Ukraine War Sparks Divisions Among Israel's Russian Population
Russian speakers represent 15% of the Israeli population. And now, the war in Ukraine is bringing long-simmering tensions in their community to the surface.
ISRAEL — Tatiana was born in Russia, but her heart is with Ukraine — and not only because she has been married for 20 years to Alon Gour, who is from Kyiv.
"As soon as Putin came to power in 2000, I campaigned against him. He is a KGB officer and there are no good people in the KGB," explains the 59-year-old from Khabarovsk, a city 8,200 kilometers (5,100 miles) from Moscow and 1,000 km (620 miles) from the Sea of Japan.
Tatiana, who is not Jewish, came to Israel in 1999. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, she and her husband spend every evening and every Shabbat looking after Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Israel, and sending whatever they can to Ukraine. In their apartment in Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv, boxes ready for departure are stacked in every corner. Above the bookcase of the living room, two flags are intertwined: one in the colors of Israel, the other those of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently blasted Israel for not having imposed sanctions on Russia in front of students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Imposing sanctions against Russia is about values," he said. "Many European countries are on our side against Russian aggression, but unfortunately, we have not yet seen Israel join."
Jerusalem's "middle-ground" policy
This “middle-ground” policy is unacceptable for many Israelis, whether they have Ukrainian, Russian or other former Soviet bloc origins. Marine, 50, from Moscow, is “ashamed of the Israeli policy.” The war has shaken her.
Throughout the interview, she was very careful in her choice of words. "I arrived in Jerusalem in January 2000, just before Putin came to power," she says in Hebrew, speaking with a thick Russian accent. Back then, she came "out of love for Israel," not out of rejection of Russia. "The 1990s were hard years in Moscow, but at that time, there was a breath of freedom and hope in Russia. No one could imagine going backwards."
Ukraine and Russia have chosen radically different paths
Once she settled in Israel, she took little interest in what was happening in Russia. Her last visit to Moscow was in 2006. "Perhaps because my family, Jews from Bessarabia [a historical region in Eastern Europe], only arrived in Moscow in 1920," she says. With a Star of David pendant around her neck, Marina does not feel "guilty at all about this war," but like many other Israeli-Russians, she has supported Ukraine since the very first day of the conflict. "Because they are suffering, because they are victims of military aggression, but also because they are trying to build something interesting. In 30 years, Ukraine and Russia have chosen radically different paths, like all the countries that were part of the Soviet Union," she explains.
Politician and writer Natan Sharansky, the most infamous of Russian-speaking Israelis, raised his voice against the Israeli government’s policy: “I believe that Israel has no argument which may divert Putin from his goal of destroying Ukraine or bringing it back under total Russian control.” He also speaks in favor of a “clear and moral condemnation of what is a barbaric Russian aggression" and "for the sale of the anti-aircraft weapons demanded by the Ukrainians.”
As Minister of the Hebrew State from 1996 to 2000, he recognizes that "Putin got the keys to Syria’s airspace," but immediately specifies that "the lesson of the war in Ukraine is that Israel should never be dependent on the military power of any country."
The Nazi charge
Alon Gour, 52, was at first very critical of Israeli policy but is now relieved. "Thanks to Lavrov, our government has finally understood what it is dealing with," he says, referring to remarks by the Russian foreign minister made in early May in Italian media. Sergei Lavrov said: "Zelensky is making this argument: how can Nazism be present (in Ukraine) since he himself is Jewish? I may be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood." The head of Russian diplomacy was thus implying that it is possible to be Jewish and a Nazi.
This statement was strongly condemned by the Israeli government and by Yad Vachem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, but it did not surprise any of the Russian speakers we met. "They are anti-Semitic and don't even try to hide it," said Alon. Marina adds: "That's not the worst thing he said! If tomorrow he were to explain that Israel is a Nazi state, I wouldn't be surprised. After all, when Zionism was defined as racism at the United Nations in 1975, the USSR voted for it.”
On the other hand, Volodymyr Zelensky's speech via video call before the Knesset on March 20 created tension between Israelis-Ukrainians and Israeli society. The Ukrainian president compared the war in Ukraine to the "final solution" carried out by the Nazis and pointed out that many Ukrainians had been awarded the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem for saving Jews. This interpretation of history shocked the Israelis, their officials, and even more so the public opinion.
Sima Kadmon, a journalist at Yediot Aharonot, Israel's leading daily newspaper, denounced "Zelensky's attempt to twist history" and his "disturbing comparisons". She also recalled that "anti-Semitism and pogroms were widespread" long before the Nazi occupation of Ukraine. Between 1917 and 1921, the Petliura pogrom caused the death of between 50,000 and 100,000 Jews in Lviv and Khodorkiv in Ukraine.
A protester outside the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem
An identity problem
As for Alon, who arrived in Israel with his grandmother in 1993, he does not accept the Israeli criticisms of President Zelensky. Firstly, because the Ukrainians are different today than they were in the past. "I spent twenty-three years in Kyiv and I never felt antisemitism. I'm not saying there isn't any, but it's not like the Russians try to make it seem.”
Secondly, Alon believes that "Zelensky had the right to say that because he is Jewish. Besides, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine said the exact same thing." And finally, Alon is convinced that "it is only a matter of time before the Russians behave like the Nazis. Moreover, two weeks after Zelensky's speech, the media revealed the Russian abuses committed in Bucha.”
Nimrod has a different perspective. He was born in Moscow in 1970 and arrived in Jerusalem in 1989. His family was killed in Ukraine during the Second World War. "In Ukraine, many places are named after people who murdered Jews and who are heroes there. It's an identity problem they have to solve," he explains. He also regrets that the media has "a purely emotional approach" to this conflict.
When support for Ukraine is prevalent, those who think differently prefer not to speak
Nimrod is not one of Putin's admirers, calling him a "dictator," but he understands what drove him to this war. "He could not stop Ukraine from joining NATO. His decision to start the war was an act of pure despair," he argues. "Putin called the Ukrainian generals to join him, but he was not heard. If someone in Ukraine had considered Russia as a friendly country, there would have been no war." Nimrod's views have isolated him from his friends, who are mostly supporting Ukraine.
90% support for Kyiv
In fact, the divisions already existed, but they were less visible and less violent. The current war has led to tensions, arguments, and even ruptures between work colleagues, between friends, between generations within families, and also between Israeli soldiers.
For many, the rupture dates back to the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, when the pro-Russian Ukrainian government was overthrown. However, up until now, it had gone largely unnoticed by the Israeli population.
"At the time, the Russian-speaking Israeli media were divided, because they did not fully understand what was going on. Now they understand and are 90% in favor of Ukraine," says Alon.
In these circumstances when support for Ukraine is prevalent, those who think differently prefer not to speak. Moreover, Nimrod was very reluctant to do so. After several days of procrastination, he set two conditions: To reveal neither his real identity nor his workplace.
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