The first sign that something extraordinary was taking place was the stream of people making their way up Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, heading north toward HaBima Square, home of Israel’s national theater and a popular site for protests.
The sea of blue and yellow flags was the second indication of what was about to transpire — an expression of solidarity with Ukraine as it fights a massive Russian invasion. It was by chance that I ran across it, on my way to my apartment just a few minutes from HaBima. As a journalist, you have a sixth sense that something big may be occurring, so I followed the river of people up Tel Aviv’s most fashionable street, more or less knowing what I would find.
But I found more than I expected. When I arrived, HaBima Square was literally an ocean of people, almost every square foot packed with angry demonstrators. Thousands of them spilled out on to the nearby streets, waving Ukrainian flags, shouting slogans, and holding hundreds of homemade signs — many of them openly mocking Russian President Vladimir Putin and declaring the now anthemic phrase “Russian ship, go f**k yourself.” The cry went up from scores of voices: “Ukraini Slava!” and the response “Slava Ukraini!” I asked what it meant, and they told me “glory to Ukraine.” Another chant in Ukrainian mentioned Putin’s name, and I asked again for a translation. A young man told me it meant “Putin is a d**k,” and I laughed.
The most striking aspect of the demonstration was that it seemed to be leaderless, a spontaneous outpouring of anger and defiance, mostly by Ukrainian-Israelis, but with some Russian Israelis as well, holding signs saying “I’m ashamed to be Russian,” and a few apparently burning their Russian passports. There was no stage and no speakers, none of the giant video screens often brought by more organized and media-savvy protesters. There were only scores of people, shouting the slogans that came to them by patriotic instinct, brought together by passionate dedication to what was now, for them, a foreign country — but still something like an “old country,” to which they still felt pangs of loyalty and affection.
I must say that I was moved by the spectacle, impressed by the demonstrators’ combination of peacefulness and passion. These people were mad as hell and they weren’t taking it anymore, but there was no violence or atmosphere of violence, and they were absolutely united, speaking with one voice. Protest is an Israeli pastime, and demonstrations happen on a regular basis in Tel Aviv. But this felt different, more honest, less manufactured, and remarkably lacking in any sense of hatred — except for a justified loathing of Putin. The protesters knew that they might not be able to stop the war, but they could still tell Putin to go f**k himself, and with the return of something like a 20th century dictator, the exercise of such freedom is in itself a kind of victory.
But there was one sign, written in Hebrew rather than Ukrainian or English, that struck me. It was paradoxical and troubling: “Bennett, get your thumb out of your a**.”
It was a reference, of course, to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his government’s studied, if waning, neutrality on the Russian invasion. In the days since the protest, the government has moved toward a somewhat more pro-Ukraine stance, likely due to American pressure. But Israel has remained far less strident in its rhetoric and more restrained in its policies than most of the world, which has almost universally — with the exception of Russia’s stooges like the Assad regime in Syria — lined up behind the Ukrainians.
The contradiction between Israel’s realpolitik and the strident moral imperative expressed by the protesters stuck with me as I left the demonstration. It struck me as an illustration of a dilemma that has been historically rare for the Jewish people, and stems directly from the simple fact that a Jewish state now exists.
Because Israel has very good reasons for trying to remain neutral on the conflict in Ukraine. Russia is now a strong presence in the Middle East, and particularly so in Syria, where it has been the most important and effective ally of Assad. To a great extent, Russia controls the situation in Syria, which means that it exercises something like control of a large part of Israel’s northern border. And with Israel conducting a years-long, low-intensity military campaign against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, collaboration with Russia and avoidance of a clash with Russia are essential aspects of Israeli policy.
Israel has zero strategic depth, and the collapse of military coordination between Israel and Russia — which allows the Israeli Air Force freedom of operation against Iran and Hezbollah — would be near-suicidal. A cold calculation of Israel’s interests, in other words, demands good relations with Russia. The Jewish state cannot afford a policy of alienation, and as a result it is walking a tightrope on Ukraine, which is uncomfortable but necessary.
But there is another factor at work. It is not that Israel has a large population of Ukrainian Jews who are now intensely anti-Russia; it is that the Ukraine conflict has become a moral issue. The Russian invasion is not just a cruel act of naked aggression that threatens the post-Cold War world order, it is also a monstrous and morally reprehensible abomination, as those protesters were vociferously pointing out.
And this has serious implications for a Jewish state, because of Jewish history, the Jewish lived experience, and Jewish morality. We know what it means to be a small people pushed around by larger peoples; the victim and the oppressed; the target of nihilistic cruelty and aggression; and the object of brutal attempts to exterminate our nation, our pride, our honor, our freedom, and our very bodies. We are familiar with moral abominations.
As a result, our moral instinct, our moral reflex, is to side with the victims of these abominations. But in what is perhaps a tragic paradox, our answer to our own experience of victimhood has mainly been Zionism, which is the quest to empower the Jews so they will not be victims anymore, and this empowerment has been personified in a Jewish state.
The paradox is that, due to the success of Zionism, the Jewish state we have established also lives in the world of realpolitik. It has interests that cannot be denied, and serving them is essential to preserving the Jewish state and thus Jewish empowerment. The tragedy is that this means there are some moral imperatives with which we cannot comply, there are moral stances we cannot take, and a certain degree of moral compromise must be accepted.
This is the price of Zionism. It is worth paying, but it is not always honorable or proud, and there may be times when it would be best to heed the cry of protest: to say “Slava Ukraini” in order to also say “glory to Israel,” and know that the cry is pure.