Is the war in Ukraine like the Holocaust?

“Do we allow ourselves to be distracted by Holocaust comparisons, or do we focus on one of the Holocaust’s actual lessons — the fact that, as Zelensky said in his speech, ‘indifference kills’?”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to Israel’s Knesset on March 20, 2022. (Screenshot: YouTube)

We’re curious…

Is the Russian invasion of Ukraine similar to the Holocaust? Should Ukraine’s role in the Holocaust influence how Israel views Ukraine today?

These provocative questions were thrust into the spotlight last week after Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, repeatedly compared the two events in his speech to Israel’s Knesset.

In his virtual address, Zelensky told Israeli lawmakers that the Russians are using terms like “the final solution” against Ukrainians. He further argued that Israel should provide military aid to Ukraine because Ukrainians “rescued Jews” during the Holocaust.

But this statement is historically inaccurate and false. While it is true that approximately 2,600 Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations saved Jews, a far greater number — more than 80,000 — volunteered for the SS and participated in the terrible atrocities at Babi Yar, Lviv and elsewhere.

Plus, before World War II, Ukraine was the site of some of the worst pogroms (violent anti-Jewish riots) in Jewish history.

Zelensky’s Holocaust comparisons and his claim that Ukrainians saved Jews at the time did not sit well with many Knesset members, with some calling the speech “outrageous” and others rejecting Zelensky’s Holocaust comparisons but expressing support for the “distressed” president.

The Ukrainian leader certainly did not persuade the Israeli government to provide military aid to Ukraine or take a stronger stand against the Russian invasion.

Instead, his speech sparked a conversation in Israel and the entire Jewish world about whether Holocaust comparisons are ever appropriate and how we should all view Zelensky in light of his statements. Does Zelensky’s analogy have any merit, or was this pure historical revisionism? Is Ukraine’s history in the Holocaust relevant to Israel’s stance on the war?

Diversity of perspectives

Many argued that it is inappropriate to compare the war in Ukraine to the Holocaust, and Israeli MKs across the political spectrum disagreed with Zelensky’s characterization of Holocaust history.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated this bluntly at a conference organized by the YNet news site after the speech: “Personally, I don’t believe the Holocaust should be compared with any other event. It was a unique occurrence in human history with a methodical and industrial scale extermination of a nation in gas chambers. An unprecedented event.”

Jeffrey Veidlinger, a historian of the Holocaust in Ukraine, agreed that the comparison is deeply problematic. In a Jewish Telegraphic Agency op-ed, Veidlinger wrote that the war and Russia’s apparent deliberate targeting of civilians is abominable. 

“But like most wars, this war is being fought over the political control of a territory and the sovereignty of a people; unlike the Holocaust, it is not an attempt to murder every single member of an ethnic, racial or national group,” he wrote.

“Zelensky could, theoretically, turn over the power of government to a Russian appointed puppet and allow his people to live as a Ukrainian minority within an oppressive Russian state…The Nazis provided no such option for the Jews of Europe,” Viedlinger added.

Ynet columnist Sima Kadmon pointed out another difference between the war in Ukraine and the Holocaust: “Unlike Zelensky, who regularly makes a round of Zoom calls to every nation asking for help, the Jews of the last century had no one to turn to who would aid them,” she wrote.

Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi agreed that the comparison was inappropriate, “not because [the Jewish people] suffered more than anyone else,” but because “there has never been [another] example of mass industrial murder,” or a time when “a people was sentenced to death to its last person anywhere in the world,” he said on the Hartman Institute podcast.

Halevi added that there are times when it is appropriate to invoke the Holocaust — like when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin welcomed 360 Vietnamese refugees who were fleeing the 1975 Communist takeover of their country, comparing their situation to the plight of Holocaust refugees.

“We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War… traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused… Therefore it was natural… to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel,” Prime Minister Begin famously said.

Meanwhile, Holocaust survivors who fled Ukraine told The Washington Post that there are both similarities and differences between their own experiences and what Ukrainians are experiencing now.

“I feel very connected to the people I see suffering,” Irene Weiss, 91, said. “It’s so familiar…to see families having to leave their home and leave everything behind and run for their lives.”

But unlike the Jews during World War II, the Ukrainians are “getting a lot of help,” Weiss continued.

“Their suffering is in every living room in the world. Their neighbors are opening their doors and helping them. We, of course, were shunned. We were locked into cattle cars and rushed across the country to gas chambers, and nobody who didn’t want to see who was in the cattle cars didn’t have to see.”

