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Meet the Jewish activists who want Israel to support Ukraine against Russia

Few Israelis are aware of the intense information battle being fought between Moscow and Kyiv over anti-Semitism and Israel. Some believe the Jewish state is on the wrong side

Israeli pro-Ukrainian activist Victor Vertsner (Facebook)
Israeli pro-Ukrainian activist Victor Vertsner (Facebook)

On February 3, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, issued an unusual apology. Two weeks prior, Israel had hosted the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, a gathering of world leaders to remember the Holocaust and combat anti-Semitism. At the event, Yad Vashem had screened several videos that it said it now regretted showing. These videos contained “inaccuracies,” Yad Vashem said in a statement, and a “partial presentation of facts” that created an “unbalanced impression.”

In the weeks prior to its apology, these videos and other aspects of the Holocaust Forum had been severely criticized by historians and Holocaust survivors for allegedly being biased in a way that echoed Russian narratives about the Soviet role in World War II. The videos were panned for failing to mention Joseph Stalin’s deal with Adolf Hitler in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, or the USSR’s occupation of parts of Poland.

Victor Vertsner, a Ukrainian-born Israeli who moderates the Facebook group “Israel Supports Ukraine,” told The Times of Israel that the World Holocaust Forum and Yad Vashem’s subsequent apology have been a hot topic in the members-only group in recent months.

“We discussed this a lot in our group. I don’t think Yad Vashem would have created those fake videos without the approval of the Israeli government,” said Vertsner. “The goal was to make Russia happy by politicizing the Holocaust.”

A Russian-language Israeli news website called Cursorinfo.co.il, which is owned by Ukrainian businessman Oleg Vyshniakov, similarly published an article that was highly critical of Yad Vashem.

“The organizers of the Forum were apparently so afraid of disappointing [Russian President] Vladimir Putin that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union a month before the war, was not mentioned at all in the video presentation,” the article said.

In response, one commenter wrote, “the Yad Vashem Museum has long been acting like a cheap prostitute! It’s disgusting!”

Most Israelis, Vertsner told The Times of Israel, probably can’t find Ukraine on a map, and are unaware of the political or cultural differences among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, whom they tend to inaccurately lump together under the label “Russians.”

“There are 400,000 citizens of Ukrainian descent in Israel,” he said. “Only 200,000 are from Russia.”

There is a significant cohort of post-Soviet Israelis and Jews, he said, who are both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Western and whose voices are drowned out by the vast money and resources the Russian government reportedly invests in media and social media, especially Russian-language media in Israel. Many of these pro-Ukrainian Jews would like to see the Israeli government move in a pro-Ukrainian direction, for instance by joining the sanctions regime against Russia or by rejecting what they see as pro-Russian narratives about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

The Times of Israel spoke to several such pro-Ukrainian activists who said they would like to strengthen ties between Israel and Ukraine.

‘An information war’

“Russia spends vast amounts of money on pro-Russian media, on social media trolls and on pro-Russian events for their ‘compatriots’ in Israel,” Vertsner claimed. “The pro-Ukrainian side can’t compete with that.”

A 2018 report by the Rand Corporation claimed Russia is engaged in an active, worldwide propaganda campaign, spending billions on traditional media and covert social media to win over the hearts and minds of Russian-speakers abroad. The report documents such efforts in the Baltics, Ukraine, and other nearby states but the question of whether and how much Russian-language media and social media in Israel are funded by the Russian government remains unstudied.

Vertsner equated being pro-Ukrainian with being pro-Western.

“I think for ethical reasons Israel should support Ukraine. We have to decide who we are. Do we Israelis belong to the Western world, or do we want to align ourselves with Russia, North Korea and regimes of that nature?”

Sergey Leivikov, an energy efficiency consultant who lives in Odessa, also described himself to The Times of Israel as a “pro-Ukrainian Jew.”

In that capacity, he said, he feels he needs to be constantly vigilant and speak out against misinformation surrounding Jews and anti-Semitism.

Over the course of the first years of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, allegations of widespread state-sponsored anti-Semitism (and a concomitant alleged mass exodus of frightened Ukrainian Jews) have been a persistent leitmotif in both Kremlin-controlled media reports and Russian government statements.

Sergey Leivikov (Facebook)

In January, a spate of reports in Israeli and Russian media informed readers that there had been a “pogrom” in the Ukrainian city of Uman in which four Hasidic Jews had been hospitalized.

The reports turned out to be false.

“It was misinformation. There was an altercation but it was just a fight between Hasidim and some other people,” Leivikov said.

