Zelensky visiting Israel in 2020 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ukraine war
Learn from Israel and you learn how to beat Putin

Across the political divides, Ukrainians regard the Jewish state as a model of both defensible strength and modern nation-building. The war is now putting this admiration to the test, reports Joseph Croitoru

When he was sworn into office on 20 May 2019, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky singled out Israel as a role model when it came to the defence of his country. He reinforced this statement, which made headlines in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, just a few months later when he welcomed the then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Kyiv: “As a state, we can learn a lot from Israel, particularly on matters of security and defence. And that is something we will absolutely do.”

Zelensky was born in 1978 to Jewish parents, in the southern Ukrainian industrial city of Kryvyi Rih. In his speeches, he likes to invoke the historical ties between Jews and Ukrainians – most recently in December, at the international Kyiv Jewish Forum, which has been working to deepen relationships between the two peoples since it was founded in 2019.

In the presence of the Israeli president Yitzhak Herzog, as well as several Israeli and Ukrainian ministers, Zelensky drew parallels between Ukrainians and Jews against the backdrop of Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s border. “We know what it is not to have our own state. We know what it means to have to take up arms and defend your state and your land, even at the cost of your own life. Both Ukrainians and Jews value freedom, and they are both working to ensure that the future of our states is shaped according to our own ideas, and not those that other people want for us. Israel is often an example to Ukraine.”

In making statements of this kind, Zelensky is following a trend established in Ukraine long before he took office. A wide range of groups in the country regard Israel as a role model par excellence. What unites them seems to be the effort to forge the Ukrainian people together into a self-confident nation – as quickly and successfully as the Jews did when they founded the State of Israel. Examples of Ukrainians’ enthusiasm for Israel are encountered at every turn.

Tel Aviv city hall glows in the colours of Ukraine (photo: Amir Cohen/REUTERS)
Tel Aviv's town hall glows in Ukraine's colours: "Israel, which is now providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine, is still pursuing a zig-zag course," writes Joseph Croitoru. "At the UN Security Council, it did not sign up to the resolution against the Russian invasion despite being called upon to do so by the U.S. – though it has now voted to condemn Russia’s actions in the UN full assembly. The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, avoided making any clear statement at his joint press conference with his visitor Olaf Scholz last week, when he spoke of “bloodshed” without mentioning Russia directly"

Lessons on turning a country into a brand

It is those Ukrainian NGOs and think tanks supported by the West, in particular, organisations that are seeking to cement democracy in their country, that have repeatedly spelled out what Ukraine should be learning from Zionism and from Israel. And the threat from Russia frequently serves as a focus for drawing comparisons with Israel, if not for constructing them.

In 2016, the Kyiv Centre for Social and Economic Research (CASE Ukraine), which is partly financed by the EU Commission, published a report entitled “Some Israeli lessons for Ukraine”. The introduction to this report argued that Israel should be taken as a role model if only because, like the Donbas, the country has been embroiled in a military conflict for many years.

The report, which focuses in particular on Israel’s economic growth, intended to set out how the Jewish state succeeded in becoming a “first-world country” despite facing external threats – a challenge, according to the report, similar to that faced by Ukraine.

The Ukrainian political elite and the civil-society organisations sympathetic to them are inspired by Israel, especially in their efforts to strengthen Ukrainians’ patriotism. Achieving this aim, which is also a strategic focus of the state action plan for national-patriotic education 2020 to 2025, is seen as an essential step on the path to consolidating the Ukrainian nation state.

They therefore look with admiration at how the Jews succeeded in building their modern nation state. In 2018, the Kyiv-based New Europe Center, which focuses on Ukrainian foreign and security policy, and was supported by institutions including the German foreign office, hosted a conference called “Israel’s experience of nation-building: lessons for Ukraine”.

It was held in partnership with the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, an organisation founded in 2008 to promote friendship between Ukrainians and Jews, which counts respected historians such as Timothy Garton Ash, Timothy Snyder and Omer Bartov as academic advisors and board members. Snyder is probably the most prominent scholar to promote Ukrainian nationalism in the Western world; Bartov, who was born on a kibbutz and studied at the University of Tel Aviv, wrote a book about Buczacz, his mother’s hometown in Ukraine, taking a critical stance on tendencies towards historical revisionism in the independent Ukraine.

Mutual exclusion

One of the topics at the Kyiv conference was "National security and human rights: how to a balance in ensuring public interests?" Another was "Countering disinformation and creating a country brand: Israel’s experience for Ukraine", on which the speakers were Robert Singer from the Jewish World Congress and Ron Prosor, Israel’s former UN ambassador and the incoming ambassador to Germany.

Humanitarian aid supplies for Ukraine are loaded at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv (photo: Tsafir Abayov/AP/picture-alliance)
Humanitarian aid supplies for Ukraine are loaded at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv: relations between the two countries are close. Ukraine sees Israel as a role model for building a modern state and nation-building. Against the backdrop of Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s border, President Zelensky drew parallels between Ukrainians and Jews: “We know what it is not to have our own state. We know what it means to have to take up arms and defend your state and your land, even at the cost of your own life. Both Ukrainians and Jews value freedom, and they are both working to ensure that the future of our states is shaped according to our own ideas, and not those that other people want for us. Israel is often an example to Ukraine"

Also in 2018, Nataliya Popovych, a co-founder of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center – also supported by NATO, the German Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit and the German foreign office – highlighted Israel’s qualities as a role model for Ukraine in a seven-point catalogue. She set out this list on the Ukrainian-language service of Radio Liberty, a station that has been financed by the American government since the Cold War.

