Crisis in Ukraine: The Israeli Response

The following is a transcript of Episode 44 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors. 

Yossi: My name is Yossi Klein Halevi. I’m a senior research fellow at the Institute here in Jerusalem. Today is Sunday, February 27th, 2022. And this is a special edition of For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from the Hartman Institute’s iEngage project. Our theme for today is the invasion of Ukraine. 

In each edition of For Heaven’s Sake, Donniel Hartman, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and I discuss a current issue central to Israel and the Jewish world. And then Elana Stein Hain, director of the Hartman faculty in North America explores with us how classical Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue. Elana won’t be able to join us for this episode. 

Like so much of humanity, Israelis and Jews around the world are watching events unfold in Ukraine with horror and outrage. This is the first time in our generation that a powerful dictatorship has invaded a democracy, seeking to destroy its national sovereignty. While thousands of Israelis have demonstrated in support of Ukraine, the Israeli government’s reaction has been ambivalent. Foreign minister Yair Lapid has denounced Russia, but prime minister Naftali Bennett is more cautious, offering sympathy and solidarity with Ukraine, but no condemnation of Vladimir Putin, the divergent responses within the government are the result of a deliberate decision to tread carefully to what is a potential minefield for Israel. 

With Israel being engaged in an ongoing war with Iranian forces in Syria, we need Putin’s tacit approval to attack Iranian bases. And however, unspoken there is concern for the fate of Russia’s 300,000 Jews and Ukrainians 200,000 Jews, all of whom could become hostages of a vindictive Putin. The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine affects us as human beings, as Jews, as Israelis. Donniel, wonderful to be together as always, even as the world seems to be veering out of control.

Donniel: Yeah I wish we could have a special session because something great and exciting and good just happened. Like we have to meet, Yossi, because we have to celebrate something. 

Yossi: You know what we should do. We should replay our post Abraham Accords edition.

Donniel: from time to

Yossi: And anytime we need a pickup, you know, I’ll remember that podcast. That was a good one. That was hopeful.

Donniel: But, but why can’t we have another one, but, uh, yeah, it’s a heavy time. 

Yossi: So Donniel, what’s, what’s on your mind.

Donniel: You know, I think the terms in the introduction you used were outraged. Um, I’m feeling sad. I want to live in a world where decency, justice prevail. I like that world. I like a world where we’re law, order, define our reality and not the abuse of power. And when you see this abuse of power. It’s not the world that I want to live in and what’s depressing is its prevalence.

Or as it emerges, it just, it, it gives lie in many ways to the fantasies that we have that we choose to, um, live in. 

Yossi: I know because you’re now in our daily lives, we, we, we have these reasonable, rational, uh, existences, and then suddenly the irrational intruths. 

Donniel: Or myths or myths

Yossi: or myths.

Donniel: these myths of ration, these myths, you know, it’s like when someone has, how are you? Fine. Thank you. And that just like, it’s all, what I’m feeling sad about is that for me, the antithesis of what we’re supposed to be as human beings is the notion that might makes right. Like, if there’s anything that I abhor, it’s this notion that might makes right.

And humanity since the beginning of time before monotheism already, you know, if I could be conceptual for a moment, um, polytheism, idolatry. You know, if you had power that meant the gods were on your side and then as monotheists, if you prevailed over others, then you’re it’s, it’s when you had might, it was by definition right because it was divinely supported and ordained. And so this, this is where the, you know, that’s, by the way, my definition of the fall, I don’t think the fall took place in the garden of Eden. I think the fall begins. Um, with, um, uh, Cain killing Abel, um, where, you know, with that abuse of power. Um, and if you look at the Bible, the Christian notion is that the fall is in the garden. It’s not there. 

I think it’s that it’s. Raw abuse of power, um, which then continues as part of our human condition and our legal traditions are trying to redeem us from it. And then after we have divinely sanctioned might equals right as we move into the 20th century and even beforehand, nations, self-interest, if I’m powerful enough, you know, truth is the whole middle ages.

We used our religions, but it was basically the interests of my country. If I was stronger, I could take anything that I want, take anything I want. And that’s so much defined the first part of the 20th century. What could you get away with? If I’m strong enough, I could do anything. And then the latest version of it is if I’m strong enough, not only could I do anything, I could also justify anything.

None of the, none of the do I might equals, right. Is that when I have the power, I could also claim the righteousness of the narrative and you hear this for years, you know, I’m watching Putin. I don’t, I don’t, it’s just, you, you sense an evil and it’s just, I could do anything I want. And what you, and when you live in the face of that evil, you want to see somebody else standing up and saying, no.