Weiss said that she was grateful to see the rest of the world helping Ukrainians, a sign for her that “human beings have evolved.” At the same time, she added, “the cruelty from the attackers is just as severe as it ever was.”

Should Ukraine’s role in the Holocaust influence how Israel views the Ukraine today?

Meanwhile, Zelensky’s argument that Israel should behave like the Ukrainian “Righteous Among the Nations” sparked discussion about Ukraine’s true role in the Holocaust, and whether this history is relevant to how Israel views Ukraine today.

According to historian Jeffrey Veidlinger, “Over one quarter of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, approximately 1.5 million people, were killed within the territory of what is now Ukraine.”

Veidlinger told this dark history in his Jewish Telegraphic Agency op-ed in response to Zelensky’s speech:

In hundreds of locales with the assistance of local Ukrainian collaborators, [the Germans] gathered Jewish men, women and children, marched them to the outskirts of town, stripped them naked, and shot them in ravines or trenches…

The largest [massacre in Ukraine] is Babyn Yar, in the suburbs of Kyiv, where over 33,000 Jews were killed on September 29-30, 1941. Weeks before Babyn Yar, 23,600 Jews were executed in the fortress town of Kamianets-Podilskyy. By January 1942, some 500,000 Jews had been killed in Ukraine…

Because so many Jews were killed at close range, near their homes, by conventional weapons, historians have termed German atrocities in Ukraine the “Holocaust by Bullets.” Indeed, by the spring of 1942, before most of the death camps in German-occupied Poland began operating, nearly two-thirds of Jews in territories now part of Ukraine had been exterminated.

For some Israelis, this history looms large in the current crisis. When Corey Gil-Shuster, creator of “The Ask Project,” polled Israelis on the question, “Do you support Ukraine or Russia?” one woman responded, “The Ukrainians slaughtered us. The Russians during the Second World War saved the Jews and supported them, and the Ukrainians completely slaughtered us.”

However, Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, an independent research group based in Jerusalem, saw this differently. 

Stern told The New York Times that some of those waiting at the borders are “the grandchildren of the people who were cruel to my grandparents. So what? They are human beings. The lesson of the Holocaust is not to behave the same way, but to open the door.”

Should Israel unequivocally support Ukraine and condemn Russia?

“Why are you busy with calculations [regarding Russia]? Mediating without taking sides? You can mediate — but not between good and evil,” Zelensky said in his Knesset address.

Although Israel voted to condemn the Russian invasion at the United Nations, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has repeatedly condemned Putin by name, Israel has declined Ukraine’s request for military support, and has not joined the West in imposing sanctions on Russia.

(Israeli officials have said that they need to take a careful approach to the crisis to ensure military cooperation with Russia in Syria continues.)

In a Times of Israel blog post, Israeli writer Rachel Sharansky Danziger (the daughter of human rights activist Natan Sharansky) argued that, although Zelensky misspoke, what really matters is how Israel handles the present moment.

“Do we allow ourselves to be distracted by Holocaust comparisons, or do we focus on one of the Holocaust’s actual lessons — the fact that, as Zelensky said in his speech, ‘indifference kills’?” Sharansky Danziger asked.

“It is so easy to argue over details, over rhetoric, over the past. But it’s the present that demands our attention right now. And in the present, we are not called upon to debate history. We are called upon to decide what is good and what is evil. What is right and what is wrong…I hope that our leaders will…call the Russian invasion the evil that it is,” she added.

Similarly, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., told i24 News that “irrespective of President Zelensky’s speech, [Israel] should have sided with the West and with the United States against tyranny, against aggression.”

“We are the only Western-style democracy that will still be shaking the hands of Vladimir Putin who has now been designated by the United States as a war criminal,” Oren said. “I think it would behoove Israel, both morally and strategically, to side with the United States.”

The bottom line

There is an idea that “hurt people hurt people.” And, with his back against the wall, with his hope that his Jewishness would play a greater factor in Israel’s stance toward Ukraine, President Zelensky erred in some of the content in his speech to the Knesset. But, this is not the time to give President Zelensky a history lesson.

Of course Israeli Knesset members and those committed to honoring the past in an honest way were perturbed by Zelensky’s speech, and of course the current situation of Ukrainians is not precisely the same as the Jews who were nearly exterminated from 1939-1945. But let’s make sure we have the EQ to know when it’s appropriate to wave our fingers and give rebuke, and when it is time to sit, listen and embrace.

The time to set President Zelensky straight on Ukraine’s sordid past during World War II will come. In the meantime, this is an opportunity to reflect on whether and under what circumstances Holocaust comparisons are appropriate, and learn this history for ourselves.