Republican politicians are under increasing pressure to speak out to persuade COVID-19 vaccine skeptics to roll up their sleeves and take the shots as a new, more contagious variant sends caseloads soaring. But after months of ignoring — and, in some cases, stoking — misinformation about the virus, experts warn it may be too late to change the minds of many who are refusing.
In recent news conferences and statements, some prominent Republicans have been imploring their constituents to lay lingering doubts aside. In Washington, the so-called Doctors Caucus gathered at the Capitol for an event to combat vaccine hesitancy. And in Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis this week pointed to data showing the vast majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients hadn’t received shots.
“These vaccines are saving lives,” said DeSantis, who recently began selling campaign merchandise mocking masks and medical experts.
The outreach comes as COVID-19 cases have nearly tripled in the U.S. over the last two weeks, driven by the explosion of the new delta variant, especially in pockets of the country where vaccination rates are low. Public health officials believe the variant is at least twice as contagious as the original version, but the shots appear to offer robust protection against serious illness for most people.
Indeed, nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are now people who haven’t been vaccinated. Nonetheless, just 56.2% of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overall, only 51% of Republicans said in mid-June that they had received at least one vaccine dose, versus 83% of Democrats, according to an AP-NORC poll. And many appeared to have made up their minds. Forty-six percent of those who had not been vaccinated said they definitely would not. Among Republicans, even more — 53% — said they definitely wouldn’t; just 12% said they were planning to.
“I think they’ve finally realized that if their people aren’t vaccinated, they’re going to get sick, and if their people aren’t vaccinated, they’re going to get blamed for COVID outbreaks in the future,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz who has been working with the Biden administration and public health experts to craft effective messaging to bring the vaccine hesitant off the fence.
But Luntz, who conducted another focus group Wednesday evening with vaccine holdouts, said there has been a discernable shift in recent weeks as skepticism has calcified into hardened refusal.
“The hesitation has transformed into opposition. And once you are opposed, it is very hard to change that position. And that’s what’s happening right now,” he said.
For months now, many conservative lawmakers and pundits have been actively stoking vaccine hesitancy, refusing to take the shots themselves or downplaying the severity of the virus. Republican governors have signed bills protecting the unvaccinated from having to disclose their status and tried to roll back mask mandates. And on social media, disinformation has run rampant, leading President Joe Biden to claim platforms like Facebook were “killing people” — a claim he later walked back.
At a recent conservative gathering, attendees cheered the news that the Biden administration was falling short of its vaccination goals. Invoking the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., warned, the government: “Don’t come knocking on my door with your Fauci Ouchie! You leave us the hell alone.”
Others, including former President Donald Trump, have repeatedly defended those who have chosen not to get vaccinated, stressing that the decision is a personal choice. Instead, they have pointed fingers at Democrats, suggesting they are to blame for the distrust.
“People are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don’t trust (Biden’s) Administration, they don’t trust the Election results, and they certainly don’t trust the Fake News,” Trump said in a recent statement.
But there were signs that messaging was changing this week, as conservative leaders advocated for the shots. On Fox News, host Sean Hannity implored his viewers to “please take COVID seriously,” saying, “Enough people have died.” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley on Twitter encouraged “ALL eligible Iowans/Americans to get vaccinated.”
“The Delta variant scares me so I hope those that haven’t been vaccinated will reconsider,” he wrote.
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise the House Republican whip, distributed pictures of himself receiving his first dose of the vaccine last weekend after months of holding out.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, a polio survivor who has consistently advocated on behalf of the COVID-19 shots, this week urged the unvaccinated to ignore “all these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”
But the news conference convened by House GOP leaders on Thursday highlighted Republicans’ competing messages on the virus.
Initially billed as an event where Republican doctors in Congress would address the rapidly spreading delta variant, the group instead spent most of its time railing against China and making unverified claims that the coronavirus came from a lab leak in Wuhan, a theory initially popular in far-right circles but now being seriously considered by scientists. They also attacked Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Biden administration, for not doing more to get to the bottom of the lab leak theory.
“The question is, Why are Democrats stonewalling our efforts to uncover the origins of the COVID virus?” said New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 Republican in the House.
Eric Ward, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center who studies extremism, blamed vaccine reluctance on “nearly a year-and-a-half of right-wing rage machine rhetoric.”
“Even conservative leaders now are having a hard time figuring out how to rein in what had primarily been a propaganda campaign, and they are now realizing their constituencies are particularly vulnerable,” he said.
