My Remarks on Ukraine from Friday, February 25th:
“If you see your enemy’s ass sagging under its burden, you shall not pass by. You shall surely release it with him.” Exodus 23:5
In World War II, 250,000 Ukrainians served Nazi Germany; SS employed Ukrainians at a rate of 16 to 1 with Germans in the East.
The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, U People’s Militia, U National Army all served to persecute Jews and served in the massacre at Babi Yar and in many other parts of the country.
And while Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the U President is Jewish, his popularity before the invasion was on the decline. Now, of course, he is seen, rightly, as a hero, not just in Ukraine but around the world.
The Jewish community in Ukraine numbers around 40,000 “active” members of Jewish communities with as many as 200,000 people with “Jewish roots.” By and large, Jews are Russian speaking even in Western Ukrainian cities such as Kiev and Lvov (Kyiv and Lviv) where you have more Ukrainian speakers and ethnic Ukrainians than in the east where there are more Russian speaking, ethnic Russian Ukrainians.
My fears as this conflict unfolds and escalates, as we see the brutal images and reports of the Russian assault – are that even while Jews in the country are defending their homeland and suffering and dying with their fellow citizens, the risks that both an occupying Russian army might single out Jews as “conspirators” and that similarly Ukrainians could well do the same, seeing Jews as a “fifth column” and giving vent to historical tendencies of antisemitism - neither are fanciful possibilities.
Yet - when we see the bravery of the Ukrainians, when we see their recent history since the fall of the Soviet Union and their acts of civil unrest to bring democratic government prevail, when they have chosen the West over Russia in numerous ways these last thirty years, even as other former Soviet states have gone with Putin – see Byelorussia as just one example – then we must rethink our preconceived opinions. Or at least I must.
The current situation arises out of several sources. Putin’s megalomania and desire to recreate a Russian Empire, another USSR. Out of the fact that Ukraine, the name of the country meaning “border,” would serve as a buffer state between Russian and the West. Ukraine’s sea ports and rich agriculture. And the fact that there are historical ties between the two countries. Russia’s origins were in Kiev with the state of Kievan Rus.
Yet none of that excuses the current Russian aggression. Nor does any of that, nor even a past containing the antisemitism that Ukraine’s has, mean we should want to see Ukraine destroyed as is now the case.
In fact, if anything, we Jews should be the ones who can most sympathize with the history and the current plight of Ukraine.
Going back to our opening verse. The Targum, the Aramaic translation and commentary on the Torah, interprets that famous verse as, “You shall surely let go of the hate you have in your heart towards him.”
And as Maimonides further explains:
You shall blot [any offences against you] out of your mind and not bear a grudge. For as long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance. The Torah therefore emphatically warns us not to bear a grudge, so that the impression of the wrong should be completely obliterated and no longer remembered. This is the right principle. It alone makes civilized life and social interaction possible. Hilchot Deot 7:8
We as Jews cannot be imprisoned by our past, even as we are commanded to learn from it.
We must help our brothers and sister in danger, we must help the innocent, AND we must even help those who would not help us!
We must stand up against violence and intolerance and murder and hate because we know all too well what these things are. We must show ourselves ready, more than ready but willing and able to help those in need whoever they are.
And even if in doing so NOBODY changes their opinions about Jews. Even if people still hate us.
If nothing else, God has not made it our fate to win many beauty or popularity contests. That is precisely the point. We do what is right even if it means scorn and cynicism.
Because right is right. And because we never give up hope that just possibly, as the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:
The Hebrew Bible is not a code for Utopia. That is a prophetic dream, not a present-tense reality. In the here-and-now, however, the Torah tells us something not without its moral grandeur, namely that small gestures of mutual assistance can in the long run transform the human situation. At the heart of the law of the overladen ass is one of Judaism’s most beautiful axioms (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, 23): ‘Who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend.’
If want a world of peace and understanding, even if we want a world only slightly better than it is at present, then someone, somewhere, must be the first to step forward and do what is right and help those in need. Perhaps to make them friends and even if they remain our enemies, because it is the Godly thing to do.
And why shouldn’t we Jews be the ones in this situation and all others, to lead the way?
WAYS TO OFFER ASSISTANCE IN UKRAINE:
Right now, your gift will help enable UJA to support the critical work that we and our partners on the ground are doing to meet the urgent and mounting humanitarian needs in all of Ukraine – including food, shelter, transport, and emergency medical units for all citizens. https://www.ujafedny.org/
JOINT DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE
As conflict erupts across the country, Ukraine’s most vulnerable Jews are in distress and JDC has launched an emergency campaign to meet their spiking humanitarian needs.
In more than 1,000 locations across Ukraine, JDC provides a lifeline for an estimated 40,000 Jewish elderly and 2,500 poor Jewish children and their families through its network of care services, Jewish community programs, and Jewish leaders — and today, they need our help. https://www.jdc.org/
The international community of Conservative Judaism calls upon all of our friends and supporters worldwide to give generously to our emergency campaign for the Masorti/Conservative communities in Ukraine. We are in close contact with our communities in Kyiv, Chernivtsi, Odessa, Kharkov and Dnipro who report that they are currently safe and at home but are worried about the future and are in a state of uncertainty, not sure when an invasion could occur or how it would play out. They have conveyed to us their current fears and needs, and we have created this campaign, calling on the assistance of our supporters around the world, to help them. https://masortiolami.org/one-time-donation/