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Democracies Don’t Just Attack Democracies—Ukraine is Not Palestine

For those of us who know the Israeli-Arab and Ukrainian-Russian conflicts well, the comparison is absurd, but unfortunately we live in a society so under informed about history and so seeded with moral relativism that the contrast requires elucidation.
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March 30, 2022

What a difference one month makes. On the eve of Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, any Western support of that nation against its much larger and aggressive neighbor was highly controversial. Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri wrote an open letter to Secretary of State Blinken urging that the United States “must do less” in the “secondary theater” of Europe, and that President Biden’s commitment to “send more conventional forces to Europe, if Russia invades Ukraine” would “only detract” from America’s ability to counter China. Similarly, within 48 hours of the attack, Hawley’s neo-isolationist counterparts on the Left—the Democratic Socialists of America—outrageously blamed the Western democracies for Russia’s invasion with a “call for the U.S. to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict.”

Today, with Ukraine’s modern Maccabee president Volodymyr Zelenskyy being more popular than Taylor Swift, everyone on this side of the new Iron Curtain has become a Ukraine hawk. Some of these newfound claims of support ring more hollow than others—Tucker Carlson’s springs to mind—but none is more outrageous than the anti-Israel movement’s attempt to appropriate the conflict with the claim that “Ukraine is Palestine.”

For those of us who know the Israeli-Arab and Ukrainian-Russian conflicts well, the comparison is absurd, but unfortunately we live in a society so under informed about history and so seeded with moral relativism that the contrast requires elucidation.

Democracies don’t just attack other democracies. Russia is not a democracy; Ukraine is. Gaza is not a democracy; Israel is.

The attempt to link the Jewish state to Russia’s aggression has an eerie echo in Vladimir Putin’s own claim that he has launched his war to “de-Nazify” the Ukrainian democracy, headed by a Jewish president whose grandfather was the only one of four brothers to survive the Holocaust. Perhaps there is no clearer evidence of the moral vacuum in which our society floats today than “Godwin’s Law,” the received wisdom of the Internet Age that “you can’t talk about World War II” and specifically that “when a Hitler comparison is made, the argument is finished and whoever made the comparison loses whatever debate is in progress.” Who suffers more than the Jews from the inability to call out our persecutors and the historical conditions that enabled them and brought them to power?

Yet in a world so removed from clear principles, the only lesson our world shares from the last great conflagration is that Nazis are villains. Accordingly, the new antisemites have long embraced the cruel argument that Jews are the modern Nazis.

The truth is that Ukraine and Israel are engaged in similar struggles for survival against rapacious, autocratic neighbors who have publicly committed to pursue a policy of genocide against them.

There is another reason the enemies of the Jewish people have applied this outrageous calumny to the Jewish state, with its emphasis on robust democracy, avoiding civilian casualties at all costs, and providing medical care even to the children of its enemies. This is the classic Russian tactic of moral inversion pioneered during the Cold War and referred to as “whataboutism.” That is, by anticipating an expected criticism and applying it—however implausibly—to the opponent, the tool is rhetorically taken off the table. Former President Trump and his acolytes are masters of this strategy. (E.g. “I’ve lost touch with reality? You’ve got Trump Derangement Syndrome!”)

In fact, many Jews around the world today have family origins in Ukraine, and a painfully intimate understanding of the barbarity that is occurring there. While Jews have suffered persecution at the hands of Ukrainians, more frequently we have been the common victims of suffering at the hands of a xenophobic and autocratic Russian government. Discussing the Odessa-born Jewish author Isaac Babel and his experience fighting in a Ukrainian Cossack unit in the period of early Soviet repression, Harvard’s Professor Ruth Wisse explains:

“Babel sensed that the two groups shared a common destiny under the new Soviet regime, which would tolerate neither the Jewish way of life nor the essential autonomy of the horsemen. He was witnessing the imposed death of both these civilizations. Jews suffered the brunt of the violence, but the Cossacks had to submit to foreign codes of conduct and severe limitations on their freedom. Soviet dictatorship bore down equally on both.”

The truth is that Putin’s forces bomb maternity wards and strafe columns of civilian refugees, and that Hamas terrorists target public buses and children’s classrooms—atrocities literally unimaginable from the humane ethical cultures of the Israeli and Ukrainian democracies. The truth is that Ukraine and Israel are engaged in similar struggles for survival against rapacious, autocratic neighbors who have publicly committed to pursue a policy of genocide against them. The truth ultimately is that justice and injustice are engaged in a long war for control of the world, and that every victory for one is a proportionate defeat for the other. We in the West must abandon simplistic relativism and be absolutely clear as to which is which.


Hallel Silverman is an associate at the Tel Aviv Institute, an organization that fights hate on social media and in digital spaces.

 

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