Thousands of Israelis took to the streets in a large demonstration on Saturday and Sunday evenings in protest of Russian military action against Ukraine. Many of them were Ukrainian- and Russian-born Israelis who were also demonstrating against Israel’s ambiguous stance toward the conflict.
Israel finds itself in a unique position, with large communities of both Ukrainians and Russians living in the country. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, approximately 1 million people immigrated to Israel from the former USSR, including hundreds of thousands from Russia and Ukraine.
Immigration from the two countries has continued throughout the years. Currently, approximately one in every five Israelis is of Russian or Ukrainian origin.
Municipalities across the country raised Ukrainian flags and signs in support of the country. Yet, officially Israel is being more measured.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced Sunday at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting that Israel would be sending 100 tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including water purification kits and emergency supplies such as sleeping bags and tents.
“We are conducting a measured and responsible policy,” Bennett told his cabinet ministers, perhaps signaling to Russia that Israel was taking careful consideration in its moves.
As fighting between Russia and Ukraine intensifies, Israel has adopted a cautious response. Before Russian forces began their offensive on Ukraine, Israel voiced “concern” over the situation. Once the invasion began, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned the attack as “a serious violation of the international order.”
The complex position is largely due to geopolitical considerations. Thus, Israel has been careful to not clearly align itself with either side of the conflict. While it has a strong alliance with the United States, Israel has a vested interest in good relations with Russia.
Israel and Russia both operate in Syria, requiring close military cooperation. The freedom of operation that Russia grants Israel there is critical in the Jewish state’s fight against Iran and its proxy forces throughout the region. A spat with the Kremlin would exact a heavy price.
Israel’s natural gas reserves and plans to export the gas to Europe could decrease European dependency on Russian gas, putting it at another potential clash with Moscow.
Putin’s use of World War II rhetoric to justify his actions toward Ukraine has also put Israel in an uncomfortable position, as Jewish state is usually averse to the use of Holocaust memory in different settings.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish, making Putin’s comparison of Ukraine to Nazi Germany a major leap, causing Israel and others in the international community discomfort.
With reports that Israel has offered to mediate between the warring sides, Israel may be taking advantage of its unique position to bolster its international status. However, the move carries risk for Israel, with ramifications that may only become apparent in the distant future.
For Ukrainian-born Anna Zharova, there are no complexities.
“Israel needs to stop being neutral; it needs to take a stand,” said Zharova, the CEO of the Israeli Ukrainian Alliance.
“Israel needs to join the Western world in its position but also in imposing sanctions on Russia. Humanitarian aid is not enough; Israel needs to take a proactive position. There should be political and security assistance to Ukraine from Israel.”
Zharova said she spoke with Ukrainian officials early Sunday morning who thanked her for the popular support seen in Israel.
“I sat in the car and cried,” she said, as her concern for Ukrainians mounted.
“Israel needs to vote in favor of future resolutions that are scheduled for later this week,” said Zharova, reffering to reports Israel declined an American request last week to co-sponsor a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion.
“I understand Israel’s reasons and considerations. I am Israeli and my children were born here. I understand the consequences but if Israel will not take a proactive stance, Israel could be the next target.”
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israel is part of larger Russian interests in the Middle East. But with a large Russian-speaking population in the country, Israel is also viewed differently than other allies Putin has in the region.
“In Putin’s eyes, Israel is a Russian diaspora and these are his people,” said Dr. Anna Geifman, an expert on Russia from the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
“This is a factor in his thinking. Throughout history, Russia has used every opportunity to get involved in the Middle East, using the excuse in order to protect Russian interests and culture and achieve what they want.”
“They are desperate for help,” said Geifman about the Ukrainian government. “There are many Ukrainian-born Israelis who have double loyalty and identity who still have very nationalistic feelings toward Ukraine. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if people volunteer.”
While Israel tries to delicately wade through the tricky waters of the current situation, several private initiatives to send assistance to Ukraine have begun.
Israeli volunteer emergency response organization United Hatzalah has sent a delegation of 15 people to the Moldovan border with Ukraine. The paramedics and one doctor plan to provide emergency care to people fleeing the war zone.
“It is our duty to help in every humanitarian crisis,” said Linor Attias from United Hatzalah. “It is a big honor and privilege to do so.”
The organization has a permanent presence in Ukraine with over 300 volunteers in the city of Uman, a focal point for Jewish pilgrims.
Traveling with the delegation is also Sarit Lerner, chief technology officer of Sheba Beyond, the virtual telehealth hospital of Sheba Medical Center, outside of Tel Aviv.
Lerner will oversee the use of virtual medical assistance for refugees. It is the first such humanitarian telehealth mission for Sheba Beyond which gives the delegation the ability to fully diagnose patients through sophisticated scans that allow for multi-disciplinary diagnostics in the field.
Israel is also expecting an uptick in Ukrainian Jews wishing to exercise their right to immigrate to Israel. According to a statement by the Jewish Agency for Israel released on Saturday, six immigration processing centers will be opened at Ukrainian border crossings in Poland, Moldova, Romania, and Hungary.
The first group of immigrants has already arrived in Poland and according to the agency, it foresees a “significant wave of immigration in light of the ongoing war,” read the statement.
Keren Setton story republished with permission from The Media Line
First published: 15:43, 02.28.22