The Jewish president of a country fighting for its very survival addressed the lawmakers of the perenially threatened Jewish state on Sunday evening. One might have expected the event to be stirring and electrifying.
Instead, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech was angry, accusatory, despairing, and brief — lasting less than 10 minutes.
He used it to make clear his belief that the Israeli government’s refusal to provide arms and fully open its doors to Ukrainian refugees is immoral — and shockingly so, given the Jewish people’s plight at the hands of the Nazis. And he savaged Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s strategy in a mediation effort with the Kremlin that he himself initially requested.
As Zelensky noted, Israel has declined to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons — he cited the Iron Dome missile defense system, but his ambassador’s public requests for flak jackets and helmets have also been refused. Israel has placed entry limits on Ukrainian refugees, he pointed out. It has chosen not to impose serious sanctions on Russia, he added.
The Israeli leadership’s fear of alienating Russia saw Zelensky’s initial request to formally set out his country’s case in an address to the Knesset rebuffed — with pretexts about parliament being in recess and undergoing renovation, when any appropriate hall could have served the purpose.
He was thus reduced to a speech via Zoom, albeit one that was attended by the overwhelming majority of Israel’s lawmakers, screened on the country’s main TV stations, and watched by a substantial crowd in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square.
Rather than prompting empathy or a reevaluation, the immediate response from several lawmakers to his appearance was furious objection to the frequent parallels he drew between the plight of Ukraine — its cities bombed, thousands killed, and millions homeless — and that of the Jews in the Holocaust. He claimed that the Kremlin is speaking of this war as the final solution to the Ukraine question. Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, a former minister, said his use of such comparisons “borders on Holocaust denial.”
But then Zelensky, in his tone of baffled despair, taking a few minutes’ break from galvanizing his country’s resistance to invasion, spoke with the air of a leader who has all but given up on this potential ally. “You know how to protect your political interests, and to help Ukraine, to protect Ukrainians, to protect the Jews of Ukraine.” And yet, he charged, Israel was opting not to do so.
“Can you explain why we’re still waiting” for help from Israel? he wondered bitterly. “What is it? Indifference? Political calculation? Mediation without choosing sides?”
“I’ll leave you to provide the answers to these questions,” he continued, but offered his own conclusions nonetheless. “I want to point out that indifference kills,” he said. “Calculations can be wrong.” And, fist clenched, making crystal-clear how he really feels about Bennett’s mediation efforts between Kyiv and Moscow, “You can mediate between countries, but not between good and evil.”
Israel and Israelis will have to live with the choices they have made during this war, Zelensky told those watching political leaders in their little Zoom boxes. And then he went back to fight it without them.
Hebrew media reported later Sunday that Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid were “surprised” by the ferocity of the Ukrainian president’s critique. Nonetheless, “senior sources” were quoted by Channel 12 saying Israel’s policies will not change in the wake of his address. Precisely as he would have expected.
Supporting The Times of Israel isn’t a transaction for an online service, like subscribing to Netflix. The ToI Community is for people like you who care about a common good: ensuring that balanced, responsible coverage of Israel continues to be available to millions across the world, for free.
Sure, we'll remove all ads from your page and you'll gain access to some amazing Community-only content. But your support gives you something more profound than that: the pride of joining something that really matters.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel