Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky likened his beleaguered country to Jewish inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust in an emotional call with Jewish leaders Monday, as Russian troops continued to press their deadly invasion.
During the Zoom conversation with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Zelensky repeatedly compared Russian actions to those of the Nazis, from sieges to indiscriminate bombing campaigns. He also compared Putin’s rhetoric against the Ukrainian people to that which was employed by chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
“This is just pure Nazism,” Zelensky said of Russian bombing attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians, according to unverified tallies. “[Putin] is just destroying the citizens of Ukraine of different nationalities. This is just pure Nazi behavior. I can’t even qualify this in any different manner.”
The charge was pointedly aimed at dispelling Russia’s claims that its military operation is an attempt to “denazify” Ukraine.
Zelensky’s call with the umbrella body, which represents 50 American Jewish groups, was aimed at convincing the organizations to push world leaders to send more weapons for Ukrainians to fend off the Russian attack. He went through the list of cities already run over by Russian forces and warned that the situation would only deteriorate further without more forceful global intervention.
Zelensky, who invoked his own Jewishness during the call, again noted Russian strikes near areas of Jewish importance, including the site of the Babyn Yar mass murder during the Nazi Holocaust, and Uman, a sacred site to Hasidic Orthodox Jews.
He also decried Putin’s demand that Ukraine concede totally and likened what is happening to the start of the Nazi Holocaust.
“For some reason, we have to kneel down and give our weapons away. We have to hoist the Russian flag. We are supposed to say that we don’t want anything, we want to put our hands up,” Zelensky said. “Listen, all of this already happened. In Europe. All of this happened during Nazi times when the German army rolled through Europe and everyone gave the Jewish people away.”
And he said he felt intense sympathy with Americans on 9/11, when he realized that all people are connected.
“Despite the fact that I’m a Ukrainian citizen with Jewish blood, I was looking at what was happening with the American people and it was as painful to me,” he said through an interpreter. “It was hurting because I thought if America is not protected, if terrorists can just kill people…, if the Twin Towers are falling down in the United States it can happen in Ukraine as well.”
Part of the call was public, while private portions of the conversation were leaked to the media.
Conference of Presidents vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein told The Times of Israel that Zelensky told the group that he welcomed a diplomatic solution to end the fighting, but not one based on Putin’s current terms, which include significant curbs to Ukrainian sovereignty.
Also joining the call was Kyiv’s ambassador to Washington Oksana Markarova, who urged the leaders to join Zelensky’s call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine — a demand that has until now been rejected by NATO as too drastic of a step that could lead to an all-out war.
Markarova invoked Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister who was born in Kyiv. “It would be great to have her now with us,” she said. “I think she would help a lot in this great fight.”
The envoy also likened Russian military strikes in Ukraine to the rocket fire Israel endured in conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah, saying that the Russian strikes were indiscriminate and hitting civilians.
“The majority of the strikes are from the air, and it’s something that again, you know, all brothers and sisters in Israel are, unfortunately, too familiar with,” Markarova said.
The Conference of Presidents will discuss the Ukrainian requests in the coming days, Hoenlein said, noting that the group has already been engaging with world leaders to promote the funneling of humanitarian aid to Ukrainians while acknowledging that pushing for military support is not something the umbrella body typically does.
Last week, the Conference of Presidents issued a statement expressing outrage over the “humanitarian tragedy” unfolding in Ukraine, while avoiding casting blame on Russia.
“We encourage all parties, and particularly the Russian Federation, to refrain from historical revisionism that trivializes and distorts the reality of the Holocaust,” the conference said, in the statement’s only mention of Russia.
Americans For Peace Now, which is a member of the Conference of Presidents, said it was not consulted before the statement was released “and believes it is sorely lacking.”
Pressed on the matter, Hoenlein said saving the lives of Jews and non-Jews alike is the top priority of the organization. “That’s what’s motivating us and everything that we do. We’re ensuring that we are most effective in the constructive role that we can play, but certainly, we are not avoiding any of the issues.”