Is it, I know it’s naive, but I love America. And I believe what America’s most important jobs in the world. Cause I don’t trust the Europeans. Um, one of America’s most important jobs in the world is to put into the international stage, um, moral conditions that are not simply defined by self-interest and I see Putin and, you know, I don’t know, I’m not an expert.

So I don’t know if the sanctions are going to work or not going to work. And, you know, he just, you know, if he could do this and who knows where it’s going to be. But when I look at this, this is Yossi, this is not civilization. And this is not the world I want to live in. And maybe we had sic. We in the Western world, you know, it pays to be cautious because you also said this, this is the first time that, you know, a blatant abuse and an invasion of a democracy, but non democracies are being invaded all the time.

Maybe the difference between the Western world and other parts of the universe is this is the normal, but I like the normal that I live in. And, um, this, this can’t be allowed to become part of our normal again, maybe, maybe in the first half of the 20th century, this was normal. This was normal, might equals right, grab what you want. Claim Poland, claim this, claim self-defense notions. Tell any story you want and you can get away with it. That’s not supposed to be working anymore. And now all of a sudden it’s there. And I, I, I’m not impressed by our response. 

Yossi, this is not Right. This is not the world that we should live in. 

Yossi: You know, it’s so interesting Donniel, the, um, your, your default conversation is values, philosophy. And, you know, when you, when you, when you said before that, if I could be conceptual for a moment, I smiled because when is Donniel Hartman not conceptual?

And, you know, Donniel, you and I, I think one of the reasons that our, our friendship and our conversation, uh, worked so well is because we’re so different. And yet we have deep respect for each other. And we, we, I know speaking. 

Donniel: You mean, you don’t have a conceptual analysis. 

Yossi: I’ll tell you what I 

Donniel: Yossi, you don’t have a conceptual analysis? 

Yossi: I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you, you know, my default position is actually history. 

Donniel: Interesting. 

Yossi: And, uh, when, when, uh, when the invasion began, I pulled out a book off the shelf called Bloodlands, which is about Ukraine in the 1930s and forties.

It’s it’s an extraordinary book. And I read the chapter about the Stalinist, uh, forced starvation of the Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s, uh, what, what the Ukrainians call the Holodomor, this mass starvation and that’s Ukraine’s great trauma. And it’s an extraordinary story.

It was done out of pure ideological whim. Stalin had this notion of collectivizing the peasants. And so he starved them to death. And you’re not been reading analyses about, uh, the historical context of this conflict and, and historians are talking about how, uh, Russia has deep ancestral memories of, of its origins in Ukraine.

And how in fact, the first capital of Russia was Kiev in the middle ages. I’m reading this, saying, nobody is mentioning the Holodomor? It’s inconceivable to me. Why are Ukrainians fighting tooth and nail against Russia? They have these deep, deep visceral memories of, of what it was like living under Russian oppression.

And so this for me, you know, my consciousness is really shaped primarily by history. And that of course brings me to the Jewish historical dimension of this conflict. And there was an irony that I’ve been mulling over. And that is that for any generation of Jews, until, until our generation, Ukraine would have symbolized everything that was wrong in the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. 

It was a place of horror for Jews. And now here we are, most of us, cheering on the Ukrainian people, expressing solidarity, there’s a wonderful photograph that was making the rounds of someone praying at the Wall and wearing a Ukrainian flag. It was so powerful. 

And not only are we, are we cheering on the Ukrainians, which we absolutely must for the sake of our decency and humanity, but the great hero of Ukraine today is a Jew, a self identifying Jew, a Jew who speaks constantly about the family members he lost in the Holocaust. And so my takeaway from this Donniel, is that this is a moment when Jews can realize, need to internalize how much Jewish reality has changed in the last generation. 

And how the Holocaust lens through which we relate to Eastern Europe, and I’m thinking, especially of Poland, our whole relationship with, to Poland is about the Holocaust. Maybe it’s time for us to internalize the fact that we are not living in the post-Holocaust era anymore. We’re in the post post-Holocaust era and the lens through which we, we relat it to Eastern Europe as Jews is, um, it’s not useful anymore.

And this is a moment. This is a moment when Jews need to need to reckon with a historical transformation in our being.

Donniel: It’s it’s really, interesting. Um, because I’m wondering if for the first time in our podcasts, I’m actually experiencing this as a Holocaust phenomenon. 

Yossi: Really. 