The news appeared in Theyeshivaworld.com, i24news.com and The Jerusalem Post (which subsequently retracted its report) as well as in pro-Russian media. Ukrainian police refuted reports that there had been a pogrom, saying that an altercation had taken place, but it had not been related to anti-Semitism and no one had been hospitalized.

In a similar incident in late 2014, several Russian media outlets reported that a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist organization had carried out widespread attacks in the port city of Odessa, a story that turned out to be a complete fabrication. This incident was one of many in which Russian media attempted to create an impression of rampant Jew-hatred. In another case, Russia’s Vesti news program cited a (forged) letter of protest from a prominent European Jewish figure decrying “compulsory closures of Jewish organizations and schools” in Ukraine.

Leivikov believes that such false reports are not an accident but are intentionally spread in an effort to make Ukraine look bad.

“Anti-Semitism is part of an information war in Ukraine. Pro-Russian media actively promote the idea that there is anti-Semitism. They constantly report assaults or vandalism in order to paint a picture that anti-Semitism is very dominant in Ukrainian life. But that is not true.”

Nevertheless, there have been widespread reports of vandalism in local Ukrainian media as well. According to a 2018 report by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry, Ukraine experienced more than 130 anti-Semitic incidents — more than the combined tally of documented cases that year from the entire former Soviet Union — in 2017.

Some groups, including the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, disputed that report, while others, including the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, said it seemed reliable.

However, this January, a report issued by the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, a group affiliated with Igor Kolomoisky, a nationalist Jewish billionaire with links to Jewish comedian turned president Volodymyr Zelensky, stated that last year anti-Semitic incidents had decreased by 27 percent over 2018.

A pro-Western revolution

Vertsner, for his part, said that while there were without a doubt anti-Semitic cohorts among those who supported Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution, in which Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, he believes the revolution was primarily about Western values and democracy.

“Of course the Maidan Revolution had a lot of anti-Semites. There is a certain level of anti-Semitism in Europe as a whole. But Ukraine is not even in the top 10 of those.”

In November 2013, Yanukovych announced that he would not sign a planned EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Instead, Ukraine would pursue closer ties with Russia. Thousands of Ukrainians poured into the streets to protest the move, shouting “Ukraine is Europe.” After Yanukovych’s riot police beat student demonstrators on November 29, the demonstrations grew exponentially, attracting hundreds of thousands of people who were now angry about the perceived brutality and corruption of Yanukovych’s regime. The protests continued for three months, with riot police attempting to disperse them violently, and killing over 100 protesters.

A pro-European Union activist shouts a slogan during a rally in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014. The demonstrations, known as Euromaidan, were sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision late last year to freeze ties with the West and tilt towards Moscow. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

On February 22, 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia; soon after, Russia invaded Crimea while Russian-backed separatists began fighting Ukrainian troops in the Donbass region, in a conflict that is ongoing and in which thousands of Ukrainians have been killed.

Russia: Nationalists and neo-Nazis in Israel

The Russian government, for its part, has depicted Ukraine as a state awash in neo-Nazism.

A 2019 report issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that “a whole range of manifestations and signs of neo-Nazism are recorded in Ukraine, including consistent government-level whitewashing and glorification of Nazism and Nazi collaborators of the World War II period…rapid legitimization of radical nationalists and their appointment to governmental posts, cleansing and punitive operations with the use of force against those who are labelled as engaged in ‘anti-Ukrainian activities.’”

Describing pro-Ukrainian activists in Israel, the Russian government report wrote, “after the events of 2014, activists of various nationalist and neo-Nazi organizations started to arrive in Israel from Ukraine with the main purpose of securing financial, political and information assistance to the new Ukrainian regime from Israel and the international Jewish lobby in general. Attempts were being made to use numerous Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union in various events in support of ‘democratic’ reforms in Ukraine and with a view to condemning Russia’s ‘aggressive actions.’”

Referring specifically to Vertsner’s Facebook group, the Russian Foreign Ministry wrote, “the non-commercial right-wing organization ‘Israel supports Ukraine’ established in 2014 [its founder is a retired major, V. Vertsner] has been particularly active in Israeli society. Its activities are usually targeted at the young audiences of social networks.”

Regarding Vyshniakov’s website, the government wrote, “certain news websites are also known for their anti-Russian character, in particular cursorinfo.co.il, whose publications often use anti-Russian clichés of the current Ukrainian authorities and the media.”

Is Israel politicizing accusations of anti-Semitism?

