September 11, 2023 | The Algemeiner

Israeli and Ukrainian Relations Are Essential; Is Rosh Hashanah Development a Hopeful Sign?

September 11, 2023 | The Algemeiner

Israeli and Ukrainian Relations Are Essential; Is Rosh Hashanah Development a Hopeful Sign?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week, in order to come to an agreement on Jewish pilgrims visiting the Ukranian town of Uman for Rosh Hashanah.

The two leaders worked to repair relations damaged by Kyiv’s decision to urge Jews not to travel to Uman, to pray at the grave of the beloved Rabbi Nahman of Breslov on Rosh Hashanah; the Ukrainian government cited safety concerns.

Ultimately, Netanyahu supported the Ukrainian position, saying “It is very dangerous. People need to know that they are putting themselves at risk.”

On Sunday, according to i24 News, Netanyahu urged Orthodox Jews to refrain from visiting the city this year, “[citing] the dangers posed by the ongoing Russian invasion and rocket attacks, and further added that ‘enough Jewish blood had been spilled in Europe.’” However, Netanyahu also reiterated the importance of allowing Jews pray at Rabbi Nahman’s grave, as safety permits.

Prior to the war, upwards of 20,000 Jews — adherents of Rabbi Nahman’s Hasidic sect and others — would often flock to the Ukrainian city of 90,000, located 125 miles south of the capital. This presents a major economic boon for Uman.

Rabbi Nahman is an ever-present figure in the Holy Land, with murals and other artwork honoring him throughout the country. His adherents, Breslovers, frequently spread their message of promoting joy and banishing fear while dancing atop psychedelically painted vans fitted with speakers blasting uplifting Jewish music.

Kyiv and Jerusalem disagree about the cause of the current quarrel. For Israel, it is Ukraine’s threat to prevent Jews from celebrating their holiday. Ukraine disputes this narrative, maintaining that a large pilgrimage in the middle of a war would be unsafe, especially given Uman’s lack of bomb shelters.

In April, Russian missiles killed 10 civilians in the city.

Ukraine, for its part, has taken issue with Israel’s denial of humanitarian aid to Ukrainian refugees and alleged ill-treatment of Ukrainian visitors. On the first Ukrainian grievance, Israel last week reinstated the lapsed benefits for 14,000 Ukrainian refugees.

The second point is trickier. While Ukrainian officials have complained that their citizens have been treated poorly and deported from or denied entry into Israel, Jerusalem maintains that the issue revolves around Ukrainians abusing tourist visas and remaining for unsanctioned periods of time.

The disputes regarding travel into Ukraine are not new. Citing dissatisfaction with Israel’s treatment of Ukrainian visitors, Kyiv threatened to suspend its visa-free travel agreement with Israel in 2019 and 2022. Beyond Israel’s treatment of tourists and refugees, Kyiv has frequently complained that Israel has not done enough to help Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression. While Israel has deliberately not delivered offensive weapons to Ukraine, Jerusalem has provided anti-drone systems, a missile warning system, vehicles, helmets, flak jackets, protective vests, gas masks, mine protection units, and hazmat filtration systems, in addition to humanitarian aid.

Israel’s reluctance to anger Moscow stems from the war that Iran is conducting against Israel via proxies in Syria and elsewhere. Along Israel’s northeast border, Iran has encircled the Jewish state via weapons transfers. In response, Jerusalem has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria targeting these weapons. But Russia maintains bases, aircraft, and soldiers in Syria, complicating Israel’s security operations. Israel must coordinate and de-conflict with the Russians to prevent an unwanted escalation. As such, Israel cannot afford to poke the Russian bear on Ukraine if it wants to have freedom of action in Syria.

However, some of Israel’s ties to Russia are harder to justify. Last week, Israel and Russia signed a deal to facilitate cooperation between their countries’ filmmakers. Ukraine was understandably angry, charging that Israel signed a deal with “the Russian propaganda perpetrators.” Indeed, Russia has a long history of using movies as a key part of its soft power, and signing this deal will assist Moscow’s propaganda machine.

After the agreement was signed, Israel was heavily criticized for its decision to sign the film pact.

For its part, Israel has its own complaints regarding Ukraine’s friendship. In early 2020, Israel welcomed Ukraine’s decision to leave a United Nations body dedicated to promoting Palestinian grievances against Israel. Since then, Kyiv’s actions at Turtle Bay have not been as friendly. In a July 2023 interview, Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine warned that Kyiv’s support for 90 percent of anti-Israel UN resolutions would harm relations between the two countries. In particular, the Israeli ambassador denounced Ukraine’s support for a resolution calling for the International Court of Justice to weigh in on Israel’s presence in the West Bank. However, an aide to Zelensky called the vote a “grave mistake.”

Both countries can ill afford to make enemies. Ukraine is in a fight for its survival against a Russian onslaught determined to erase it from the map. And Israel has been fighting against its erasure for more than seven decades against enemies resolved to push it into the sea.

The only winner in this battle will be Russia. The Kremlin has labeled Ukraine’s leaders “Nazis,” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has promised that Ukraine “will be liberated from neo-Nazi rulers.” Putin has even justified his aggression in Ukraine as “denazification.” Russia has used this smear to delegitimize Ukraine, both in Russia and around the globe. Controversy about the Jewish pilgrimage to Uman will unfortunately cause more talk about Putin’s absurd claims.

Both parties can learn from one another, from their ingenuity and resolve, and these disagreements should be dealt with in private. Only their enemies benefit from such public spats. In this case, it’s a strong sign for future cooperation that the two parties were able to come to an agreement.

David May is a research manager at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Ivana Stradner is an advisor. Follow them on Twitter: @DavidSamuelMay and @ivanastradner. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. 


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