Why To Shed Tears for the Ukraine

Natan Sharansky got my head and heart to work in synch again, regarding the terrible tragedy unfolding before us in the Ukraine.

It didn’t start off as a dilemma, but as an email a week ago from The Jewish Press’ editor. He’d read pieces strongly urging Jewish support for the Ukrainian people, and others far more hesitant. Would I care to weigh in on the question? Give me Shabbos to think about it, I replied. Not so sure that I had anything meaningful to contribute.

I knew what my heart told me. We were staring at the face of evil, with a decision by a regime without conscience to inflict pain, misery and death on millions of people. Like the fourth beast in Daniel’s prophecy (Daniel 7:7), it was hard as steel, wreaked havoc in its path, and simply trampled anything and anyone in its way. It was not interested in monetary gain, but simply domination – the restoration of its national memory of Russian Empire. How could anyone – especially a Jew – not be moved by the pictures of the dead and wounded children, and the hopelessness of hundreds of thousands whose lives were left behind as they left for a future of complete uncertainty with only a bag in hand.

But then my mind caught up a bit. Reality check. This is the Ukraine we are talking about. The place where so many Jews today carry with them horror stories of the ferocity and cruelty of Hitler’s Ukrainian murderers, while the ordinary people looked on at Babyn Yar while eating ice cream.

A different part of my mind firmly replied. Don’t be silly. This is a new generation. This is a country that voted in Jews as a past prime minister and the current president. That is not something that happens in a country that is fully rife with anti-Semitism. To be sure, there is plenty of Jew hatred left in the Ukraine – in church groups, and in a vigorous right-wing, including Svoboda. (And such Jew hatred is alive and well in Russia.) Jews who have lived in the Ukraine report that they had not encountered anti-Semitism in their own lives, although they knew it was there. Sort of like Brooklyn. Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi-hunter who lost 89 relatives in the Holocaust and had good reason to despise certain groups, always cautioned against imputing collective guilt.

Furthermore, we’ve been there before. The Egyptians of the Bible were not exactly our friends. They visited unspeakable cruelty upon our ancestors, including mass murder. Yet, during the plague of Darkness, when the Egyptians were immobilized for three days, they did not starve. Jews did what Jews always do. They responded to their hearts when they saw pain, and they fed their enemies. (Netziv, Shemos 11:2[1]) Those Egyptians were actual perpetrators – not their grandchildren. If our compassion was moved for them, all the more so for today’s Ukrainians

But yet… Can we just look away from the monuments still going up in today’s Ukraine, to the founding father of the Ukraine, Bogdan Chmielnicki? He murdered a full half of the Jewish population of the Ukraine with particular savagery. Do we ignore that, or do we turn away in disgust? Do we allow the many pogroms of a little more than a century to recede from memory? While the angels in heaven were silenced from singing songs of joyful praise at the Reed Sea, because human beings were drowning, the Jews who had toiled and suffered under the hands of those Egyptians were not stopped! Perhaps asking people to overlook their suffering runs counter to human nature?

More. The Blood Libel and the Beilis trial in Kiev. The pogroms during the war to establish the Ukrainian People’s Republic, in which 100,000 Jews were murdered between 1918-1921, by all players in the conflict. Were we now observing the comeuppance of an historical enemy by Divine Providence?

Troubled, I punted. I asked two Torah personalities over Shabbos what they thought. Neither one has any hostility to non-Jews in general. To my surprise, they also punted. They admitted that they just didn’t know. So I informed my editor friend that I could not write a piece.

That was a week ago, and so things stayed, until I read the remarkable observation of Natan Sharansky, the long-time Prisoner of Zion, at the sheva brachos for a choson whose parents and brother were killed in a terrorist attack when he was seven. Sharansky observed that there were many nationalities living together in the Ukraine in which he grew up. There was really no difference in the way they were treated, with the exception of one: Jews. If you had “Jewish” inscribed on your identity papers, you suffered terrible discrimination in schooling and employment. Jew meant that you were an outsider. You did not belong.

Then he reflected about recent events:

When I was a child, ‘Jewish’ was an extraordinarily bad word; no one was jealous of us. Today at the border of Ukraine, “Jewish” is an extraordinary word for the best. It describes people who have somewhere to go, and have a whole nation, which is their family, waiting for them outside.