The political expert and journalist saw "many parallels with Ukrainian patriotism" in the history of Zionism. She lauded the Zionists’ "long years of work" to "strengthen the national character" and the close cohesion of state and populace, whose members are prepared at any time to sacrifice themselves for their country.

Ukraine needs to learn, she said, how to communicate its standpoint as consistently and systematically as Israel did; the Ukrainian World Congress should follow the example of the media-savvy Jewish World Congress. In her final recommendation, Nataliya Popovych took up a statement by Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who was born in Kyiv: "Zionism and pessimism are mutually exclusive". Ukrainian patriotism, said Popovych, should overcome the challenges of state-building with optimism.

Schooling a defensive nation

The reason for Popovych’s enthusiasm for Israel is revealed in the introduction to her piece. There, she says that in 2014 she was working as an advisor to Boris Lozhkin, who at that time was the head of the presidential administration in Kyiv, and is today the president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and vice president of the Jewish World Congress. She and her boss met with the Israeli state official Erez Eshel, who was then head of the department for society and young people within the education ministry. Eshel is the founder of the Israeli pre-military leadership academies, where particular value is placed on patriotism.

Popovych visited these institutions in Israel and came away impressed by how a sense of national identity and social responsibility was being fostered there, with selfless service for your homeland held up as an ideal. In 2015 she went on to become one of the founders of the "Ukrainian Leadership Academy", which follows the Israeli example and prepares young people for leadership roles in society.

Israel's head of government Naftali Bennett maintains close contact with Berlin throughout his efforts (archive photo) (photo: Gil Cohen-Magen/AP/picture-alliance)
An attempt at mediation: on 5 March, Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to Moscow to mediate in Russia's war against Ukraine. Israel maintains good relations with both countries. In Israel, however, criticism has been voiced – especially from the left-liberal side – that Israel, whose aerial bombardments of predominantly Iranian targets in Syria have been tolerated by Moscow, was being overly deferential towards Russia

It is not only the democratic and western-oriented circles in Ukraine that harbour an admiration for Israel; so do ultra-nationalists and right-wing extremists – along with followers of the armed anti-Soviet resistance whose members collaborated on occasion with the Nazi regime. These include the far-right paramilitary "Stepan Bandera All-Ukrainian Organization Tryzub" named after the national coat of arms and the controversial “national hero” Bandera.

Their "Banderivets" (Banderists) website still carries a paean, published in 2018, to the Israeli Nation-State Bill, which continues to attract criticism both within Israel and abroad. The writer of this piece, Viktor Serdulets, a journalist and author of a patriotic, militaristic adventure novel, was head of the organisation from 2017 to 2020. He praised Israel’s insistence on the supposed right to take possession of the country and secure the Jewish nation for future generations. Serdulets praised Israelis’ readiness "to defend this right with weapons", for which reason it had introduced compulsory military service for every citizen.

In these ultra-nationalist Ukrainian circles, you also come across sympathy for the leader of the revisionist Zionists, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky. He was born in Ukraine and as a young man was a fierce Ukrainian patriot and firm opponent of the Russification of the country. Israel’s Likud Party famously came out of Jabotinsky’s revisionist movement, and Netanyahu, its leader for many years, campaigned energetically as prime minister for the strengthening of the relationship between Israel and Ukraine.

Even before the outbreak of war, however, this relationship was strained by Jerusalem’s attitude towards the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Kyiv complained that Israel – whose aerial bombardments of predominantly Iranian targets in Syria were tolerated by Moscow – was being overly deferential towards Russia.

 

In the first days of the war, President Zelensky was still hoping the Israeli government would act as a mediator, but the Russian side rejected this idea. After some hesitation and growing public pressure in the country, the Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid described the Russian attack on Ukraine as "a serious violation of the international order"; but at the same time, he stressed that Israel maintained excellent relations with both countries.

Israel accused of double standards on Ukrainian social media

Israel, which is now providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine, is still pursuing a zig-zag course. At the UN Security Council, it did not sign up to the resolution against the Russian invasion despite being called upon to do so by the U.S. – though it did susbsequently vote to condemn Russia’s actions in the UN full assembly on 2 March. The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, avoided making any clear statement at his joint press conference with his visitor Olaf Scholz last week, when he spoke of "bloodshed" without mentioning Russia directly. He took a similar tactic in his statement on the war the following day at the "CyberTech" conference in Tel Aviv.

This reticence has been criticised both within and outside Israel – largely by left-wing liberals. On Ukrainian social media, Jerusalem is being accused of making common cause with Russia and applying double standards, morally speaking, to Ukraine. One accusation that is usually muted, but is now being expressed more vociferously, is that Israel is quick to denounce Ukrainian national heroes – such as Stepan Bandera – as anti-Semites, but does not recognise the Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine in which millions of Ukrainians died, as genocide.

Joseph Croitoru

© Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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