While some Republicans may be using strong words to promote the vaccine, few are proposing new measures to urge vaccination, such as incentives, public information campaigns or more aggressive outreach.
In New Hampshire, where shots have slowed to about 1,000 per week, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday that there are no immediate plans to launch new initiatives.
“Right now, it’s folks’ individual responsibility. If someone hasn’t been vaccinated at this point, they’ve made that conscious decision not to,” he said. “The government’s job is to provide that open door. If you want the vaccine, here it is, nice and easy. If you need more information, here it is. So you have every tool in the toolbox available to you and your family to make that decision.”
Other Republican continue to peddle falsehoods.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., was suspended from posting on Twitter for 12 hours earlier this week after spreading disinformation about vaccine-related deaths. And Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, a popular youth conservative advocacy group that last weekend hosted a conference that drew former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and numerous members of Congress, suggested without evidence on his podcast that up to 1.2 million could have died after getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
In his focus groups, Luntz said that many skeptics have struggled to assess the veracity of the things they read and hear.
“There is so much misinformation out there, and they can’t tell the difference between what is accurate and what is fake,” he said. “So it makes it virtually impossible to communicate when they don’t know what to believe.”
Associated Press writers Emily Swanson, Holly Ramer and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.
In Russian Invasion of Ukraine, Cold War Echoes Reverberate
A rivalry with Russia. A proxy battleground. Nuclear brinksmanship. For many generations of Americans, it’s just like old times.
The invasion of Ukraine has rapidly returned echoes of a Cold War mentality to the United States, with a familiar foe in Russia. Bars have poured out their Russian vodka. McDonald’s, a symbol of the end of the Soviet Union when it first opened in Moscow, has shuttered its Russian locations. Once again, a U.S. president sees a pitched ideological battle. “We will save democracy,” President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address.
For an America where Russia never quite went out of style as an evergreen villain in film and television, revived tensions with the Kremlin have drawn from a well-worn geopolitical script. A familiar, chilly East-West wind is blowing again.
“It’s very much a Cold War echo,” says James Hershberg, professor of history and international affairs at Georgetown University and former director of the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Hershberg sees much that’s different about today’s inflamed tensions with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s aggressions, he says, don’t seem driven by ideology the way communism was for the Soviet Union. A transformed media landscape, too, has helped turn Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into a global protagonist.
But in a crisis that pits two nuclear superpowers on opposing sides, history is repeating in other ways. A Russian strategic overreach, Hershberg says, is again sparking a potentially perilous moment in international order.
“We are in a second Cuban Missile Crisis in many ways in terms of the danger of escalation,” says Hershberg, whose books include “Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam.” “Putin is acting so irrationally he makes Nikita Khrushchev appear like a rational actor in comparison.”
The largest land conflict in Europe since World War II, Russia’s two-plus weeks of war in Ukraine has rallied Western alliances like few events before it. In repudiating Putin’s invasion, the U.S. and its European allies have enacted crippling economic sanctions on Russia — which Biden on Tuesday extended to Russian crude oil — while still drawing the line on military engagement with Russia.
“If we’re talking about a capitalized Cold War, I don’t think I could call this Cold War II,” says Fredrik Logevall, professor of history and international affairs at Harvard and Pulitzer-Prize winning author most recently of “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956.”
“But,” Logevall says, “if we’re talking more generally about a cold war, if we mean a titanic struggle that involves all aspects of national power waged between two incompatible systems but short of outright military conflict — then yeah, I guess this is a cold war.”
The Cold War is innately connected to the crisis in Ukraine partly because it so much informs Putin’s world view. A former KGB agent, he once called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. The invasion of Ukraine is intended to deter Western influence and NATO infringement from Russia’s sphere of influence, and potentially to restore a Texas-sized part of the former Soviet Union.
Barely two weeks in, the Cold War has often been invoked. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said “the threat to global security now is more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War, partly because there aren’t the same back channels of communication. A Russian Foreign Ministry official, Alexander Darchiyev, according to an Interfax report, recently suggested that “perhaps it would be worth recalling the well-forgotten principle that worked during the Cold War — peaceful coexistence.”
Even before war began in Ukraine, Americans had a historically dim view of Russia. According to Gallup poll conducted in February, 85% of Americans viewed Russia unfavorably, easily the country’s worst rating in more than three decades — a slide accelerated by Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections, its annexation of Crimea and the nerve agent attack on Putin’s leading opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who’s currently imprisoned.
And while former president Donald Trump has maintained his esteem for Putin, anti-Russian opinion has uncommon bipartisan support. Gallup found that 88% of both Republicans and Democrats have an unfavorable view of Russia. Nothing unites like a common enemy.
