Ukraine

A Passover Reflection on the Ukraine War

This year’s Passover, what Gentiles sometimes call Exodus, is being celebrated amidst fears the beginning of a third world war is playing out on Ukrain’s flatlands. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, what comes to mind — my mind at any rate — is a connection between the ancient rebellion of Jewish slaves with the struggle of the Ukrainian people against Russian aggression.

The parallels are astounding, despite a long and heated tradition of enmity between two peoples. I am acutely conscious of the blood-soaked history of Jewish-Ukrainian relations, if one can call it that. This is history drenched in Jewish blood:  Koliivshchina rebellion, Khmelnitzky pogroms, SS murders, Babi Yar massacre – to mention just some of the crimes that figure in the mind-numbing magnitude of Jewish persecution, suffering and slaughter. These masacres are condemned to live in infamy in Jewish memory no less than Auschwitz and the Nazis’ other death mills. They are indelibly engraved in the voluminous history of Ukrainian anti-Semitism and I have no right to ignore the massacres or forgive their perpetrators. Ironically, many Ukrainians recognized the value of having the Jewish community as part of Ukrainian society despite anti-Semitism being an integral part of the national psyche. This is reflected in a Ukrainian saying, Yak bida, tak do Zhida – “If in trouble go to a Jew for help”. To put it mildly, Jewish-Ukrainian relations were far from cordial for a long, long time.

And then something happened. Ukraine, traditionally anti-Semitic Ukraine, voted overwhelmingly for a Jewish man, the descendant of a Holocaust survivor, to be their president in time of peace and, as it happens, in war as well. One can argue that Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory was either a protest vote against Ukraine’s all-pervading corruption or, perhaps equally, a reflection of a newly evolved political sophistication. Be that as it may, the unwillingness of the Ukrainians to have Jews as their fellow citizens and neighbors is held by a mere 5 per cent of the population, according to a recent Pew Centre poll. This is a level of acceptance and tolerance which the same polling found to be the highest in all Europe. The same survey indicated that 13 per cent of Russians and 32 per cent of Armenians are not prepared to have a Jew marry into their families or even as a neighbor.

I am not about to start trumpeting the sudden rise of an ideal, tolerant and democratic society in Ukraine – this is and will always be a long and tortuous process of a national maturation. However, right here and now, I feel confident in saying Ukrainians have rejected the so-called “Russian worldview” and overwhelmingly wish to be and remain part of the Western liberal democratic tradition. This beleaguered nation, like any other aspiring to freedom, deserves every chance and every bit of help to achieve its goal.

This consideration brings me back to the parallels between the Passover and the Russo-Ukrainian war, of which there are many. The Jews held in Egypt’s bondage rebelled against their slavery and submission to a culture which denied them respect and dignity. So have today’s Ukrainians.

In the Bible’s account, Pharaoh agreed after the ten plagues to let his Jewish slaves go, only to then change his mind and send his army, the mightiest of the time, to annihilate them.  Instead of doom being visited upon the fugitives, the Almighty parted the Red Sea and the Jewish people escaped certain death.

So have Ukrainians, at least so far. Miraculously, the Ukrainian Army, like ancient and modern Israelites, is making a matzo meal from what many regarded as the world’s second-most powerful military force. The Ukrainian nation has slipped the noose of certain death by Russian absorption and dissolution, to date somehow managing to resist and defy the clutches of a contemporary Pharaoh.

The Israelites had had their share of those dissenters unhappy to leave behind the familiar comfort of their former slavery. This faction incessantly complained of hardships and longed for a return to Egypt. They created the Golden Calf, worshipping it instead of God while rejecting the uncertain joys of freedom. Much the same has happened  with Ukrainians, a section of the population preferring a bended-knee fealty to Moscow than embracing the future as a free and independent nation.

The entire Jewish nation had to travel a desert road in terrible conditions, feeding themselves only by God’s daily charity. It took them 40 years until they reached their destination. During this long journey the generation of former slaves passed away and it was those born on a road to freedom who entered the land of milk and honey. The same, I believe and desperately hope, has happened with the Ukrainian people.

This Biblical story, integral to Jewish identity, also applies to all humanity, especially where the fight for justice, dignity and freedom is happening. The hard and uncertain road Jews chose so long ago remains a universal roadmap of the path to freedom. It is a hard journey demanding sacrifice and with many potential detours but, as written on the wall of the Korean War Memorial in Washington DC, Ukraine’s bravery reminds us that “freedom is not free”. 

Good luck, Ukraine. May your journey lead you also to liberty’s promised land.

6 comments
  • IainC

    I have a different perspective. What with global boycotts, bans, cancellations, evictions, vitriol and opprobrium from all quarters, ordinary Russians now know what its like to be Jews and Israelis, albeit for 2 months rather than 3000 years.

  • andrew2

    A reflection on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus would also tell you that there is a great distinction between God’s ways and the world’s ways. Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate confrontation between the ways of the world and the ways of God. The world uses death, suffering and torture to achieve it’s ends. God uses the Holy Spirit to guide His Kingdom through the midst of anything the world can throw at it. The world threw everything it had at Jesus and lost. The Passover was a prototype of Easter and they teach the same lesson, but it is not the lesson you are trying to teach here about “liberal democracy”. It is about how to dwell in the promised land of God’s kingdom, through faith and with an in dwelling Holy Spirit obtained through baptism and nourished by God’s enduring sacraments.

  • Simon

    @IanC – Anyone would think it was the Ukrainians that invaded Russia!

  • rosross

    While it is an interesting read I am not sure religious mythology counts in a comparison with real world realities and historical facts.

    Whether or not Jewish slaves really did rebel, the fact is we do not know historical facts about such an event. Indeed, there is no historical proof that Jews were in Egypt as claimed. A lot of theological conjecture but no actual proof.

    Not that it really matters since religions are about metaphor and the lessons to be learned from fables, myths and stories which reflect, as you point out, our common human experiences.

    However, we do know from the historical facts that the Russians invaded Ukraine following many years of protesting US/Nato aggression and the fact that the Ukrainians, unlike the Canadians and Mexicans, were not sensible enough to pay heed to the political dynamics of their more powerful neighbour. And unwise enough to believe American/European promises. Now that is a common human theme – deception.

    There is no doubt rebellion is a very human story and there is also no doubt that many people are asking the question:

    Why is it to be applauded that the Ukrainians are fighting their occupiers and the Palestinians are demonised for doing the same thing. Perhaps there are some other appropriate Judaic teachings to deal with that conundrum.

    As a matter of principle, anyone who defends the right of the Ukrainians to fight against occupation should defend the same right for the people of Occupied Palestine.

  • abrogard

    fanciful nonsense

  • rosross

    @Simon,

    Anyone would think the Ukrainians were helping the US and Nato to set up missile launchers on the Russian border. Oh, hang on, they were.

    Anyone would think the Americans launched a coup to overthrow the democratically elected Ukrainian President so they could put in a puppet who would support their aggression. Oh, hang on, they did.

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