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As Zelensky prods Israel for aid, ‘Glory to Ukraine’ rings out at Tel Aviv square

Thousands in Habima Square attend a screening of the president’s speech, including refugees freshly arrived from the war zone

Miriam Herschlag is Opinion & Blogs editor at The Times of Israel

Galina Belchenko attends a live screening of Ukrainian President Zelensky's speech to Israel's lawmakers, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Sunday, March 20, 2020 (Miriam Herschlag for ToI)
Galina Belchenko attends a live screening of Ukrainian President Zelensky's speech to Israel's lawmakers, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Sunday, March 20, 2020 (Miriam Herschlag for ToI)

Galina Balchenko was weeping as the sun set over Tel Aviv’s Habima Square. Holding a sign proclaiming “Israel stands by Ukraine,” the 68-year-old immigrant waited to watch a giant projection of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech Sunday to Israel’s lawmakers.

Belchenko came to Israel from Ukraine 15 years ago. Her 60-year-old brother and his family remain in Sumy, a Ukrainian border town hit hard by Russian bombing and a siege that the UN refugee agency says has led to conditions that are “extremely dire.” Residents face “potentially fatal” shortages of food, water and medicine.

“So many people have died there, so many children,” Balchenko sighed. “The city is like… [long pause]… it’s like there is no city.”

Balchenko was one among thousands who came to watch Zelensky’s speech projected onto the outer wall of Israel’s premier theater.

The crowd filled the square with blue and yellow, the color of the country’s flag, and shouts of “Slava Ukraini” – “Glory to Ukraine.”

Sounds of Ukrainian and Russian speech were heard as much as Hebrew, perhaps more, and among the attendees were a sizable number of recently arrived refugees who fled the war, many with relatives in Israel.

Sisters Arina, 8 (left), and Anastasia, 14, attend a live screening of Ukrainian Pres. Zelensky’s speech to Israel’s lawmakers, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Sunday, March 20, 2020 (Miriam Herschlag / The Times of Israel)

Two fresh arrivals were sisters Arina, 8, and Anastasia, 14, who reached Israel on Friday. They joined their relative, Ina Nyeper, who immigrated to Israel two years ago and lives in Ashkelon.

Nyeper’s parents and her husband’s parents remain in Ukraine and she said they speak several times a day.

Friends Liza, left, and Ludmilla attend a live screening of Ukrainian Pres. Zelensky’s speech to Israeli lawmakers, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Sunday, March 20, 2020 (Miriam Herschlag / The Times of Israel)

Ludmilla, 23, who didn’t give her last name, also came just two days prior following a 48-hour bus ride to Budapest, and a 2 1/2 hour flight to Tel Aviv. Her message: Don’t use Yango, the Russian ride-hailing and delivery service popular in Tel Aviv. “If people use Yango they are supporting murders in Ukraine,” she said.

Her friend, Liza Dubinska, 26, who moved to Israel from Kyiv a few years ago, said, “It’s really hard for me to be here, not there. It’s war. It’s genocide. It’s murder.”

She dismissed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertions that he is liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazis.

“Half my family is from Russia,” she said. “My family doesn’t need help.”

Alex, a Russian-born immigrant to Israel attends a live screening of Ukrainian Pres. Zelensky’s speech to Israeli lawmakers, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Sunday, March 20, 2020

Russian-born Alex agreed. “I love Russia, but what has happened is terrible. We must stop it.”

He said none of his Russian relatives, friends or colleagues in Israel have sided with Putin. Asked why, he said it was because they were not watching the propaganda on Russian television.

Itai, 10, wears his Purim costume, a jail labeled “PUT IN JAIL” at a live screening of Ukrainian Pres. Zelensky’s speech to Israeli lawmakers, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Sunday, March 20, 2020 (Miriam Herschlag / The Times of Israel)

Itai and Omer were a rare pair of Israelis at the rally who had no direct personal ties to Ukraine. They stood out because 10-year-old Itai wore his Purim costume, a black box that had bars like a prison cell. It was labeled “PUT IN JAIL.” His father, Omer, said they had come at Itai’s request to protest what was happening in Ukraine.

As for Zelensky’s speech, Omer found it “A bit aggressive toward Israel.”

Demonstrators gather at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022, to watch a televised video address by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Jack Guez/ AFP)

“We understand his distress and also think Israel should do more for Ukraine,” the father said. “But the comparison to the Holocaust was uncalled for and may have undermined his speech.”

But for Ludmilla, the comparison was clearly salient. She described Israelis as “kind people who understand what we face because a long time ago they had something like that with Hitler.”

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