Navigate to News section

The Arc of History Bends From Ukraine to Israel and Back Again

In Kyiv, the first meeting between the two world leaders of Jewish descent was short on accomplishments but big on symbolism

Vladislav Davidzon
August 22, 2019
Photo: AP Photo/Zoya Shu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, stand at Babi Yar ravine in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug. 19, 2019Photo: AP Photo/Zoya Shu
Photo: AP Photo/Zoya Shu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, stand at Babi Yar ravine in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug. 19, 2019Photo: AP Photo/Zoya Shu

When Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Kyiv this week to meet with the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, it was the Israeli prime minister’s first official meeting with another world leader of Jewish descent. Almost two decades earlier, during his first trip to Ukraine as prime minister, Netanyahu had delivered a memorable speech at the mass grave of Babi Yar where tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered after the Germans occupied Ukraine in the Second World War. His address this week, which took place on the anniversary of the August democratic coup in Moscow that led to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a week and a half before the scheduled inauguration of the newly elected Ukrainian parliament, was a kind of historic occasion in its own right. In a masterful performance—perhaps one of his last as head of state, with Israeli elections looming next month—Netanyahu addressed his remarks to Zelensky and the other “distinguished guests” at the gravesite:

The valley of blood, bones and ashes in Babi Yar is a low point in our people’s history. But with great faith and spirit, we ascended from the abyss to the pinnacle of our revival. What a difference between then and now … From a helpless and slaughtered nation, we became a strong and proud country.

It is a remarkable time in Eastern European history. A month after the unprecedented Zelensky landslide election that ousted the old Ukrainian political elite, Latvia, another post-Soviet state with a complex relationship to Russia, elected Egil Levits another president of Jewish descent. And here was Netanyahu, leader of the Jewish state, traveling back to the Eastern European ‘old world,’ where the Jews in their wandering centuries had dreamed of Jerusalem, and then willed that dream into the political struggle that created the state of Israel. It was one thing for the Israeli prime minister to be in Ukraine, the heartland of the Pale of Settlement where modern Zionism began as well as being the site of the “Holocaust by bullets,” but he was there to meet with, of all things, a fellow Jew, one of two elected in the past year as leader of a former Soviet state.

There was enough symbolism in the meeting between the head of the Jewish state and the Jewish head of Ukraine “to choke a horse,” according to one observer. But there were also practical and tangible matters, some lofty and others not as much—including the upcoming elections in Israel, and the political theater in which both leaders are practiced. Netanyahu and Zelensky, who are both leading countries engaged in uniquely modern forms of hybrid warfare, discussed business and history, and the business of history, as well as increasing military and economic cooperation.

In another, more current, context, the meeting occurred against a backdrop of U.S. and Israeli domestic politics. Netanyahu arrived in the wake of the international outcry over whether Israel would permit entry to BDS-supporting U.S. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. As Netanyahu met with Zelensky in Kyiv, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted about Israel throughout the course of his visit and for the two days after. Meanwhile, with Netanyahu’s meeting with Ukraine’s new president occurring exactly a month before Israeli voters are scheduled to return to the polls to decide his political fate, his decision to leave Israel in the middle of a hard-fought campaign raised suspicions that the meeting had less to do with international relations, than it being an opportunity to demonstrate his stature to the Israeli electorate, including the increasingly significant Ukrainian Israeli community.

The trip had less than auspicious beginnings. Several Israeli journalists reported that the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, had attempted to storm the cockpit of the Israeli aircraft ferrying the royal couple to Ukraine, after the pilot failed to acknowledge her. The Israeli delegation was greeted with pageantry and an offer of ceremonial bread and salt. The prime minister, observing decorum, tasted it, but when he passed a small piece to his wife, Sara Netanyahu proceeded to throw it away unceremoniously. The Ukrainian press picked up on the faux pas, describing her actions as ungracious in the more polite accounts and fueling a minor wave of Ukrainian social media commentary laced with anti-Semitic overtones. Before the trip would be over, Netanyahu’s press team would fire back with a video attacking the media for only caring about his historic and symbolism-laden visit because of a minor misunderstanding involving bread.

