Stuck in the middle with Ukraine: What the press is saying about Russia’s invasion
Dispatching reporters to Europe (and squabbling with each other over it), Israel wrestles with the unfolding horror, Jerusalem’s non-stance, and the ghosts of WWII
1. Ukraine in pain: Like much of the media around the world, Israel’s press has been nearly singly focused on the war in Ukraine for the past week. The coverage has mostly been a mix of straight reportage on the war, heart-rending eyewitness accounts, including from Israeli reporters sent into the European crucible, and close tracking of Jerusalem’s attempts to thread the needle between supporting Ukraine and staying on the Kremlin’s good side.
- “Thousands of dead,” read the front page headline of Yedioth Ahronoth on Thursday, the words emblazoned over a picture of a burning building in Kharkiv that had been shelled by Russian forces, typifying front pages across the Israeli media landscape over the past week.
- With Israeli reporters dispatched to Kyiv, Lviv and Ukraine’s borders, much of the first-hand reportage focuses less on the actual fighting, which is further away and covered by wire services, and more on the humanitarian disaster unfolding, particularly with Jewish or Israeli angles.
- Army Radio, for instance, interviews a 10-year-old boy who fled from Kyiv to Israel with his family when fighting broke out. “The way was very scary, every second you heard booms, and every 10 meters was a checkpoint with armed soldiers. I didn’t have time to say bye, I barely managed to grab anything from the house,” he says.
- In a similar vein, Kan runs a video diary of Rabbi Shmueli Azman and his wife Dvori, who also fled Kyiv for Israel. “There are so many Jews still stuck in Ukraine and in Kyiv, which is totally bombed out and shelled,” Dvori says.
- The station says her husband headed back to Moldova to help with the rescue of more Jews, an operation that several Israeli journalists were on hand to witness Thursday, including ToI’s Naomi Lanzkron. “The final days were horrible. There was a large number of missiles and we heard shooting in the street. And then we realized it was time to leave,” an escaping Kyivan tells her. “We are staying in Israel, we’re not going back. We had hoped to move anyway.”
- Describing the border crossing, Israel Hayom’s Yifat Ehrlich writes that the scene is “stomach-churning”: “Some 100,000 people have crossed here in the last week. On the Ukrainian side is a traffic jam 12 miles long, and on the Moldovan side are a few tents, hot drinks, food, buses and dozens of volunteers, relatives, friends and others waiting in the cold for the arrivals.
- Several outlets interview residents of Kherson, the first major city to be taken by Russia, though with pretty much everyone holed up at home, the information they all pass along appears to be more rumor than fact. “Now there is a large number of Russian troops as well as vehicles. Groups of Russian soldiers are patrolling the city. The residents say sometimes [the soldiers] enter homes, mostly looking for weapons and medicine,” Haaretz quotes Polina Abrazhevich, who got stuck in the city, saying.
- Another resident tells Army Radio: “I haven’t left my home and haven’t been around the city. I heard there’s no Russian flag, I believe we are still free, but there are explosions and Russian soldiers are going around.”
2. Bring the gun, leave the canned statements: As the war rages in Ukraine, a separate battle is taking place in Israel over Jerusalem’s attempts to keep a fragile balance between Ukraine and Russia. While Jerusalem has made a show of all the humanitarian aid it is sending — and which is appreciated — Ukrainians would really like some of those neat Iron Dome air defense systems or other Israeli weapons.
- “We don’t need the support, but we need the weapons to protect ourselves,” Lviv Oblast governor Maksym Kozytskyy tells The Times of Israel’s Lazar Berman. “If we had the same opportunity that Israel does, these air defense systems, we would have prevailed in the air.”
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is even blunter, telling a press conference that “I don’t feel Bennett is wrapped in our flag.”
- The quote belies Bennett’s claim to Channel 13 in an interview that “various parties” prefer that Israel stay neutral so it can act as an honest mediator between Moscow and Kyiv.
- Yedioth Ahronoth puts Zelensky’s flag quote across its front page and makes it seem as if Zelensky had made the comment in an interview with its correspondent in Kyiv Edy Duks. The decision to play it up thusly may have been a reaction to a mini-war of its own with Channel 12, which had noted that Zelensky made the comment to “its” correspondent Itai Angel. Angel is technically there for the Uvda (“Fact”) news magazine that airs on the channel, and which had called him “the only Israeli at the press conference.”
- Yedioth, aware of what is really important here, initially responded by throwing shade at Uvda, tweeting a picture of Duks there, and telling the show that “he even served in the IDF, fact.”
אדי דוקס (משמאל), הכתב הישראלי של ידיעות אחרונות וynet (אפילו שירת בצה"ל, עובדה) שהיה היום במתחם המבוצר בקייב במסיבת העיתונאים המדוברת של נשיא אוקראינה זלנסקי https://t.co/Adr4Dtyq0Z pic.twitter.com/rKi4ZKhwmg
— ידיעות אחרונות (@YediotAhronot) March 3, 2022
- Writing in Haaretz, Kyiv entrepreneur Ilya Bezrucho expands on Zelensky’s sentiment: “From the viewpoint of Ukrainian Jews, Israel’s insufficient engagement with their suffering is both disillusioning and ineffective. From where we stand, under Russian bombardment, the State of Israel seems more interested in public relations than in real action to help us and to help our country,” he writes.