Sharansky has reunited my heart and my mind. I will continue to feel sorrow, pain, and compassion for the millions who are suffering. My special focus will be upon our Jewish brothers and sisters, but with ample room to pray and work for the others. I will focus on the innocents, who are the majority. (The Simon Wiesenthal Center, at which I work, has set up a fund for those who wish to help.) At the same time, I will marvel at the real comeuppance of the Jew-haters, Hashem’s real vengeance: Our roles have been reversed. Mocked, derided, slaughtered for our Jewishness, others watch as that which they or their grandparents hated has become the life-preserver that they cannot reach.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein writes from Jerusalem, and is the Founding Editor of Cross-Currents.com

  1. I thank my friend (and sometimes co-podcaster) Rabbi Avraham Kivelevitz for the cite.

This essay first appeared in The Jewish Press

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30 Responses

  1. Sarah Elias says:

    I agree with what you say, but I did want to note that I don’t believe most Ukrainians are aware of what Chmelnitzky did to the Jews. He’s a national hero for fighting against Polish domination, not for killing Jews. Nevertheless, the earth of Ukraine is soaked with Jewish blood spilled over the centuries. I do not feel sad for Ukraine the country. I do feel sad for innocent civilians caught up in this awful war.

    • Nachum says:

      Indeed. Jews tend to see the world from their perspective. Which is completely understandable and is in fact the correct thing to do, but it can keep Jews from realizing that the rest of the world does not share that perspective. It *should* share that perspective- if someone massacred Jews, it’s a good hint he wasn’t a real hero- but it’s understandable if it doesn’t, and demonstrates that they aren’t exactly anti-Semites for not doing so.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    The upshot would seem to be that Jews with a chance to make it out of the diaspora, and make it work, should now go on aliyah. This could also have a positive political impact on the only democracy in the Middle East ruled by the clueless.

  3. Raymond says:

    I cannot help but marvel at the moral beauty and literary finesse of Rabbi Adlerstein’s article above, so much so that I feel that whatever my response will be, will fall so short of that same level of profundity.

    Be that as it may, I continue to have mixed feelings about what is going on in the Ukraine, for reasons he has already stated. I would only add that I remain suspicious of the Ukrainians, not convinced that a zebra can change its spots. They may appear to no longer be the antisemites that they once were, but given their centuries-long history of such a hate, I would not be surprised if their antisemitism merely lies dormant, ready to pounce on us seemingly out of nowhere. There is also a part of me that sees what is going on in the Ukraine as a distraction, a way to get our focus away from Iran. Yes, Vladimir Putin wants to get back all the land lost during the fall of the Soviet Union at whatever cost, but Iran wants to destroy the entire non-Islamic world, starting with Israel and the Jews. I feel far, far more threatened by the Ayatoilets of Iran than I do of the philosemitic, admittedly half-crazy Vladimir Putin.

    And yet….I think of how despite all of the truly cruel terrorism inflicted on our Young/Old Jewish State of Israel by the islamoNazi terrorists, that we Jews have collectively gone so much out of our way to make peace with our enemies. Who among us Jews does not want peace? All of us do, because we have beating Jewish hearts.
    We understandably long for peace so much, that we are all too willing to forgive our enemies, and to just get on with life to the extent that that is at all possible. Plus I never heard that particular Dvar Torah from the Netziv about how our ancestors fed the very Egyptians who had enslaved and otherwise been so cruel to us. I have to admit that is both moving and thought-provoking.

    And finally, perhaps the most importantly of all, despite who is right or wrong in this conflict, and despite whatever bitter feelings we have toward those who have done our Jewish people so much wrong, so much evil, and so much suffering, that the fact is that there are countless human beings being murdered in the Ukraine for no valid reason whatsoever. Lives are being shattered for absolutely nothing. We cannot stand idly by spilled blood, even when that spilled blood is not from our extended Jewish family. Our humanity extends further than that as we are reminded that every one of us has been created in the Image of G-d.

  4. mb says:

    Precisely why we have the mitzvah(vot) of our enemy’s donkey.

