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Chief Rabbi of Ukraine demolishes Putin’s excuse for Russia’s invasion

27.02.2022
Halya Coynash

Chief Rabbi Bleich with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Photo posted on Twitter by Rabbi Bleich

Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, has issued a statement affirming the Ukrainian Jewish community’s solidarity with Ukraine’s government and armed forces in defending Ukraine.  There have also been powerful messages of solidarity from, among others, the Chief Mufti of Ukraine and the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people.  The statement from Chief Rabbi Bleich has additional significance, however, given the lies that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has again come up with to try to justify aggression against Ukraine.  The Kremlin has claimed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is aimed at  the so-called ‘demilitarization’ and ‘denazification’ of the country.

While not directly mentioning this alleged ‘aim’ of Russia’s aggression, Chief Rabbi Bleich could not have been more unequivocal. He tweeted:

“The Jewish community is an integral part of Ukraine and stands with the Ukrainian people, government and armed forces in defending Ukraine.

The Government of Ukraine has stood by the Jewish community since Ukraine became independent in 1991.”

He then added:  “It has defended and befriended the Jewish community. I don’t need to remind you that the President and former PM of Ukraine are Jewish.“

Russia first tried to justify its invasion of Crimea and military aggression in Donbas eight years ago, when Putin claimed that Russia’s main concern was “the orgy of nationalists, extremists and anti-Semites on the streets of Kyiv”.  Back in 2014, such claims were very publicly rejected by Ukrainian Jewish religious and civic leaders, including Chief Rabbi Bleich.   In early March 2014, he pointed out that anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine were rare, and that the first act of anti-Semitic vandalism in Crimea had come two days after Russian troops seized control.  He added: ““We are expecting provocation. We anticipate that the Russians will want to justify their invasion of Ukraine.  They are already claiming in the media that Bandera supporters are running about and attacking synagogues, yet none of this is happening. There could be provocation – somebody may dress up as a Ukrainian nationalist and start beating up Jewish people. I am not afraid to draw such an analogy - this is what the Nazis did during the Austrian Anschluss.”

In an interview to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Crimea’s Rabbi Misha Kapustin expressed similar fears and came out very strongly in support of Ukrainian unity, expressing his wish to live in democratic Ukraine.   Haaretz also reported that “Jewish leaders aligned themselves firmly with the government and against the Russian invasion. Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Yaakov Bleich, signed – along with other Ukrainian religious leaders – an open letter calling upon Russia to “stop its aggression against Ukraine” and withdraw its army from Crimea. The letter called upon Russians and Ukrainians not to “believe the propaganda that inflames hostility between us.”

Despite such very public rejections of the Kremlin’s false claims, Putin has chosen to rehash them, with Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov obediently parroting them.  This is despite the fact that President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, gained the electoral support of over 70% of voters in 2019.  (See also: The Facts about Anti-Semitism in Ukraine that Russia doesn’t want known )

Ukraine is fortunate to have very many outstanding religious and civic leaders who have vehemently affirming Ukraine’s unity and demonstrated solidarity with those facing persecution on Ukrainian territory under Russian occupation.  In May 2016, in the face of mounting persecution of the Crimean Tatars who had clearly demonstrated their identification with Ukraine,  Chief Rabbi Bleich joined other religious and Crimean Tatar leaders in remembering the victims of the 1944 Deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar people.  He spoke eloquently, warning that “the world must not ignore the suffering of the Crimean Tatars the way it once ignored ours.”  His words can be heard in Russian here and read in English.

Russia’s repression has been directed against all Ukrainians in occupied Crimea with a pronounced civic and pro-Ukrainian position, but Crimean Tatars have undoubtedly suffered the most.  While they form the majority of the 120 Ukrainian political prisoners held in occupied Crimea or Russia, there are also a large number of prominent Crimean Tatars living in Kyiv who would be close to the top of Russia’s hitlist were the worst to happen and Kyiv fall to the Russian invaders.

On the eve of Russia’s invasion, Said Ismagilov, Mufti of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine, issued a moving appeal to all Ukrainians to stand, united, in defence of Ukraine. 

It is this unity, as well as the blunt rejection of Moscow’s lies, that Ukrainians have been demonstrating for three days, as Russia claims to be ‘demilitarizing’ and ‘denazifying’ Ukraine by shooting and bombing an ambulance; a kindergarten; residential areas and courageous soldiers standing in defence of their homeland.

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