Leivikov, the Odessa activist, accused the Israeli government of often taking the Russian side in its information war with Ukraine, for instance by issuing statements condemning Ukrainian anti-Semitism.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry has said its statements are motivated by genuine concern over anti-Semitism, but at least one reported incident lends substance to critics’ concerns.

In this photo from June 15, 2018 Paul Manafort arrives for a hearing at US District Court on June 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

In his September 2018 guilty plea, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort admitted that as part of his illicit lobbying on behalf of former Ukrainian president Yanukovych, he helped to spread a story, in coordination with an Israeli official, that his political rival Yulia Tymoshenko’s supporters were encouraging anti-Semitism and allied with an anti-Semitic party.

“Manafort coordinated privately with a senior Israeli government official to issue a written statement publicizing this story,” the indictment said. “Manafort then, with secret advance knowledge of that Israeli statement, worked to disseminate this story in the United States.”

Vertsner, meanwhile, pointed out that Israel’s Foreign Ministry under then-minister Avigdor Liberman nixed a sale of drones to the Ukrainian army in 2014. He said that Liberman has been a proponent of Israel pivoting toward Russia and not relying only on the United States as its main ally.

Rehabilitating anti-Semites

Despite Manafort’s contacts with a senior Israel official, critics on the other side believe Israel had been restrained in its criticism of Kyiv until recently. In 2015, when the Ukrainian parliament passed a series of bills rehabilitating ultra-nationalists and Nazi collaborators and kicking off a nationwide campaign to whitewash the country’s wartime history, Jerusalem did not issue any public protests.

Recent Israeli criticisms of Ukraine have been rare, which fits in well with what some critics have claimed to be Jerusalem’s unstated policy of refraining from censuring its central and eastern European allies over memory issues.

In fact, despite Kyiv’s history campaign, last year Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly praised it for its “efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.” (Two months later, then-prime minister Oleksiy Honcharuk and Veterans Affairs Minister Oksana Koliada were photographed onstage at a veterans’ benefit concert headlined by a neo-Nazi band.)

However, there are indications that the situation is improving. In September, the Zelensky administration fired Volodymyr Viatrovych, the head of the country’s Institute of National Memory and one of the primary architects of its revisionist policies. In his place, the government-appointed Anton Drobovych, a young educator affiliated with a project working to establish a Holocaust memorial at Babi Yar, who has said that he wants to bring more balance to Kyiv’s memory policy.

‘Israel is not pro-Russian, it’s pro-Israel’

Vyshniakov, who is the Honorary Consul of the State of Israel in Western Ukraine, told The Times of Israel that he often gets asked about Israel’s relationship with Ukraine vis-a-vis its relationship with Russia.

“Some people say Israel is a pro-Russian country. I say no, Israel is a pro-Israel country. Of course, Israel is forced to be flexible and to defend its own interests. Israel is surrounded by enemies. There are 100,000 rockets aimed at Israel from Lebanon. Iran wanted to do the same in Syria. Israel will not allow it.”

Vyshniakov said that Russia’s presence in Syria dictates much of Israel’s stance toward Russia.

Israel’s Honorary Consul in Western Ukraine Oleg Vyshniakov with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in May 2019 (Facebook)

“Some people joke that Ukraine and Israel have a common neighbor. Israel needs to be flexible and talk to different parties to prevent a confrontation.”

Nevertheless, said Vyshniakov, Israel is helping Ukraine “however it can.”

“A cohort of Israeli military psychologists came to Ukraine multiple times to work with people who have PTSD. Doctors came here to help rehabilitate soldiers in military hospitals.”

Last year, Israel and Ukraine signed a free trade agreement, Vyshniakov said. The two countries have deals in IT, agriculture and the metals trade to the tune of about $1 billion a year, and he hopes that number will greatly increase.

Patriotic…and corrupt

Vertsner was born in Ukraine and lived in Russia as a child, before moving to Israel with his parents at the age of 13.

“I visited Russia seven times as an adult. Over the years, I noticed that the atmosphere was changing. Many Russians truly believed that the world is against them, that it wants to destroy them. Even educated Russians believe this. But if you speak to Americans, they don’t even know where Russia is on a map.”

In 2008, when Russia invaded neighboring Georgia, Vertsner took notice.

“It was so unjust. I thought to myself that Crimea will surely be next.”

When Russia did in fact invade Crimea in 2014, Vertsner started the Facebook group “Israel supports Ukraine” and began collecting humanitarian aid and money for the Ukrainian army and for internally displaced persons.

The Israeli army major (res.) even helped the Ukrainian army improve its professionalism.

“In the Soviet military system, planning takes place at the division level. But in the Israel system or the NATO system, it happens from the battalion level. You can pass a mission to a battalion commander and he plans it by himself. The NATO system is much better.”