- But Ynet reports that the army at least is happy with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s fence-sitting: “Senior IDF officials explain that these are balanced, realistic and responsible stances given the army’s challenges. The US is indeed our greatest ally, but the Russians are on the border and the war with Iran on Syrian territory has not ended.”
- In Israel Hayom, which appears to be continuing its proud tradition of toeing the government line, the debate is almost totally absent. In Lviv, a reporter finds one interviewee who mentions wanting to get military help from Israel … some other time. “After we win, we’ll need Israel’s help in building a strong army, and especially with air defenses.”
- (Another article includes an aside that mentions another way Israel is helping: diplomats at the border helping people cross over are not extending the aid to men of fighting age. “We’re not helping people defect,” he says.)
- Not everyone is convinced that the Ukrainians should need to wait for Israeli aid. “Can it be that the Defense Ministry can say that because we need to bomb Syria once or twice a week we’re going to stay neutral in this war?” former Foreign Ministry director Alon Liel asks Army Radio. “It’s absurd.”
- It’s perhaps not the IDF’s call, though. The same station reports that the military was willing to send Ukraine some defensive equipment, like helmets and flak jackets, but the political leadership shot the idea down.
- Former IDF Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin writes for Channel 12’s website that Israel should not forget its other strategic interests, like an Iron Dome re-arming package from the US: “Approval of the aid, which is being held up, is currently in the Senate, and could be taken off the table if Israel’s policies in the Ukraine crisis raise criticism in Congress.”
- “Yes, Israel needs to take the safety of hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Russia and Ukraine into consideration. And with a small Russian contingent operating in neighboring Syria, a degree of strategic caution is called for,” fumes Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz. “That still doesn’t excuse the pusillanimous two-faced non-response to Putin’s abuse of the memory of the Holocaust when he claims to be on a campaign of ‘de-nazification’ against the ‘neo-Nazi junta’ led by a Jewish president in Kyiv.”
3. Putin loves bombing dead Jews, or does he? As an idea of what Israel might expect should it decide to go all-in on Ukraine, Yad Vashem head Dani Dayan tells ToI’s Judah Ari Gross that for the Holocaust memorial’s relatively tame statement against the invasion he got significant pushback from Russian officials, a letter of protest from the country’s ambassador in Israel, and a public response from the speaker of the Kremlin, who invited him to see the “alleged atrocities” committed by Ukraine against ethnic Russians, which he claimed justified the “denazification” remarks.
- Nonetheless, Dayan doesn’t back down, calling Russia’s attacks “outrageous” and rejecting Moscow’s claims it launched the offensive to “denazify” the country.
- “It is not based on fact, it distorts and trivializes the Holocaust, and we deplore it,” Dayan says.
- A large chunk of the outrage aimed at Russia has been over a bombing that Ukraine said struck near the Babyn Yar memorial to over 33,000 Jews massacred by the Nazis in a ravine there during the Holocaust.
- “To think that 80 years later, Russian forces would strike the area of the Babyn Yar memorial site and desecrate the memories of the Jews who were murdered there, is sickening,” writes antisemitism watchdog Liora Rez for CNN, recalling her family’s flight from Kiev before the Holocaust.
- “On Tuesday night, Vladimir Putin targeted and damaged the Babyn Yar area in a missile strike — aiming for the local TV tower and studio complex that the Soviet Union chose to construct alongside that blood-drenched earth — and in so doing further highlighted the historic resonance of the outrage he is currently pursuing in Ukraine, and the vast danger it poses,” ToI editor David Horovitz writes.
- “For many, whether deliberate or not, these strikes exposed the absurdity of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he launched the war to “denazify” Ukraine,” says NBC news.
- But debunking reports that often made it seem as if the Babyn Yar site had taken a direct hit, damaging the mass grave or memorials nearby, Ynet’s Ron Ben Yishai visits the site and gleefully reports back that everything is still hunky-dory.
- “After touring the whole breadth of the large site I can report with confidence that no memorial was damaged and no bomb, missile or shell hit the area,” he writes, reporting that the closest hit was 300 meters away.
- JTA’s Cnaan Liphshiz points out that Zelensky also stretched the truth when he decried shelling near Uman, a pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews. But he notes that it’s part and parcel with his strategy of suddenly emphasizing his Jewishness against Putin’s Nazified claims.
- “He’s using the Jewish angle – and it’s absolutely kosher,” Ukraine-born author and former MK Roman Bronfman tells him. He adds that even if Babyn Yar wasn’t hit “isn’t it bad enough that it’s in danger of being hit because of Russian bombs? Zelensky and his people are using this quite rightly to spur world Jewry to speak out.”