Never again? World response to Putin shows tragic failure to act on lessons of WWII

From the Israeli and Jewish perspective, ‘never again’ is a potent and credible commitment; but, as Ukraine’s plight underlines, the international community cannot say the same

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

A body is partially pictured as body bags are gathered in a cemetery of Bucha, north of Kyiv, on April 6, 2022 for identification, after hundreds of civilians were found dead in areas from which Russian troops have withdrawn around Ukraine's capital, including the town of Bucha (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)
A body is partially pictured as body bags are gathered in a cemetery of Bucha, north of Kyiv, on April 6, 2022 for identification, after hundreds of civilians were found dead in areas from which Russian troops have withdrawn around Ukraine's capital, including the town of Bucha (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

It appeared to be over on the very first weekend.

Russia’s troops had entered Ukraine on three fronts on Thursday, February 24, in the largest ground offensive in Europe since World War II. By Friday, backed by devastating airstrikes on civilian areas, they seemed poised to enter and take over the capital, Kyiv.

The invasion had been widely anticipated, but the international community, led by the US, had chosen not to directly intervene. President Vladimir Putin was about to reincorporate Ukraine into a reviving Russian empire.

Two months later, that presumed historical narrative has played out very differently. With a national spirit and a military capacity that Putin had not dreamed he would confront, Ukraine has resisted Russia’s immense, brutal onslaught.

And the international community, led by the US, has been inspired by Ukraine’s astonishing resilience to gradually provide it with some of the weapons it needs to continue to try to resist the invaders.

As Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is impossible not to consider, when looking back at the Nazi genocide eight decades ago, what is unfolding in Ukraine right now — in a part of that same Europe where Jews were murdered in the millions.

Members of the German government, among them Chancellor Olaf Scholz (bottom center), applaud as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appears on a screen to address via videolink the German lower house of parliament, at the Bundestag in Berlin, March 17, 2022. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

A potent and credible commitment

Addressing the German parliament last month, Ukraine’s redoubtable president, Volodymyr Zelensky, argued bitterly that the phrase “never again” was being proven meaningless. “Every year, politicians repeat ‘never again,’” he noted. Now, with his country and people being “destroyed,” he lamented, “we see that these words simply mean nothing.”

In fact, from the Israeli and Jewish perspective, “never again” is a potent and credible commitment.

The Holocaust was rightly defined by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in his Wednesday night remembrance speech as “an unprecedented event in human history… Even the most serious wars today are not the Holocaust and are not like the Holocaust,” he went on, evidently alluding in part to Ukraine. “No event in history, cruel as it may have been, compares to the destruction of Europe’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during a ceremony held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, as Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 27, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

In the aftermath of the Nazi genocide, Israel has striven, through almost three-quarters of a century of statehood, to ensure that it can guarantee the survival and safety of the Jewish people — as their homeland and their refuge. And it has succeeded far beyond any reasonable expectation.

The initial international incoherent reaction to Russia’s invasion was a barely needed reminder that “the world” will not easily lift a finger to save nations and peoples threatened with devastation. Israel’s survival, its thriving in the face of new would-be genocidal enemies led by Iran, represents an extraordinary, independent and vital response to that reality.

“Israel is the best thing that’s happened to the Jews,” said the Romanian Holocaust survivor who addressed a Zikaron Basalon (“parlor remembrance”) event I attended on Wednesday night, speaking with passionate clarity at the conclusion of her harrowing story. “We need to protect it, and never take it for granted.”

Holocaust survivor Yosef Hershkovitz shares his story on stage with Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy at the Knesset’s first Zikaron Basalon event, in honor of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 26, 2022. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Fumbling for the appropriate response

More broadly, however, Zelensky’s lament is an all-too valid indictment of the post-World War II international order.

Watching and anticipating Ukraine’s seemingly inevitable quashing by Russia, countries responded as their narrow interests dictated — and continue to do so as the war rolls bloodily on. Their leaders balance their nation’s and their people’s direct needs — for security, economic stability, fuel, wheat, et al — with their sense of moral imperative, and fumble toward what they consider an appropriate response to Russia’s aggression and Ukraine’s plight.

But no international mechanism was galvanized to deter Putin — not NATO, and certainly not the politicized, morally debased United Nations. And no concerted international mechanism has yet mobilized to stop his killings.

A Ukrainian Holocaust survivor and refugee, Sofia Trizna, is helped into an ambulance after she disembarked a special medical transport plane that landed at Ben Gurion Airport on April 27, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

This, despite the solemn guarantees of the international community to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence under the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, concluded after Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. Its first clause states: “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

Looked at today, the multiple clauses of that document read like a particularly foul joke, and a supreme incentive for nuclear arms. Trampled by Putin, they stand as an indictment of international diplomacy and ostensible commitment.

From the vantage point of Zelensky and Ukraine, those broken guarantees underline why “never again” has indeed sounded like empty rhetoric. They showcase the central challenge that the international community, which established the United Nations after World War II precisely to prevent war and maintain international peace and security, has failed to meet.

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