As Russia sends Iranian-manufactured drones hurtling into Ukrainian cities, destroying power and water plants and other vital infrastructure, the debate over Israeli policy towards the ongoing Russian invasion has been reignited, with growing support among Israelis for the supply of military aid to the government in Kyiv.
For the French Jewish philosopher and human rights advocate Bernard-Henri Lévy, the use of Iranian weaponry by Russian forces graphically underlines what he regards as Ukraine and Israel’s shared predicament, with both countries facing down adversaries who deny their basic legitimacy as nations.
“It’s the same sort of denial of an identity and of the existence of a nation,” Lévy told The Algemeiner during an extensive telephone interview on Wednesday, as he prepared for the release of his latest documentary film, Pourquoi l’Ukraine (“Why Ukraine”), at a special screening at UN Headquarters in New York next week
“This is why the support of Israel to Ukraine should be total,” Lévy said. “They confront a similar existential threat.”
This week, two prominent voices within Israel urged the Jewish state to add a military dimension to the humanitarian assistance it has provided Ukraine since the onset of Russia’s February invasion. Speaking to the Israeli media, Natan Sharansky — arguably the most well-known “refusenik” of the Soviet era and the former head of the Jewish Agency — expressed his frustration with the Israeli government’s reluctance to arm Ukraine, charging that Israel “is the last free country in the world which is still afraid to irritate Putin.” Separately, Nachman Shai, the Minister for Diaspora Affairs, tweeted that there was “no longer any doubt where Israel should stand in this bloody conflict,” going on to assert that the “time has come for Ukraine to receive military aid as well, just as the USA and NATO countries provide.”
Israel’s stance has been complicated by the continuing Russian military presence in neighboring Syria as well as the fear that President Vladimir Putin’s regime will retaliate by targeting the more than 100,000 Jews who still remain in Russia. Amid renewed appeals from President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders following the devastation wreaked by the Iranian drones this week, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Wednesday announced that Israel would “assist in the development of a life-saving civilian early-warning system” to counter the worst effects of the Russian missile and drone assaults, but stopped short of offering weaponry, telling EU ambassadors that this was “due to a variety of operational considerations.” Ukraine’s Ambassador in Tel Aviv, Yevgen Kornichuk, responded to the Israeli offer by saying that it was “not relevant anymore,” reiterating his country’s request to purchase Iron Beam, Barak-8, Patriot, Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow interceptors from Israel.
However, according to Lévy, who has visited Ukraine frequently in the months since the invasion, the truth is that “Israel is helping Ukraine militarily. Of course, they could do more, but they do help.”
“This is the important point,” he continued. “Whether they do it under or over the radar is a less important consideration.”
While he was making his latest film, Lévy said, he had encountered a number of Israelis who were fighting with the Ukrainian armed forces. They, he said, understood “that Ukraine and Israel have the same enemy, which is Iran and its drones, and that the place of an Israeli is to stand alongside Ukrainians. Some Israeli volunteers are fighting on the ground in Ukraine at this very minute that we are speaking.” But, he added, Russia’s presence in the Middle East alongside Iran, Hezbollah and other hardened adversaries of the Jewish state meant that “Israel is on the frontline in a way that America and France are not.”
“I can therefore understand that Israel is careful about the way of admitting this reality,” Lévy said. Regarding the criticisms of Israel voiced by Zelensky, who confessed in a recent interview that he was “in shock” at Israel’s public refusal to supply Ukraine with anti-missile systems, Lévy said that “any Israeli should understand this toughness, this way of being tough. Zelensky is responsible for the lives of his people.”
Commenting on Sharansky’s remarks, Lévy countered that he did not believe that “Israel is afraid of getting rid of Putin.”
“I know of no-one in the Israeli government who has any sort of sympathy with Putin,” Lévy said. “But there is a strategic dilemma that I can also understand. Israel too is in a sort of frontline with Putin, or at least with Hezbollah and Iran, which are linked with Putin.”
Antisemitism in both Tsarist and Soviet Russia has a long history with government-directed pogroms aimed at Jewish communities accompanied by the aggressive spread of antisemitic ideas through the publication of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — a document fabricated by the Tsar’s secret police that purported to reveal a Jewish plot for world domination. Lévy remarked that he now sees antisemitism becoming a dominant factor in Russian political ideology once again, as Putin unveiled what he called a “new fascism.”
“It looks like a twin of the old fascism, but there is a dimension which is new, and that is the alliance with radical Islam,” he said.
In that regard, Lévy cited Putin’s relationship with Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed Chechen strongman sanctioned by the US in 2017 for human rights abuses, and his diplomatic and military alliance with Iran and its Middle Eastern allies. “The relationship between Russia and Iran is based on both ideology and convenience,” Lévy argued. “This is something Israel should be aware of and afraid of.”
In Pourquoi l’Ukraine, Lévy underlines that the invasion of Ukraine marks “the first major war on European soil of the 21st century.” In one sequence at the beginning of the film, the viewer sees Lévy addressing some of the rallies staged in 2013 and 2014 to oppose the pro-Russian government of then President Viktor Yanukovych, who now lives in exile in Russia. “There is more civilization here than in the master of Sochi,” Lévy told a cheering crowd in the center of Kyiv, referring to the Black Sea resort where Putin maintains a luxurious residence.
Lévy insists that the spirit of democracy which animated those protests now undergirds Ukraine’s resistance as the winter months approach and the country reckons with the intensified military campaign launched by Gen. Sergei Surovikin, Putin’s newly-appointed commander in Ukraine, who earned the moniker “General Armageddon” for his willingness to bomb Syrian population centers into submission on behalf of President Bashar al Assad’s regime in Damascus. Lévy’s hope is that his film will inspire the citizens of democratic countries, “starting with Israel,” to “help Ukraine more and more — military aid, humanitarian assistance, political support, and all of it without any sorts of conditions,” he said.
“Ukrainians are our brothers in spirit and soul and in arms,” Lévy emphasized. “I made this film as a reminder of this fact.”