  5. Yaakov Schwartzman says:

    LeKavod HaRav. I really didn’t agree with this writeup. Rather surprised by the approach, and debate. We are bnei rachamim and besides Amalek (which we don’t know and can’t know right now) we are encouraged to operate in a rachamim and acceptance of people. Even in the wars as are articulated in Tanach we are told to offer an escape route for the women, children, etc — even if it puts us at risk. Here is a country that the women and children are suffering. That is a given. That is an automatic support. This should be not even a debate in any Torah mind. Then you have the notion of the past. Bogdan Ch died in 1657. It is 100% true he was vicious to Jews and that he is a hero to the Ukrainians. There are lots of explanations for this and the current generation has nothing in common with them. If you want to go a near 70 years ago in the past you can find MOST of EUROPE being against Jews. This is our reality. But, things transform and change — Germany today is very close with the State of Israel. In summary, it is rather surprising that as a Torah leader that one has a debate on seeing the transformation of the world as per Hashem’s original plans as per the Neviim. Just disappointed that as a leader LeKavod HaRav you can’t run to rise above the ‘past’ declarations of Hashem’s wills through the nations of the world.

    • Bob Miller says:

      See https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250170170/europeagainstthejews18801945

      This includes a section on the post-WW1 pogroms instigated by all sides in Ukraine.

    • Shmuel Gorenstein says:

      Interesting you brought today’s Germany as an argument for your misguided position. in the mid-1800s, Rav Shimshon Rafuel Hirsh was also making the point that the Eisov of his day was getting better. To illustrate his point, he referred to contemporary Germany. “Things transform and change,” wouldn’t you say? And you know what? Hundred years before Aushvitz, he didn’t sound so unreasonable. Today, I would expect a yid to know better.

  6. Chaim says:

    The Neviim expressed both enthusiasm and sympathetic pain over the downfall of their enemies. See Yeshayahu 15:5 with Rashi, and Yirmiyahu 48:10, both over Moav. See also Rashi to Yeshayahu 21:3 over Bavel.

    Rav Henoch Lebowitz explains (Chiddushei HaLev, Pinchas) that these are not contradictory emotions. Both flow from love of Hashem, exulting in the Kiddush Hashem of the wicked receiving their comeuppance, and sharing His pain, as it were, over the destruction of His handiwork.

  7. Reb Yid says:

    The obsession with what happened in Ukraine’s past is rather selective.

    After all, the German people during World War II did not exactly distinguish themselves, either. But today Germany is one of Israel’s closer friends. The country continues to engage in meaningful teshuva, Holocaust education mandatory and Holocaust denial criminal. It has welcomed in more refugees over the past few decades than any other European country.

    We do not wish ill on today’s Germany or today’s Germans. Today’s Ukraine, similarly, is a far cry from the Chmielniki days or even since World War II.

    • Siter says:

      Actually not convinced it is a ‘ far cry’ .
      As someone below observed, they voted for who is useful… Perhaps to blame when things take a bad turn, as is happening now.

  8. mk says:

    “The Jews who had toiled and suffered under the hands of those Egyptians were not stopped (from singing)”
    Rav Elya Meyer Bloch ZTL asked why the angels could not sing but Klall Yisroel could.
    An angel can have only one focus. And total simcha was inappropriate since human beings were killed.
    A human being, however, is multifaceted and can have two emotions at the same time.
    They can sing and, at the same time, have their joy tempered by the fact that G-d’s creatures had to die.
    in other words, things are nuanced.
    He said this in 1948 to explain how we should “feel” about the State of Israel!
    In other words, things are nuanced!

    • Raymond says:

      The creation of the Modern Jewish State of Israel in 1948 is such an overwhelmingly wonderful, positive, miraculous event in Jewish history that I do not see how it could possibly be something nuanced. From a sheer survival point of view, had we had political control over Israel just a decade earlier, six million Jewish lives would have been saved. And since then, wherever there are Jews being persecuted in the world, Israel provides a potential escape hatch. And even from a more spiritual perspective, there are more Jews studying Torah in Israel today, than at any time in our long history. That is nothing to sneeze at. Frankly, whenever I encounter any Orthodox Jew who feels ambivalent about the existence of our beloved Jewish State, I am both bewildered and disgusted. Fortunately, as time goes by, Israel is transforming itself more and more into a religious country, so I take this to mean that most Torah Jews have finally come around to embracing our very special Jewish State of Israel.

