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A Moral Stain

Mark ThomasEPA-EFEREXShutterstock

“Foes or friends, this must be heard,” wrote Gunter Grass in his poem “This must be said: what a mess!” This brings me to another poem, written by another German, a pastor named Martin Niemoller, titled “First They Came…” While most of you are probably familiar with this poem, it must be heard again:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this short ‘confessional prose’ because of Israel’s—especially Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s—reaction to the devastating, atrocious, brutal invasion of Putin’s Russian forces into the proud, peace-loving country of Ukraine. We are all accustomed by now to the erroneous, overused term Nazis, Hitler this, Hitler that. But if ever there was a justification for it, then it is now. His name is Putin. Though he too uses the Nazi terminology wrongly for his propagandist usage. Of course, in his case, the name of another maniacal murderer, another megalomaniac despot comes first to mind. Stalin.

Whatever you call him, though, his intentions and actions are very clear, and are playing horrifically daily in front of our eyes. And so is the courageous, inspiring resistance of the Ukrainian people and their leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky—the only other Jewish leader of a country in the world—which has inspired the entire world with his resolute strength under such tremendous pressure. Not much less so for President Biden, for his straight, clear-eyed stand for freedom, democracy, and the Ukrainian people against the tyranny and unprovoked war of Putin and the Russians. He has taken a firm stand from the beginning, and was able to unify not only the American Congress and people of this country (to a large, impressive degree), but also Europe and the entire free world as well.

Who was left behind? Why, Israel of course, the very country one would expect to be at the forefront of those marching and speaking in defense of Ukraine. Another overused term/word, the Holocaust, and its crucial lessons, never had a better time to be used meaningfully. Yet the Israeli government fell silent suddenly. Not its people, no: they demonstrated and raised their voices in support of the Ukrainian people. And not all the government. Foreign Minister (who’s supposed to be the next prime minister after two years to this coalition government) Yair Lapid spoke quite forcefully against the Russian invasion. And Israel, after all, voted together with the other 141 countries in the UN Assembly to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Indeed, as I write this, Israel is planning to establish a field hospital in Lviv, Ukraine. Israel is also, though not problem-free, absorbing many refugees. Some Jews, some not. Among them was a group of Jewish orphaned children. Commendable. Yet PM Bennett, fancying himself Churchill, Kissinger—most likely Chamberlain, however, for his appeasement—had refrained so far from condemning Russia by name or deed. Worse still, the Ukrainian government, hearing the drums of war loud and clear coming from across the border with Russia, had asked America for a supply of the Iron Dome missile defense system, to fight the invading army’s rockets and missiles that were sure to come. Let‘s stop here and think for a moment what a difference to the brave Ukrainian fighters that would’ve made. But no. Though the US administration had agreed, Israel had refused to go ahead with it. Frightened of who and what exactly?

Well… Putin. Our century’s Hitler/Stalin. This goes deep, my friends, to the essence of the creation of Israel and its moral fortitude. I have no doubt that in the days to come Israel would help Ukraine even more. And it will do some good deeds. But in the crucial moment of need, it failed to stand up for the tyrant. Bennett fancied himself a peace negotiator, even broke the Shabbat in order to fly to the dictator’s long table. What for? What did he think? That he will convince him to stop the war? That he can bring peace where there was no wish for peace? He may have confused, when it came to Putin’s treatment of Israel, the snake’s apathy for empathy.

I’m very well aware that Israel has its own needs and calculations. Free air attacks in Syria’s skies on Iran’s forces there, and torpedoing the imminent renewal of The Nuclear Deal with Iran. Which I see, by and by, as Bennett’s real concern and urgent flight to Moscow. His attempt to receive confirmation from the despot that he would cancel his approval of it. Real politics has its demands. But not in that moment of defiance in which the whole world is holding its breath, united (almost) in its worry that a madman, with an immense arsenal of nuclear bombs, will push the trigger and blow this world up.

NO. This was a time for moral strength. For moral clarity—not moral relativity. For everything Israel, the Jewish state is supposed to be about. History was calling. But the call was not returned. Not initially, anyhow. Which the free world—“Foes or friends, this must be heard… This must be said: what a mess!”— will surely remind us of in the next, our own hour of need.

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