For much of my life, I hated Ukraine.
As the son of Soviet Jewish immigrants, I grew up with stories of antisemitism, discrimination, and the Holocaust that gave the rationale for immigration. These stories made me despise all of Europe — but my mother’s birthplace, Ukraine, along with my father’s native Belarus, were the focus of my hatred.
I was convinced that the only thing left of Jews in Eastern Europe were buried bones and empty synagogues, and for all I cared, the countries there could burn in hell.
But in 2018, when I was 20, I visited Ukraine and Belarus and was naively shocked to find proud Jews and vibrant Jewish communities. These are resilient Jews who stayed in the aftermath of the Soviet Union to rebuild in a land that, yes, had been cruel to us, but a land that we had also called home for generations. My hate turned into admiration.
I was particularly in awe of Ukrainian Jews, many of whom were part of the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, in which Ukraine forcefully rejected Russian influence. In response, Russia invaded, and made Ukraine the target of a massive disinformation and cyberwar campaign.
Russia’s actions displaced millions of Ukrainians, killed thousands of people, and crippled a country trying to fix its flawed democracy. But Ukraine survived, and the Jews I met were proud of their new freedom from Russia’s control, and the ability to decide their own future in their own country — a freedom that, as an American, I appreciate every day in the U.S.
Now, that freedom and self-determination is under threat again. As of Feb. 23, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is directing a full-throated invasion, waging the largest war Europe has seen since World War II to bring Ukraine under his heel.
Russian troops are pushing their way to almost every major city in Ukraine. There are reports of Ukrainian hospitals being bombed — a tactic Russia shamelessly used in Syria. And Russia has also taken the opportunity to quietly swallow up Belarus and use it in war.
I no longer feel any vindication from Eastern Europe being drawn into hell. People are suffering and dying, and my heart aches for the people of my parents’ homelands. Now I know that being on the right side of history means supporting Ukraine, and the citizens — and Jews across the region — who deserve dignity and independence from war.
But many Americans are confused about supporting Ukraine. They are caught up in the fog of geopolitics: Didn’t NATO provoke Russia? Why didn’t Russia and Ukraine stick to the Minsk Agreement? Aren’t there fascists in Ukraine? What does Putin want? What about Ukrainian antisemitism?
Much of what you need to know can be answered with the story of Ukrainian Jewry.
In 2014, after the Euromaidan Revolution, Putin declared that Ukraine was a country of neo-Nazis and antisemites who were intent on the ethnic cleansing of Russians. He claimed that Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine was to defend Jews and Russian-speakers.
In response, an umbrella organization of Ukrainian Jewry sent a public letter to Putin to correct the record.
“It is your policy of incitement…and brutal pressure on Ukraine that poses a threat to us Jews, as well as to all the people of Ukraine,” the letter reads. “We are quite capable of protecting our rights in a constructive dialogue and in cooperation with the government and civil society of a sovereign, democratic, and united Ukraine.”
In 2022, Putin is using the same playbook, and says his war in Ukraine is for the “de-nazification” of the country — a charge that is all the more absurd given that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish, and from 2016-2019 the prime minister was also a Jew.
But this time, Putin is also saying in plain view what this invasion is truly about: He thinks Russia owns Ukraine; that its independence is a mistake that needs to be rectified. Putin is intent on nothing less than reviving the USSR.
“Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia,” Putin said in a speech packed with historical lies and revisionism on Feb. 21. He lamented the fall of the Soviet Union.
“The disintegration of our united country was brought about by the historic, strategic mistakes on the part of the Bolshevik leaders,” Putin said. “The collapse of the historical Russia known as the USSR is on their conscience.”
This war is not about NATO. It is not about neo-Nazis in Ukraine. It is not about diplomacy. Don’t buy Russia’s propaganda, or the propaganda of progressive and conservitive ideologues in the U.S. intent on blaming Joe Biden for Putin’s actions.
This war is about an egomaniacal European dictator trying to reclaim what he sees as his country’s former glory.
Any other attempted rationale is an excuse meant to confuse you; as the West debates the merits of NATO, real people face the destruction of their homes and lives.
If Russia takes Ukraine, war will not end. The Soviet Union’s sphere of influence extended through Poland to East Germany, and down to the Balkans. Ukraine and Belarus are one step to the rest of Europe for Putin, and many innocent people will suffer along the way.
Given all this, though, for many American Jews, it’s impossible to shake the complex feelings that Eastern Europe evokes, and the prominent idea that Jews should just flee and never look back. After all, what about the antisemitism?
I’ve reported on antisemitism in Ukraine, and to my great surprise, found it much less of a problem than I expected. Ukrainian Jews spent more time telling me they were scared of antisemitism in France and Germany than worrying about Ukraine.
Antisemitism is still an issue, of course, and neo-Nazis still exist. But times have changed, and Ukrainian Jews have proudly stood their ground to work for a better and more democratic Ukraine — for themselves and all other ethnic minorities.
For their sake, and that of all other citizens, Ukraine needs support in its defense against Russia. This means support for emergency visas to bring Ukrainians to the U.S. and Jewish efforts to evacuate Ukrainian Jews who wish to be evacuated.
But it also means supporting Ukrainians and Jews who are staying to fight for their home, either as soldiers or with their vote in a democracy free from Putin’s tyranny. In America, we do this by pushing the U.S. to increase sanctions against Russia and give more military assistance to Ukraine; donating to Ukrainian organizations assisting people in need; and supporting quality Ukrainian journalism.
Jews came to the U.S. to find freedom. Will we turn our backs on a country that, rather than run, fights for freedom where it stands?