Nina Khrushcheva, a Moscow-born professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, maintains that the Cold War never really went away — that the West’s view of Russia remained stuck in the broad portrayals of villains Boris and Natasha in “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. To her, Putin’s invasion was devastating because it confirmed the worst about her native country. Now, she begins her classes by apologizing.
“Putin is the global villain he deserves to be, and Russia is finished for decades to come,” says Khrushcheva, whose great-grandfather was premier of the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. “My country just killed itself,” she says, and the U.S. “got their enemy back.”
“They got their enemy that has always been, always deserves to be and is always at the forefront of the American mind,” says Khrushcheva. “Russia has no excuse. But for America, it’s a field day. America is back and it’s on a white horse saving a white country in the middle of Europe against the horrible Russian Bear.”
Logevall, who co-authored the book “America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity,” doesn’t expect a Cold War rerun. The world isn’t as bipolar as it was decades ago. China, which signed a pact with Russia shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, looms much larger. And the interconnectedness of the global economy — where waves of corporations have severed ties with Russia — makes isolated coexistence harder to tolerate.
The conflict in Ukraine seems sure to be at least a coda to the Cold War, if not a new beginning.
“Putin feels great resentment about how the Cold War ended. The West declaring victory. Russia losing power and influence. I think he resents a certain Western triumphalism,” Logevall says. “In a way, I think history is what drives him.”
Russia Asks China for Military And Economic Aid to Help in Ukraine
What to watch: American officials said there were indications that Russia’s military was running out of weaponry and one added that the U.S. was “preparing to warn its allies” due to signs that Beijing may be prepared to help Moscow, according to the Financial Times, which first reported the news.
- It was not immediately clear what types of arms Russian officials had requested, or whether U.S. officials they knew of how China’s government has responded, per the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, National security adviser Jake Sullivan is due to travel to Rome on Monday for a meeting with senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi to discuss Russia’s invasion.
What they’re saying: Sullivan told CNN earlier on Sunday that U.S. officials were “communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them.”
- He added that the U.S. “will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country anywhere in the world.”
- Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in D.C., said he hadn’t heard of any request from Russia officials, per the New York Times.
- “The current situation in Ukraine is indeed disconcerting,” he said, stressing Beijing wants to see a peaceful resolution. “The high priority now is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even getting out of control.”
The big picture: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir have forged closer ties, including military cooperation, Axios’ Zachary Basu notes.
Flashback: As Russia’s military was building the capacity to invade Ukraine last month, Putin and Xi issued a joint statement ahead of their meeting at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics that voiced opposition to the further enlargement of NATO.
- The Kremlin had repeatedly made comments previously over negotiations on NATO’s expansion, using the threat of military action to demand a legal guarantee that Ukraine would never join the alliance, Basu notes.
- Representatives for the Biden administration did not immediately return Axios’ request for comment.
Don’t Forget the Refugee Crisis After the Fighting Stops
In the time following Russia’s indefensible invasion of Ukraine, over two million people have fled the country according to the United Nations. The lines of refugees at the Ukraine-Poland border stretch for miles. Children cry in the freezing cold as wait times reach 60 hours. Refugees discuss the relatives they had been forced to leave behind—sometimes without knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead. And the United Nations predicts that these refugees could be followed by millions more—potentially resulting in “the biggest refugee crisis this century.”
As Ukrainians seek safe harbor, they fortunately have received an extraordinary outpouring of support from the international community. The UN Refugee Agency, the International Rescue Committee, and other organizations have sent emergency teams and resources. People around the world, including in Russia, are taking to the streets to condemn the invasion—and donating to organizations offering direct aid to the Ukrainian people.
Though these efforts are vital, they also draw attention to our country’s cruelly inadequate infrastructure for aiding refugees from Ukraine and beyond. Instead of welcoming refugees with open arms, current efforts hold them at arm’s length.
While the United States has offered aid to help other countries welcome Ukrainian refugees, our own annual refugee cap remains at just 125,000. Worse, the United States resettled only about 4,400 refugees in January — a pace well below even the Trump-era annual cap of 15,000.
And the U.S. approach to other recent refugee crises has been abysmal. In Haiti, over the course of just a few months, tens of thousands fled a calamitous earthquake, a deadly tropical storm and an explosive political climate following their president’s assassination. Instead of welcoming these migrants, the United States hounded them, literally chasing refugees at the border on horseback and deporting thousands back to unsafe conditions.