Donniel: This, but not from a Jewish, you know, not, not as this is like we’re we just can never get on the same page, Yossi. It’s like, um, that, um, it’s, it’s just, it’s it’s again, seeing, um, how the raw abuse of power seems to be able to get away with things and how nations seem so inept. Um, I don’t, I don’t want to send my soldiers. I don’t want to die. Okay. I’ll do economic sanctions, but I don’t want to do economic sanctions that are going to hurt me. And so you’re trying to put together a coalition and maybe the world, again, I, you know, I’m not saying that maybe we’re doing enough, it’s it just somehow doesn’t feel enough, Yossi. It doesn’t feel enough. And it reminds me of how, if you’re evil enough and you push hard enough, you, might will make right.

And people aren’t necessarily going to stand up. So it’s like, you’re saying, you, who always are wearing the Holocaust lens, are seeing this now as a post post post experience and seeing how you’re, you’re looking now see, cause for you, Europe is essentially. When you look at Europe, you look through your Jewish lens. When I look at the world, you know, even when I conceptualize I get emotional. When I look at Europe, I’ve gotten used to a Europe that at least in theory, abides by a standard of justice, a standard of rules, and law. 

Yossi: Yeah, but there’s, there’s a great moral cowardice at the heart of, of Europe and increasingly in the United States as well.

Donniel: I know, that’s what we’re sensing. That’s where, from an Israeli. 

Yossi: So let’s, exactly. That’s it. That’s what I wanted to ask you about. Here we are. We’re critiquing Europe or critiquing America, and yet the Israeli response, it has been muted. Ambivalent. How do you unpack that for me, Donniel? What, how do you understand the response of our government? And what response would you like to see?

Donniel: See here. Oh, it’s a tough one, Yos. Um, um, I would love our government to stand up and to say no to injustice. I would love our government to stand up and say, excuse me, this is not the world that we want to belong to. And to condemn, uh, unequivocally, not one of these little silly dances between, you know, cause they, they coordinated it.

One’s going to say A, the other, one’s going to say B so that they could claim, you said neither A and B. Now the problem is I understand what they’re doing. You know, when you encounter evil, when you encounter a bully, who’s stronger than you. You’re ready to, you’re ready to stand up, But you have to know that people are going to stand with you because by yourself, you’re just going to get destroyed. So, you know, like the bully on the, um, you know, the mugger, the bully, the attacker on the street, you want, you want to get involved, but you want to know is the person next to you to the right, to the left, going to stand with you because if the person to the left and the right stand with you, you could prevail. What I’m worried about now is we’ll get up, Israel will make the statement that I wanted to make. And then we’ll be left alone. 

Yossi: But it’s even worse than that. It’s worse than that because we’ll be left alone on the battleground. We’re at war in Syria. 

Donniel: That’s what I mean, We’re at war. This is what I’m frightened of. So I hear like this. It should be nothing. If we stood up now, and America wants us. Would you agree and say, you know what, if Russia doesn’t let us fly. You make Syria a no fly zone for Russian planes. Are you willing to do that?

Now my problem is I don’t trust it. I don’t trust it. Someone’s going to say, you know what, we’ll do some say, you know, they’ll, they’ll bomb the Israeli this, but you know, we’ll do a sanction, we’ll pass a United nations resolution and Russia will veto it. 

And I feel alone. Like, I, I want to be a part of an international coalition that stands for decency, but I don’t trust that coalition. So, you know, as, as pareve as the Israel responses, you know, we can allow Hezbollah and Iran to have a foothold in Syria and to use it as a vehicle to bring in high precision, uh, missiles. That’s that’s just, that’s a no go. Now. Would the, could we. Could we have the courage to fight regard? I don’t know. So it’s, it’s part of the same story, you know, might is right.

It’s also intimidating us and maybe that’s also why I’m also sad because I don’t like being intimidated, but I have to take into account. I can’t fight Russia. Now is someone going to stand with me, could I count on the Europeans? What are we going to do? We’re going to say to them, excuse me, Russia, you can’t fly your planes right now or this, or, or, you know, oh Yeah.

We’ll, we’ll meet in another three weeks. And in the meantime, a catastrophe could occur. So I, um, I’m frustrated there too, because I think Israel should be a part of an international coalition, but that international coalition is not, I don’t feel it’s there and, uh, we’d be left alone. I don’t trust it. 

Yossi: Look, I support the government’s handling of this, but I feel much more sad, but vaguely ashamed and Natan Sharansky summed up the shame. He said, Israel is acting like Putin’s court Jew. There is nothing you could say to embarrass a Zionist more than that the state of Israel is acting as a court Jew and, um, and Natan is a, you know, he has the right to say these things, he’s earned the right.