* * *

With the exception of Theodor Herzl, almost every major early Zionist figure either came from or passed through Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many among the first waves of immigrants to Israel to Mandate Palestine came through the port of Odessa, the hometown of Netanyahu’s political forebear, Revisionist Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Historically, most of the Russian Empire’s Jewish population lived in the strip of Eastern Europe known as the Pale of Settlement, and most of the Jews from the other Soviet republics (including my own grandparents who fled Ukraine for Uzbekistan during the war) had lived there for centuries. Half of the million or so Jews from the Soviet emigration to Israel over the last half century were born in Ukraine, and as many as 90% of all post-Soviet Jews can trace their roots back to the country.

Israeli-Ukrainian diplomatic relations have a storied, if occasionally fraught history. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic had an independent vote from the Soviet Union in the United Nations, and though it later acted in lockstep with the Soviet legation, it did vote in favor of the 1947 partition plan that called for the formation of a Jewish state.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrainian-Israeli relations have been mostly balmy, foundering only occasionally and most often over matters of disputed history. There was, for instance, the fight over ownership of murals drawn by the murdered writer and artist Bruno Schultz; as well as the conflict between Yad Vashem and Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Viatrovych over responsibility for anti-Jewish pogroms carried out by some Ukrainians and Nazi collaborators during the war.

“The phenomenon of the heroization of World War II era figures such as Roman Shukhevych and [Stepan] Bandera remains a divisive issue between Israeli and Ukrainian public opinion,” professor Wolf Moskovich, an expert on Ukrainian-Israeli relations told Tablet. But there is another, more positive dimension to the relationship as well, which Moskovich described— “Israel, as a positive example and … idealization of Israel in Ukrainian media, does exist.”

On the other side, attitudes toward Ukraine inside Israel reflect the political influence of the Ukrainian Jews who settled in Israel over the past three decades, as well as their tensions with the larger community of Russian-speaking Jews from the former Soviet Union—tensions that have flared up in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine and the ensuing war between the two countries. These have in many instances boiled over into yelling matches and even occasional fistfights over meals.

I have personally heard on numerous occasions from nationalist members of Ukrainian volunteer battalions who tell me that Israel, like Ukraine, is, “surrounded by enemies while keeping a modern economy going,” and therefore, “to be emulated.” Ukraine is the new Israel for many such observers. Yet, despite the conversation about a strategic partnership, Israel has been reticent about providing Ukrainians with the most advanced military technology due to the negative impact it could have on Israel’s relationship with Russia. Like Ukraine, Israel also has Russian military forces on its border, and the Syrian civil war where Russia has played a leading role provides the unspoken subtext for security relations with Ukraine. However, open technical cooperation between the Ukrainian and Israel militaries has quietly expanded in recent years. Israelis have also organized material help for Ukrainian military families who have lost men in the war and have provided assistance for wounded Ukrainian soldiers to be rehabilitated in Israeli hospitals.

Weeks before his arrival in Ukraine, Netanyahu had intimated to a gathering of Israeli journalists that despite his not being particularly conversant in the details of the war in Eastern Ukraine, he was ready to get involved in proffering diplomatic solutions for Kyiv and Moscow. More significant than the Israeli leader’s ability to broker a peace deal between the two nations, which remains highly unlikely, is that the mere suggestion plays into the widespread sense outside the U.S. that the triangulation of relations between Moscow and Kyiv has shifted its apex away from Washington, D.C. Furthering this impression were the rumors spread around Kyiv in recent weeks, that the Israeli government took part in secret negotiations to free captured Ukrainian sailors being held by Russia—another indicator of the United States being bypassed as the primary diplomatic interlocutor in this part of the world.