In Nigeria, the Boko Haram conflict has displaced nearly 3 million people over the past 12 years — leaving many malnourished, homeless and sick. The United States has had no trouble offering military and counterterrorism support in the fight against Boko Haram, yet never even offered temporary protected status to the people the terror group has imperiled.
In Syria, the ongoing civil war created the largest refugee crisis of the 21st century so far. After a brief spike in admissions late in the Obama administration, the United States has once again slashed the number of Syrian refugees accepted to the hundreds.
And in Afghanistan, the refugee crisis is in large part a consequence of the United States’ own actions. After waging war on their soil for 20 years, our leaders have allocated $13.3 billion to resettle Afghan refugees — a dismal 0.6 percent of the $2.3 trillion we spent on the war as a whole.
The fact is, too many U.S. institutions are structured to wage war, not foster peace. Our leaders waste trillions to impose America’s will on the world and, as an afterthought, quibble over what tiny fraction of that number should be spent to help those caught in the fallout.
All the while, the United Nations estimates there are 84 million forcibly displaced people around the world, including 26.6 million refugees. And the escalating crisis of climate change is set to cause a wave of refugees unlike anything the world has ever seen. One report from the World Bank estimates as many as 200 million people could be displaced over the next three decades.
Yet as David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, reminds us, the refugee crisis is “manageable, not unsolvable.” We know what to do. Take people in. Help them get jobs. Help refugee children — more than half of whom do not go to school — get an education. Support families to get a new start in a new place.
Some claim that this basic decency poses security threats, or costs too much. But while the improper vetting of refugees could indeed pose dangers, refusing to provide aid — and thus leaving masses of desperate people with nothing to lose, some of whom will be enraged at those who contributed to their ruination — creates its own risks.
As for the price: With U.S. military spending at historic peacetime highs — more than 12 times what Russia spends on its military — why is it that the United States can always seem to find the money to intervene in world affairs, but never to help clean up the resulting messes? We would do well to start accounting for the human cost of our interventions before we make them. One way or another, the consequences of our actions will inevitably reach our shores.
If we are to effectively defend against the kind of violence and aggression on display in Ukraine right now, we must also demonstrate what we are for: the right of all people to live in peace. As Miliband says of the refugee crisis, “This is not just a crisis, it’s a test. … It’s a test of our humanity. It’s a test of us in the Western world — of who we are and what we stand for.”
By Katrina Vanden Heuvel is the editorial director and publisher of the Nation and is president of the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA). She writes a weekly column at the Washington Post and is a frequent commentator on U.S. and international politics for Democracy Now, PBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN. Find her on Twitter @KatrinaNation. This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with The Nation.
Independent Media Institute
Turkish, Russian Defense Ministers Discuss Urgency of Ukraine Cease-fire
The need for an urgent cease-fire in Russia’s war against Ukraine was discussed, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Wednesday regarding his phone call with his Russian counterpart.
On Tuesday, Akar held a phone call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in which he expressed Turkey’s expectation of support for the safe arrival of commercial ships waiting at Russian ports due to the current situation in Ukraine.
“We had positive and constructive talks with Mr. Shoigu,” Akar told reporters at the Turkish Parliament in the capital Ankara, saying that the cease-fire, the establishment of peace and the security of Turkish planes in Ukraine were discussed.
Akar expressed his expectation of support for the safe arrival of commercial ships waiting at Russian ports due to the current situation.
Maintaining its neutral and balanced stance, Turkey continues its diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the Ukraine conflict, urging all sides to exercise restraint. While Ankara has opposed international sanctions designed to isolate Moscow, it also closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles under a 1936 pact, preventing some Russian vessels from crossing the Turkish Straits.
NATO ally Turkey borders Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea and has good ties with both. Since the beginning of the conflict, Ankara has offered to mediate between the two sides and host peace talks, underlining its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Having recently called Russia’s invasion an unacceptable violation of international law, Turkey has carefully formulated its rhetoric not to offend Moscow, with which it has close energy, defense and tourism ties.
Why Don’t We Treat All Refugees as Though They Were Ukrainian?
It was inevitable that when brown-skinned Afghan refugees fleeing war were turned away from European borders over the past few years, the callous actions of these governments would come back to haunt them. A whopping 1 million people have fled Ukraine from Russia’s violent invasion in the span of only a week. They are being welcomed—as refugees should be—into neighboring nations, inviting accusations of racist double standards.