Victor Vertsner in his Israeli army uniform (Facebook)

For two years, Vertsner helped the Ukrainian army but stopped when he encountered corruption among the generals there.

“I’ve never seen corruption in Israel like I saw in Ukraine,” he said. “I was in eastern Ukraine and a colonel invited us to a very rich, fancy dinner. There were young women wearing embroidered shirts who were serving us. I asked them who they were and they said they were soldiers. It was so inappropriate. I also saw nepotism, corruption, people who were not suitable for their roles.”

At the same time, Vertsner saw many moving displays of volunteerism and selflessness, for instance a Ukrainian businessman in his 40s who drove up to a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine in a Maserati.

He bought a uniform with him and said, “take me, I’m a volunteer.”

‘Ukrainians are freedom loving’

“Ukrainians and Russians are similar but different,” Vertsner said.

“In Russia, you had serfdom until the 19th century. I think the Ukrainian mentality is more freedom loving. In Ukraine millions of students and other people flooded the streets and stayed there for many months. That would not happen in Russia, unless the people have nothing to eat, only then would they go into the streets.”

Nevertheless, Vertsner believes Ukraine will not thrive unless it fights corruption.

“The change has to come from the bottom. If you don’t pay a cop a bribe, the cop won’t ask you for one. Once you pay the cop, how can you say you are against corruption?”

‘If foreigners invest, corruption will decrease’

Andrey Adamovskiy, a Ukrainian real-estate tycoon and co-president of the Va’ad of Ukraine, a secular charitable organization, told The Times of Israel that he thinks most Ukrainian Jews are pro-Ukrainian.

“I think that predominantly the Jews of Ukraine support Ukraine believe in reviving our national idea.”

Adamovskiy said that since the Maidan Revolution and Ukraine’s war with Russia, more and more Ukrainians have a strong sense of national identity and a desire to shape their own destiny.

Andrey Adamovskiy at his office in Kyiv. (Simona Weinglass/The Times of Israel)

“Ukraine is not Russia,” he said, “That’s the name of a book by [former Ukrainian president] Leonid Kuchma.”

“We are totally different countries with totally different people. We have our own interests. The fact that we speak the same language is not pertinent.”

Adamovskiy said he is not as gung-ho as some others about anti-corruption reforms.

“The conversations about corruption are a little bit exaggerated. We talk more about corruption than there is corruption. The government has had a large success with its anti-corruption initiatives. As a businessman I can personally feel it.”

Adamovskiy feels that the conversation around corruption in Ukraine may be driving away foreign investors.

“If American capital comes here it will protect itself. That would be the best way to fight corruption. If an American businessman raised on anti-corruption values comes here they will spread those values in Ukraine as well.”

Can democracy survive social media?

These days Vertsner’s pro-Ukrainian activities largely involve fighting the information war on social media.

“I recently met a demobilized soldier, a newcomer from Russia. I asked him, hypothetically, if there were a military conflict between Israel and Russia which side he would choose. He did not hesitate, he said Russia, and that was after three years of service in the paratroopers.”

Vertsner believes Russia is spending vast amounts of money to win hearts and minds of Russian speakers in Israel.

“Russia spends billions of dollars on promoting the 9th of May as the day of victory over the Nazis. The rest of the world celebrates on May 8. The Knesset passed a law to make May 9 a national holiday. All those parades, and Russian insignia people wear, and people wearing military uniforms stoke pro-Russian sentiments.”

Not everyone is affected by these messages. Older immigrants and the poorly educated are most susceptible, he assessed.

“In my experience, the more educated a Russian-speaking Israeli[is], the more pro-Ukrainian. It doesn’t matter if they were born in Russia or Ukraine or Kazakhstan. The less educated people tend to be pro-Russian.”

“I think it’s because more educated people can get their information from several sources and draw their own conclusions. They’re not spoon-fed by Russian television channels.”

Vertsner said that he thinks the tide of authoritarian populism sweeping the world is nourished, at least in part, by Russian social media activity.

“The West needs to become more proactive. It’s like in a war, it’s not good to only be defending your position. Western countries can pass laws to regulate Facebook. They can start spreading Western values in Russia. Why not interfere in their elections?”

If Western democracy can survive the information war, which is by no means certain, Vertsner believes the authoritarian tide could turn one day.

“After Putin leaves office,” suggested Vertsner, “there could be a power vacuum in Russia. If the Western world is strong enough to resist until then, Russians might decide that if we can’t beat them, let’s join them.”

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