* * *

Despite the history between the two nations, and their genuine affinities, it remains the case that the talks between leaders Netanyahu and Zelensky had the air of political theater. For one thing, there are the elections next month in Israel but, as well, there is the fact that Zelensky’s parliament and cabinet have yet to be sworn in. Thus the briefing at the Mariyinsky Palace, where Zelensky resides, around proposed legislative policies to be undertaken, was slightly absurd, as neither side can have any confidence in its ability to follow through on the proposals.

Several Russian-speaking elites in Israel and some Ukrainian Jewish elites in Kyiv bluntly assured me that in the midst of a tightly fought election, every vote in the Israeli nationalist camp would be contested with savage abandon. The trip, according to this viewpoint, was simply a last ditch set piece in an effort to cut into Netanyahu rival Avigdor Lieberman’s core voter base of post-Soviet emigres, about half of whom were born in Ukraine.

There were also matters of real importance to the voters in Israel. For instance, an attempt to secure state pensions for Israeli citizens who had worked in Ukraine or in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, has a great deal of significance for many post-Soviet emigres. Denominated in Ukrainian hryvnias, the pensions would constitute a pittance for most Israelis, but carry an outsize symbolic significance. Yediot Aharonot’s Ukrainian Israeli correspondent, Edward Doks, remarked to Tablet that “my grandfather did not live to receive it, but my parents might. It is a question of pure principle as Russian emigres to Israel receive payments for their life’s work while Ukrainian emigres to Israel do not. This includes the ‘liquidators’ of the Chernobyl reactor, and this is seen by many to be purely a question of discrimination.”

The technical complexities of passing a pension law in Ukraine are fairly formidable (the number of pensioners and the year that they left would need to be determined and a concrete budget would need to be allocated) and Zelensky’s parliament will have far more existential priorities. The push for the pension law was a legitimate show of attention from the prime minister to Israel’s post-Soviet emigres, but, still, compared to the symbolic gesture made by the 70-year-old Ukrainian Jewish man who underwent circumcision in honor of Netanyahu’s visit to Kyiv, the symbolism of the pension promise, with little to back it up, feels rather hollow.

* * *

At the midday commemoration ceremony at the site of the Babi Yar memorial, the two heads of state arrived in order. First was Zelensky with his usual and quick strident half-step march. He was followed by Netanyahu flanked by Sara and leading a column of Israelis including the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky and his cabinet minister Ze’ev Elkin. Standing next to the white-haired and sagacious-sounding Netanyahu, Zelensky appeared even more strikingly youthful than usual. The two presidents jointly lay wreaths at the base of the Babi Yar monument. White umbrellas were distributed to women in the audience because of the blazing summer glare and a pair of Hasidic rabbis recited blessings in a simple ceremony.

President Zelensky spoke first and declared his intention to fight anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Yet, despite his oratorical charisma and the years of practice playing the president on television, Zelensky (and his performance) was dwarfed by the hulking Netanyahu, the consummate performer and statesman.

“It is hard to believe that this beautiful forest saw the horror that happened here. Here the forest was silent, but so too was the world,” Netanyahu began his poetic speech.

Apart from Babi Yar, there were other historical tragedies that hung between the two world leaders.

The Ukrainians have long hoped that Israel would recognize the Holodomor—the artificial famine in Ukraine caused by Josef Stalin’s policies that starved to death at least 3.9 million and as many as 7 to 10 million Ukrainians. On the second day of the trip, Zelensky tweeted that, “In commemorating the eternal memory of the victims of the Holocaust, which killed over 2 million Ukrainian Jews, Ukraine appeals to Israel to also recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.”

Israel has long avoided taking a position on this contentious issue because of relations with Moscow, and considerations involving the unique status of the Holocaust. Zelensky’s request, which was also personally made to Netanyahu during a joint press briefing (and doubtless during the two hours that they had spent together in private prior to the briefing), was a kind of political price that Netanyahu had to pay for the meeting.

What a remarkable and surreal interaction as a president of Ukraine of Jewish descent appealed for redress of this long-standing Ukrainian grievance to the prime minister of the Jewish state, in the middle of Kyiv.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.