  9. It has been pointed out (UN Watch) that from 2020 to 2021, while Zelensky was president, there were 17 resolutions against Israel at the UN. Ukraine voted against Israel in 13 of those cases, and abstained for the other four. Apparently, Zelensky’s success lies in his abandonment of his Jewish identity – except, of course, when he righteously fulminates against Israel for not endangering itself to come to the aid of a fellow Jew.
    They have not changed. They elected Zelensky because he is useful, just as an anti-semite might hire a Jewish lawyer.
    I have a dear friend whose brother shared a dorm room for years with a good Ukrainian man, and they became very close. When the roommate was getting married, he asked his Jewish friend to be his groomsman. But, he said, I have to ask you one thing. All my family and friends are Ukrainian. Please do not tell them that you are a Jew. If they know that you are a Jew, I can only vouch for your safety as long as they are sober.
    Nothing has changed. Nothing. Unlike Germany, they have chosen Japan’s path regarding their behavior during the war.

    • Bob Miller says:

      Does it follow that Putin’s invasion and wanton bombing of civilians are OK and we should all just close our eyes? If anyone is acting the part of a fascist dictator as we speak, he’s it. Zelensky rose to this occasion…but you??

  10. Reb Yid says:

    Anecdotes are just that–anecdotes.

    It wasn’t until Ukraine became independent that there was a true Babi Yar memorial which recognized the victims as Jewish. During the Soviet era, the Russians refused to recognize anything unique or distinct about those victims. And let’s not even get into what Stalin did to decimate Jewish life and kill untold millions of individuals.

    Germany, Ukraine and Japan are all democracies today. This is actually most remarkable in the case of Ukraine–it freely chose this after the Soviet Union broke up.

    People will perform all sorts of convoluted mental gymnastics to avoid dealing with the reality that their prior support of Putin is simply unsustainable today.

    • Raymond says:

      Leftists will perform all sorts of convoluted mental gymnastics to avoid dealing with the reality that their prior support of Leftist Putin is simply unsustainable today.

      • Bob Miller says:

        The left is disunited in viewing this war.

        Putin is really a fascist/imperialist. Part of any leftist support he has is the left’s old habit of supporting Russia, and part is the left’s old habit of supporting any enemy of the US. Others on the left support Ukraine (with words) out of underdog-ism or because that’s the Biden Administration line.

        Anyway, it seems that Biden is taking pains not to help Ukraine to actually win, because he and his feeble generals are scared stiff of over-provoking Putin. And he “needs” Putin’s help in surrendering to Iran. So US military aid to Ukraine is just enough to look good. Zelensky’s planned speech to Congress is an attempt to get the help he really needs. I’m not expecting Pelosi or Schumer to do much for Ukraine beyond talk.

        The US right is also divided — among isolationists, globalists, and practical people in the middle.

      • Reb Yid says:

        The left is pretty much united in support of Ukraine and for the sanctions of Putin and his cabal.

        The only major dissenting voice is the usual Fox News crew. They had one of their cameraman killed in Ukraine today, and they still couldn’t bring themselves to mention Russia in any of their dispatches about it.

  11. Siter says:

    We don’t need to go back to 1657. 20th century pogroms we’re uniquely savage according to 1919-21 Red Cross reports, listing wanton amputations, mass rapes from children to aged, and worse, shameful acts’ to use the language of the time. This behavior IS Amalekite , and figures heavily into my mixed feelings on this.

    • Nachum says:

      And our ancestors who experienced those things saw the perpetrators as Russian, and they weren’t entirely wrong.

      • Shmuel Gorenstein says:

        No, my grandparents, from Kiev on one side and Zhitomir on the other, were pretty clear that those were the accursed Ukrainians. Not to say that Russians were tzadikim, but there are degrees.

  12. dr bill says:

    A gentleman of Ukrainian descent gave my career a real boost when he suggested me as an aide to a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Solomon Joseph Buchsbaum, who was number 2 in the leadership of Bell Labs in its heyday in the mid 80’s. Despite evidence of anti-semitism in the mother’s milk of Ukranian women, I continue to acknowledge those who behaved quite differently.

    • Tal Benschar says:

      Sound like the gentlemen had spent considerable time in the United States, perhaps even more than one generation. That changes a lot.

  13. Robert Lebovits says:

    I am confused by the ambivalence here.
    The absence of explicit support for Putin’s enemy is simply support for Putin.
    How can that possibly be an acceptable response?

    • It’s not ambivalence. It’s full, unreserved support for Ukraine and its citizens. It is, however, an attempt to quiet the uneasiness of those whose memories of the Ukraine are decidedly not pretty. I hope we all land in the same place.