Um, but I have to say that I I’m glad he saying it. And I’m glad that, uh, Bennet and, uh, Lapid are pursuing a different policy. Do you know Donniel, um, Sharansky said something else, which I wanted to ask you about. Uh, the Jewish Agency has announced that it’s setting up emergency evacuation points, five or six points along the Ukrainian border, for any Ukrainian Jew who wants to come to Israel.

Sharansky came out vehemently opposed to a rescue at this moment. And in one way that’s so counter-intuitive, isn’t that supposed to be what we do? Jews are in trouble. You rescue them, you send planes. And we, we did it with, with, with Ethiopian Jews at the height of a civil war in Addis Ababa. How do we not do that in Ukraine?

And yet Sharansky said we will be sending a disastrous message here. You have the Ukrainian people standing up against, against a bully to use your language. With a Jewish president, rallying the troops, and then we send planes to pull out Ukrainian Jews. What’s your take on that?

Donniel: It’s a, it really is, this is such an ironic conversation, isn’t it? This other, um, you know, and this goes back, I think right now, this is not about Israel, I think from an Israeli policy perspective versus Russia , it is. I think we have to take into account the fact that there isn’t a strong international coalition to fight evil that we could count on. But I think part of it is this is not an Israeli, this is not a moment for Aliyah. I don’t think this is about the Jewish people at the moment. 

I think Sharansky is right. You know, what is it? So, as he said, by law, every, you’re not allowed to leave because everybody from what 20 to 60 is drafted and the Jews are going to leave?

So, they’ll be like, we’re leaving. Sorry. It’s like goodbye. I think there is, I think there has to be moments where it’s not about us right now. It’s not about the Jews. It’s not, you know, when is it that your ethnic national identity needs to be transcended and you belong somewhere else. Jews, part of the gift of the modern world is we have complex identities.

The Jews of Ukraine are Ukrainian. They are, they’ve chosen to live there. They didn’t choose to make Aliyah. They enjoy it. They’re prospering. Listen, a Jew is the president. They’re, as strange as it might sound, they’re at home. You can’t say this is my home and expect the country to treat you as your home, and the minute they need you to walk away. And I think Israel needs to understand that it’s, it’s, it’s not, not everything is an Aliyah moment and not every moment does the claim of the Jewish people prevail. And I think this is, I think Sharansky quite remarkably because he’s Mr. Aliyah. Yeah. Like who’s more Mr. Aliyah than Sharansky.

For him to say that we should not be bringing people in Aliyah now. I think it’s a deep understanding of, of what’s at stake here. This is, Jews, you’re part, you have a national identity of a country that you’re living in and that you’ve embraced stand up, stand up and count, don’t stand up and say, okay, at this moment, I’m Jewish and Israeli and goodbye. So what’s your take on, do you agree with Sharansky?

Yossi: Uh, I do. And I think that Zelensky, uh, poses a very, um, important challenge to Israel and to Zionism, uh, we have to come to terms with the fact that a Jew, a proud self identified Jew, is leading one of the most heroic struggles, uh, in, uh, in the history of, of his country. And it’s not the state of Israel.

And he’s become a national hero of his people and his people in this case are Ukrainians. That creates a deep dissonance in, in, in, in Zionist perception. The way, the way we, we look at the Jewish world and that I think is also part of our maturation process. This is a moment for us. 

Because Israelis are cheering Zelensky. Israelis love a hero, and we, even more so love a Jewish hero, but what do you do when that Jew, Jewish hero is standing up and, and, and, and offering his life for another country?

Donniel: You know, it’s like almost what, at what point are we now strong enough that we stop saying, every moment is a moment to help Jewish survival. So, every moment is a moment to help Israel. It’s a different moment and I think it calls on us to think bigger and about our place in the world.

Could I ask you a question, Yossi? Cause I know, um, as I’m thinking, what do you think are the long-term, are you frightened from some of the long-term consequences of this, of the invasion or of the world’s response. And, uh, um, you said that you were, you, you were embarrassed but comfortable at the same time with the way Israel responded, but you know, you’re, you worry more than me. It’s like, that’s like,

Yossi: It’s it’s it’s it’s, it’s part of my job definition.

Donniel: So, so, you know, uh, if I’m sad, I, are you worried now about anything? 

Yossi: Before I get into the Jewish, worry side of me, and that’s very much there. Um, I’m processing this as, as you are, as, um, as a member of the human race in the, in the early 21st century. And this is the first time in our lives that a dictatorship has, uh, tried to, uh, to destroy another country, a democracy.

