If there’s one thing that all democratic countries and institutions appear to agree on it is that Russia ought to be comprehensively sanctioned for its invasion of Ukraine; that Putin and his housetrained oligarchs should be hit where it hurts – in their pockets, their businesses, their luxury travel, their numerous homes away from home, their football clubs, their floating palaces and so on.
All democratic countries except for one, that is.
Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust memorial and research institute, is currently lobbying the US Administration to make an exception for one, pet oligarch, Chelsea Football Club owner and general oligarch-about-town Roman Abramovich, who just last week donated what has been described as “tens of millions of shekels” to the museum.
Far be it for me to question the timing of Abramovich’s donation on the eve of threatened sanctions, whose potentially drastic impact on the oligarchs was already known; with armed-to-the-teeth Russian forces massed on the Ukrainian border, Abramovich may well have considered it an appropriate time to re-affirm his dedication to Holocaust memory.
What I will say, though, is that Yad Vashem’s effort to ensure the integrity of its schnor network is typical of the overall Israeli response to Russia’s outrageous aggression, which has been reluctant, simpering, confused and, above all, self-serving. A country built on and dedicated to memory appears to be experiencing an unfortunate bout of amnesia.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s initial response to the invasion expressed concern at the “steps taken in eastern Ukraine” without even mentioning Russia. Subsequently, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was able to bring himself to talk of a “Russian attack,” though Prime Minister Naftali Bennett balked at such a radical formulation. He made do with assuring Ukrainians that Israeli hearts were with them.
When the Biden Administration asked Israel to co-sponsor a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion, Israel refused, saying only that an inter-ministerial team would “examine the effects and consequences of the sanctions on the Israel economy and policy.” Bennett has apparently had phone conversations with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but their content has not been revealed.
At best, according to Lapid, Israel will vote with the US and Europe in the ongoing UN General Assembly debate, which is likely to conclude with a non-binding resolution condemning Russia.
While Israel’s diplomatic conduct has been insipid, its stance regarding the arrival of Ukrainian refugees has been a lot more robust; the possibility of sullying its Jewish population with suspect blood has brought out the ethno-centric best in the country.
To be clear: No-one is even suggesting that Israel accept refugees indiscriminately, like Poland is currently doing. God forbid! But Ukraine has a Jewish population of some 200,000, many of whom have fled the cities and are now seeking shelter. Maybe just a few of them?
According to Israel’s Law of Return, any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible to immigrate to the country and receive automatic citizenship. But there’s a problem. The terms of the law are at odds with the halachic (Jewish law) definition of Jewishness, which requires matrilineal descent – a long-standing contradiction that has never been resolved.
Shortly after the Russian invasion, Israel’s Interior Ministry decided that only halachically Jewish Ukrainians would be welcome. When that caused an uproar – it meant in effect that some Jews could get citizenship but could not be refugees, which, of course, is absurd – the rules were changed.
Currently, Ukrainian Jews can enter Israel as refugees provided they have Israeli relatives who will guarantee they won’t settle here permanently and they post bail of sorts in the form of a cheque for 10,000 shekels ($3,000) per person. So much for a nation that continually reminds the countries of the world about how they closed their borders to Jewish refugees from the Nazis.
There are two key reasons for Israel’s underwhelming response to the Ukraine crisis, in addition, of course, to the inclination of many governments to remain neutral in a situation that does not directly involve them.
The first is Syria, which is effectively under the Russian wing after Putin sent in his military, mercenaries and advisers in 2015 to save Bashar al Assad from defeat. Syria is ruled by the Alawites, a Shiite sect aligned with Iran and Hezbollah, the strong anti-Israel militia in Lebanon. For the past several years, it has hosted Iranian forces on its territory and been the land-bridge for Iranian military convoys carrying materiel and personnel to Hezbollah.
The Israeli Air Force bombs Syria regularly and with impunity, both to disrupt the convoys and to destroy the buildup of Iranian forces in that country. The only reason it is able to do so is that it has an agreement with Russia for the latter to turn a blind eye to its air incursions, as long as they remain within defined boundaries. Russia, too, is wary of the Iranians gaining too much power and influence in Syria.
Among other things, Putin has prevented the Syrian military from using its lethal, Russia-supplied S-300 anti-aircraft missiles against the Israeli planes. Were Israel to publicly condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, it would run the risk of Russia unleashing the missiles for use by its Syrian allies.
When considering the situation in Ukraine, Israeli strategists draw a straight line between losing the Russian card in Syria and the unthinkable expansion of Iranian influence and power in both Syria and Lebanon. Is token condemnation really worth the price?
The second reason for Israel’s reluctance to confront Russia is closer to home. It hasn’t escaped notice here that some people in some countries might draw parallels between Russia’s bombing of civilians in Kharkov and Israel’s bombing of civilians in Gaza; between Russia’s attempt to force its ethnic nationalism on its neighbors and Israel’s 50-plus-year policy of doing likewise; between Russian demonization of Ukrainian Nazis and Israeli demonization of Palestinian terrorists; between Russian violation of international law and Israeli violation of international law; between Greater Russia myths and Greater Israel myths.
All in all, it’s far too close for comfort. Best to stay silent (or as close to it as possible) and let Russia do to the Ukrainians what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians for decades.