  14. Yoni 2 says:

    I read this post last night and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I really am ashamed that my people, who claim to be “rachmanim bnei rachmanim” and the descendants of “chalila lecha measos kadavar hazeh” need to equivocate on whether to feel mercy when thousands of innocents are being bombed and killed.

    It’s really not much of a boast to say you are “rachmanim” to those who were sweet and nice to you.

  15. Steven Brizel says:

    I received this anomymous email which IMO is very helpful to anyone interested in this issue”
    Dear Vlodomor Zelenskyy,
    So let’s clear a few things up…
    You’re the underdog here and Israel usually aligns itself with the underdog because the truth is that in every war we’ve fought, we were the underdog because we were out-numbered, isolated, and countries like yours chose to align themselves with our enemies. In your case, more than 35 times in recent years.
    Let’s be clear, Israel doesn’t owe Ukraine ANYTHING. It is our choice to send what aid we feel is appropriate, and we have. Vast amounts of humanitarian aid, medical assistance, bullet proof ambulances and more. You’re welcome.
    Your comparison of the Holocaust to today’s fight is abhorrent and historically inaccurate. The Jews didn’t have an army, anti-aircraft missiles, 100,000 rifles to distribute to our people and no military training.
    No one sent aid and rescue missions and let’s not even begin to describe how the majority of the Ukrainians treated our people.
    You feel that we owe you because you are Jewish…your parents are Jewish.
    I guess we won’t mention that your children are not only not-Jewish, but have, with your permission, been baptized.
    So let’s do this. You stop complaining that Israel isn’t doing enough, start saying thank you and next time a vote comes up in the UN, remember how many Arab countries stood by, while Israel acted.
    And if you want Israel to CONTINUE to support Ukraine, don’t you dare compare your situation, where tragically over 900 have died, to the massacre of more than six million Jews in World War II, to the victims who lie in mass graves, like Babi Yar.
    We’ll help…not because you are a Jew, but because WE are Jews

  16. Shades of Gray says:

    “Jews who have lived in the Ukraine report that they had not encountered anti-Semitism in their own lives, although they knew it was there. Sort of like Brooklyn.”

    There are changes over time in the US. The 2020 Pew Survey reported that many Jewish Americans, particularly those who wear distinctively religious attire, feel less safe than they did five years ago. From a wider angle  as well, the Ukraine conflict has upended  post–Cold War assumptions for security, in addition to coming after Covid. As a Guardian article at the end of February put it: 

    “Successive generations have experienced what it is like to feel the shadow of nuclear annihilation loom over their daily lives, from the Cuban crisis of 1962, to the missile standoff in Europe in the 1980s. This is shaping up to be our turn.”

    As far as how to relate to Ukrainians, I initially had thought of the common saying כבדהו וחשדהו, of holding space for both respect and suspicion, which is based on  לעולם יהיו כל בני אדם חשובין לפניך כלסטים והוי מכבדן כר”ג (Derech Eretz Rabbah 5). In this situation, though, I assume the majority of Ukrainians are innocent and  worthy of compassion, and I would therefore err on the side of “respect”.  

    One can add to Natan Sharansky’s reflections about Jewish refugees fleeing from Ukraine, the phenomenon of those returning to Ukraine, namely, the delegation of Israel’s field hospital whose members were, among other things, chosen for their ability to speak Ukrainian or Russian. At a ceremony for the field hospital’s opening, a Ukrainian municipal official noted that Israel had many Holocaust survivors, some of whom fled from Ukraine, and lauded the fact that their descendants had now come back to Ukraine to help. Like Sharansky’s comments, this phenomenon can be seen as coming full circle, if not a “revenge” of sorts. 

    The Israeli medical  mission is named  Kochav Meir, “shining star”, after Kyiv native Golda Meir. Israel’s fourth prime minister is, in fact,  an icon among some Ukrainian leaders. An Israeli reporter encountered a non-Jewish Ukrainian soldier this month who pulled a hefty Ukrainian-language translation of Golda Meir’s biography from his backpack which he keeps  alongside his night-vision device, water and hat. The soldier said to the Israeli, “this is my favorite book, and I take it with me even if it will be my last battle.” A JTA article also noted the irony that in this biography which the Ukrainian soldier carried, Meir is quoted as offering an indictment of her birthplace(then part of the Russian Empire), saying, “The Russia I knew was a place that men on horses butchered Jews.”

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