speech showed 76% of Israelis supported Ukraine in the war and only 10% supported Russia.

It remains unclear whether those figures have shifted since Zelenskyy’s speech. But Israelis surely can understand his situation, even if the speech didn’t land. As Ukraine’s favourite Israeli Golda Meir once said: “If we have a choice between being dead and pitied and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image.”