This is a turning point in history, whichever way it plays out. Uh, there’s this sense that I think we allhave that nothing is going to be the same, whether the impact is going to be economic, whether this will play out with China. And now to my specific Jewish anxiety, I come to Iran. Iran. 

It always, Donniel, it always comes back to Iran. And the question that I have, well, it’s two fold. One is a practical question. The other is more, more abstract. The practical question is how will this impact the, the talks in Vienna? Uh, my strong sense is that we’re heading toward an even worse deal than in 2015. It will be 2015 minus.

My assumption when they returned to the table was that we would get 2015 with some positive cosmetic changes, which really would, would, would not significantly change the dynamic, but the Biden administration would at least try to save face, but that’s not what’s happening. I see a complete surrender to Iran.

And so the question is, will what’s happening in Ukraine delay the deal because Russia has been very much involved in the negotiations, uh, or will it, or will it hasten the deal because, uh, Biden and the west are desperate to show some positive momentum, as if, as if they’ve had some, uh, some game.

Uh, so that’s, that’s the concrete issue that worries me. The more abstract question I have is if we launch a preemptive strike against Iran, and it’s an interesting question about whether what’s unfolding in Ukraine will delay in Israeli strike or bring it closer. But if we strike Iran, who will Israel be for the world?

Will we be Ukraine, a country defending itself against existential threat? Or will we be perceived as Russia, a bully, an aggressor, um, launching yet another unnecessary war. That’s that’s my Jewish anxiety, Donniel.  

Donniel: Okay. You know, if I, if I really appreciate, can I be conceptual for a moment? 

Yossi: Just, just for a moment Donniel.

Donniel: Um, you know, when I was listening to you. This is all about power and the use of power. And I think the use of power. It’s going to be increasingly under a microscope and it’s going to be even more so when you have to hide from the bully, when you don’t stand up to the bully, when you had to give in, when you couldn’t be all that you really thought you should be, you’re going to try to compensate. um, and I think this is going to be a very complicated time for Israel, conceptually, because when you see, you see if, if might makes right, people are going to ask, is Israel doing might makes right. And you and I, we could talk, we could say we’re doing it in self-defense.

The minute it’s not in your Homeland. The minute you’re in somebody else’s space. Um, the use of power is going to be increasingly, uh, suspect. And I tend to think that people are going to want to actually reclaim the myth of their civility, but since they can’t do it with Russia, they’re going to try to do it elsewhere.

And, uh, Israel is going to have to dance very, very carefully. Um, I’m not sure what I want Israel to do in Iran, in the first place. You know, I, again, it’s, it’s beyond my capacity. It’s not, I’m not in that league, but, um, but overall, when, when raw power is unleashed and you sense it’s evil. When you sense the feeling that if I can get away with it, cause I’m powerful enough, I think there’s going to be a backlash, not against Russia. 

Eventually everybody’s going to trade with whoever they think is in their self-interest at the end of it. Ah, they’ll do it for a little while, they’ll have, you know, but where you can get away with something, where you could teach a lesson and think you can get away with it. Beware. And Israel very often, you know, that’s one of the reasons why so many, it’s so easy to do BDS against Israel or to claim this against Israel. It’s, it’s, it’s not that we’re the worst and it’s not that they’re antisemites. It’s just that you could get away with it. The consequences of doing that, um, aren’t as significant, it doesn’t change your life. And so, um, I’m concerned about that, too. 

Yossi: Donniel, a, last, last conceptual thought.

Donniel: Um, the last, last conceptual thought is that I think we just have to say no. I think part of the moment that we’re in as powerful Israelis right now, um, and you know, it’s really different. A Jew in America could get up and very clearly, give expression to their moral Jewish values, knowing that that America has their back.

When they stand up as a Jew in America, they’re standing up as, as Americans and they could speak and they could protest. And I think part of our challenge is, um, this is really quite paradoxical that the Jews of Israel might be less, um, free, to be as expressive of our Jewish values because we’re in Israel, when we’re talking at an international arena and I think I, I don’t want to push it, but I think we have to take chances, I think at the end of the day, you know, as they said in the book of Esther, uh, who knew if it wasn’t for this moment that you achieve this power, you know, like, uh, I think there are moments when we, I think when we have to stand, I think we have to do so carefully, but I think we can’t. You know, as the historian amongst us, uh, we can’t allow this moment to pass, um, without a moral voice coming our clearly. 

Yossi: Well, we certainly need a moral voice coming from the Israeli street. And I think we are hearing that voice. 

Donniel: Starting.

Yossi: For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Cory Choy, at Silver Sound NYC. Transcripts of our shows are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute. Visit us online at shalomhartman.org. 

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