By JOSEF FEDERMAN
JERUSALEM (AP) — Ukraine’s president on Sunday called on Israel to take a tougher stance against Russia, making an emotional plea comparing Russia’s invasion of his country to the actions of Nazi Germany.
In a speech to Israeli lawmakers, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was time for Israel, which has become a key mediator between Ukraine and Russia, to finally take sides. He said Israel should follow its Western allies in imposing sanctions and supplying arms to Ukraine.
“One can long wonder why we can’t accept weapons from you or why Israel hasn’t imposed sanctions on Russia, why you don’t put pressure on Russian companies,” he said. “It’s your choice, dear brothers and sisters.”
Zelenskyy, who carefully prepared a series of similar parliamentary speeches for his audience, made frequent references to the Holocaust as he tried to rally support. The comparisons drew furious condemnation from Israel’s National Holocaust Memorial, which said Zelenskyy was trivializing the Holocaust.
Zelenskyy has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to implement a “final solution” against Ukraine – using the Nazi term for its planned genocide of 6 million Jews during World War II.
“You remember it and you will never forget it,” he said. “But you should hear what comes from Moscow now. They say the same words now: “final solution”. But this time it’s about us, about the Ukrainian issue.”
Zelenskyy, who is Jewish himself, also noted that a Russian missile slammed into Babi Yar – the site of a notorious Nazi massacre in 1941 that now houses Ukraine’s main Holocaust memorial.
“People of Israel, you saw how Russian rockets hit Babi Yar. You know what this place means, where Holocaust victims are buried,” he said.
Using such sensitive language was a clear attempt by Zelenskyy to connect with his audience. Israel was founded in 1948 as a refugee for Jews following the Holocaust. The country is home to tens of thousands of elderly survivors and many of its leaders are children of survivors.
Putin has also sought to portray his enemies in Ukraine as neo-Nazis as he tries to legitimize his war in Ukraine. But historians, noting that Ukraine is a democracy led by a Jewish president, have condemned his use of terminology such as misinformation and a cynical ploy to advance the Russian leader’s goals.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, whose late father was a Holocaust survivor, thanked Zelenskyy for his speech.
“We will continue to help the people of Ukraine as much as possible and we will never turn our backs on the plight of people who experience the horrors of war,” Lapid said.
But Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, which previously condemned Putin’s Nazi credentials, also harshly criticized Zelenskyy, without naming him.
“The propaganda discourse accompanying the current hostilities is saturated with irresponsible statements and completely inaccurate comparisons to Nazi ideology and actions before and during the Holocaust,” he said. “Yad Vashem condemns this trivialization and distortion of the historical facts of the Holocaust.”
The Israeli public has been broadly supportive of Ukraine since Russia invaded its western neighbor on February 24. Several thousand people, many waving Ukrainian flags, gathered in a central square in Tel Aviv to watch his speech on a big screen.
But the Israeli government has been much more cautious in carving out a mediating role in the war. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a surprise visit to Moscow to meet Putin on March 5. Since then, he has spoken to the Russian leader at least twice and to Zelensky at least six times, according to his office.
While Israel’s foreign minister strongly condemned the invasion, Bennett used more lukewarm language to maintain an air of neutrality.
With large Jewish populations in both Ukraine and Russia, Israel is wary of upsetting either side. Israel also has a good working relationship with the Russian military in neighboring Syria – where both sides maintain a special hotline to ensure their air forces do not come into conflict.
Israel has delivered tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine and is preparing to open a special field hospital in western Ukraine later this week. But he rejected calls to supply arms or impose sanctions on Russia or its oligarchs, some of whom are Jewish and have close ties to Israel.
Zelenskyy said it was time for that to change.
“Everyone in Israel knows that your missile defense is the best. Everyone knows your guns are strong, everyone knows you are great and you know how to defend your national interests, the interests of your people and you can certainly help defend ours,” he said.