Some Israeli MPs criticized the president for attempting to ‘rewrite history’ and deny the role of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators
People gather to watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech on Knesset via video conference in Tel Aviv, Israel on March 20, 2022. © Getty Images / Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency
President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized Israel for not doing enough to help Kiev battle Russian forces during an address to the country’s parliament on Sunday. His attempt to evoke the specter of the Holocaust and draw comparisons with the Russian offensive in Ukraine triggered a harsh pushback from Israeli lawmakers.
In a video address to the Knesset, Zelensky claimed that the time had come for the people of Israel to make a clear choice whether they support Ukraine or Russia. The president apparently referred to the position of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who has expressed his readiness to facilitate the talks between Kiev and Moscow but, unlike many Western leaders and some of its allies, refrained from imposing harsh sanctions on Moscow or providing military assistance to Kiev. Earlier this week Bennett said that Israel would “continue to act to prevent bloodshed and bring the sides from the battlefield to the conference table.”
“Mediation can be between states, not between good and evil,” Zelensky stated. He backed up his call with the words of the former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who was born in Ukraine: “We intend to remain alive. Our neighbors want to see us dead. This is not a question that leaves much room for compromise.”
The Ukrainian leader also took aim at Israel’s reluctance to provide its Iron Dome air defense systems to Ukraine, telling parliamentarians that it was “the best” of its kind, and that Israel would be able to protect “the lives of Ukrainians, the lives of Ukrainian Jews.” Zelensky also wondered why Israel hasn’t imposed “strong sanctions against Russia.”
“But it is up to you, dear brothers and sisters, to choose the answer. And you will have to live with this answer, people of Israel,” he added.
In the most fiery part of his address, Zelensky accused Russians of echoing the rhetoric of the Nazis, who called for “the final solution to the Jewish issue.” He claimed that similar words are sounding now from Moscow, but “in relation, so to speak, to us, to the ‘Ukrainian issue.’”
Such comparisons, as well as his remarks about Ukrainian people who “made their choice 80 years ago” to rescue Jews, caused certain anger among Israeli lawmakers and media, with some calling them an attempt to “rewrite history” and deny the role of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators in Holocaust.
“His criticism of Israel was legitimate, as was his raising expectations of us, but not his infuriating and ridiculous comparison to the Holocaust and his attempt to rewrite history and to erase the role of the Ukrainian people in the attempts to exterminate the Jewish people,” Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich said.
Zalensky’s claim “borders on Holocaust denial,” said Likud MK Yuval Steinitz. “War is always a terrible thing… but every comparison between a regular war, as difficult as it is, and the extermination of millions of Jews in gas chambers in the framework of the Final Solution is a complete distortion of history.”
Communications Minister and New Hope MP Yoaz Hendel tweeted that he “admires” Zelensky and supports the Ukrainian people “in heart and deed,” but noted that part of Nazi Germany’s genocide of Jews “was also carried out on Ukrainian land.” While “the war is terrible, the comparison to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Final Solution is outrageous,” he added.
The Israeli government chose not to officially comment on the Ukrainian president’s controversial remarks. “We will continue to help the Ukrainian people as much as we can and we will never turn our backs on the plight of people who know the horrors of war,” the country’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid wrote on Twitter, reiterating his condemnation “of the attack on Ukraine.”
Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy thanked Zelensky and said he was praying for an end to the war in Ukraine. He also expressed hope that when it happens, Zelensky would visit Jerusalem.
Moscow launched its military operation in Ukraine in late February, following a seven-year standoff over Ukraine’s failure to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements, and Russia’s eventual recognition of the Donbass republics with capitals in Donetsk and Lugansk. The German- and French-brokered protocols had been designed to regularize the status of those regions within the Ukrainian state.
President Vladimir Putin has said Moscow’s military offensive aims to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine’s government. Kiev has repeatedly denied it has a problem with radical nationalism, often pointing to its Jewish president as proof, even though Ukraine has embraced a number of World War II Nazi collaborators, such as Stepan Bandera. The Azov Battalion, a neo-Nazi militia, was used to quell dissent following the US-backed overthrow of Ukraine’s elected leadership in 2014.
Russia has now demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country that will never join the US-led NATO military bloc. Kiev insists the Russian offensive was completely unprovoked and has denied claims it was planning to retake the two republics by force.