Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to the Knesset on Sunday evening was received with mixed responses from Israeli lawmakers, with some calling it “outrageous” and others supporting the “distressed” president.
Several MKs harshly criticized Zelensky for drawing comparisons between the Holocaust and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and seemingly ignoring some Ukrainians’ complicity in the Nazi-led genocide.
“I admire the Ukraine president and support the Ukrainian people in heart and deed, but the terrible history of the Holocaust cannot be rewritten,” Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel tweeted.
Hendel noted that part of Nazi Germany’s genocide of Jews “was also carried out on Ukrainian land.” He added that while “the war is terrible, the comparison to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Final Solution is outrageous.”
Hebrew media outlets quote unnamed senior ministers railing at Zelensky’s “outrageous comparison.”
“Zelensky also distorted the part his country played in the murder of Jews,” they said, according to the Ynet news site.
Beginning his speech to Knesset members, Zelensky said Ukraine and Israel face the same threat from their respective enemies — “the total destruction of our people, our state, our people, our state, our culture, even the name: Ukraine, Israel.”
Zelensky noted February 24 — the date of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — was also the date on which the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the Nazi party, was founded in Germany in 1920. “It destroyed entire states and tried to carry out genocide.”
Again on February 24, “102 years after the Nazis, the order was given to begin the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has already killed thousands of people and left millions without a home,” he said. “They’ve become refugees… in dozens of countries.
Members of the opposition were even harsher than Hendel in their condemnation of Zelensky’s speech.
Likud MK Yuval Steinitz said it “borders on Holocaust denial.”
“War is always a terrible thing… but every comparison between a regular war, as difficult as it is, and the extermination of millions of Jews in gas chambers in the framework of the Final Solution is a complete distortion of history,” he said in a statement.
A number of Religious Zionism MKs also criticized Zelensky, with the far-right opposition party’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich, slamming the Holocaust comparisons and accusing the Ukrainian leader of trying “to rewrite history and erase the involvement of the Ukrainian people in the extermination of Jews.”
Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rotman rejected Zelensky’s request that Israel treat Ukrainians the same way Zelensky claimed Ukraine treated Jews during the Holocaust.
“I don’t understand Ukrainian, but if the translation I heard is accurate, Zelensky asked us to treat Ukrainians the same way they treated us 80 years ago. I’m sorry, but I think we will have to reject his request. After all, we are a moral nation. A light among nations,” he said.
Others, mainly from the coalition, were more forgiving of the Ukrainian president.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who has condemned Russia a number of times since the invasion of Ukraine, was supportive of Zelensky and the Ukrainian people.
“I reiterate my condemnation of the attack on Ukraine and thank President Zelensky for sharing his feelings and the distress of the Ukrainian people with members of the Israeli Knesset and government,” Lapid said in a statement.
“We will continue to provide assistance to the Ukrainian people in any way that we can and will never turn our backs on the plight of people who have experienced the horrors of war,” he added.
Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai, a strong critic of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s policies toward Ukrainian refugees, was even more supportive of Zelensky.
“Zelensky’s words pierce the heart. The Ukrainian nation was attacked, Ukrainian democracy was attacked, they are in great distress. We have the human, Jewish, and Israeli obligation to help them,” he said. “Our assistance on Ukraine’s borders and inside the country is impressive. We must also assure asylum for the refugees. We have done and will continue to do everything in our power.”
Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, a maverick coalition member, called Zelensky’s speech “moving.”
“Indifference does kill,” said Avidar, referencing remarks made by Zelensky. “Mediation efforts are important but they can’t come at the expense of values. We need to be on the side of good against evil,” he said in a statement.
Blue and White MK Eitan Ginzburg said that Israelis should try and understand the Ukrainian president.
“I think that in this kind of situation, we mustn’t judge Zelensky. He’s in the midst of a unique situation. If we were in his shoes, we would be criticizing everyone the same way,” he told Ynet.
A Knesset spokesperson told Hebrew media after the speech that several cyberattacks attempting to disrupt Zelensky’s address had been identified and prevented by the Knesset’s cyber security unit.
According to Channel 12 news, 119 lawmakers attended the call out of a potential 140 (– the 120 MKs, and about 20 ministers who are not members of Knesset).