Poland offers the most egregious example of national racism. Its government, whose nation borders Ukraine, has warmly welcomed traumatized Ukrainians, just months after turning away Afghans. If these optics weren’t bad enough, Polish nationalists have sought out people of color who are among the refugees fleeing Ukraine and violently attacked them. According to the Guardian, “three Indians were beaten up by a group of five men, leaving one of them hospitalized.” African nationals studying in Ukraine joined the exodus after Russia’s invasion, and have been stopped at the Polish border. Poland might as well erect a giant sign on its border declaring, “whites only.”
In elevating such disparate skin-tone-dependent attitudes toward refugees, Europe is giving its colonialist heritage a new lease on life. We see echoes today of the dehumanization that enabled European colonization of the Global South and the enslavement of generations.
It’s not just Poland. The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association has denounced the overtly racist language of many Western journalists, including American ones like Charlie D’Agata of CBS who said of Ukraine that “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades.” (In fact, Ukraine has seen plenty of conflict in the past years.)
D’Agata’s insertion of “with all due respect” was perhaps his belated realization that he was veering into dangerous territory by contrasting Ukrainian civilization against the presupposed barbarity of the darker nations. But then, he continued, saying, “this is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
Again, D’Agata likely realized as the words were escaping his mouth just how racist he was sounding. He needed to choose his words carefully in order to avoid the appearance of bias. He clearly failed. His later apology was not very convincing.
D’Agata exposed his personal allegiance with the Global North when he expressed “hope” against war breaking out in a nation whose people look like he does. The implied flip side is that he harbors no such hope when the conflict-ridden nations of the Global South are embroiled in violence.
Serena Parekh, professor of philosophy at Northeastern University in Boston, told me in a recent interview, “it is very human to feel connections to people that you perceive to be like you and to feel more remote from people you perceive as being not like you.” At the very least, this is a good reason why newsrooms across the United States need to diversify their staff.
Parekh, who has written two books, including No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis and Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement, says that one “assumption” she has heard justifying favorable treatment of the latest wave of refugees in Europe is that “Ukrainians are not terrorists and they are not criminals, and so we can let them in safely, without having to worry about screening them.” She calls such views “racialized assumptions… largely unsustainable by any evidence.”
Such assumptions are infectious. Social media platforms abound with images sporting the now-ubiquitous blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has emerged as a larger-than-life hero to the morally outraged. So invested are people in believing Zelenskyy’s heroism that many have shared a photo (including several of my own Facebook friends) of him in military fatigues as evidence of his courage in standing up to Russian militarism, when in fact the image was captured well before Russia’s invasion.
Similar expressions of solidarity with brown-skinned resisters of Western militarism or victims of Western wars have been far less common.
Pointing out the double standards of governments and the press at a time when Ukrainians are watching their nation getting utterly destroyed will inevitably spark accusations of insensitivity and of engaging irresponsibly in “whataboutism” to make a point.
But now is the time to clearly call out what human rights groups and independent journalists have for years been saying: that the U.S. and NATO-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere are racist, and that the callous dismissals of the resulting humanitarian catastrophes are equally barbaric.
There’s another reason why brown-skinned refugees are seen as undesirable. Welcoming those people fleeing wars that the West has fomented would be an admission of Western culpability. Not only do Ukrainian refugees offer palatable infusions of whiteness into European nations, but they also enable governments to express self-righteous outrage at Russia’s imperialist ambitions and violent militarism. If Ukrainian refugees are evidence of Russian brutality, then Afghan and Iraqi refugees are evidence of the same kind of brutality on the part of the U.S. and NATO.
While Europe’s double standard toward refugees is on full display in Russia’s war on Ukraine, the United States is certainly not innocent either. Former President Donald Trump effectively slammed shut the door on refugees during his tenure and bolstered his anti-refugee policies with racist language.
President Joe Biden, who campaigned on reversing Trump’s anti-refugee rules, initially faltered on keeping his promise when he took office. But, even after the limits on allowing refugees into the U.S. were eventually lifted, few have been admitted into the country. Last year, when U.S. troops left Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban, Afghans were, naturally, desperate to flee. While the Biden administration laudably fast-tracked U.S. resettlement for Afghans, problems remain, with one refugee advocate calling the process, “kind of abysmal.”
Parekh says that decisions by Poland and other nations to admit fleeing Ukrainians with open arms, “[show] that the European Union can take in large numbers of asylum seekers and can do so in a relatively efficient way.”
In light of the sudden wellspring of compassion toward Ukrainian refugees emerging from Western nations, media, and the public, a simple thought experiment could protect governments, journalists, and us from further accusations of racist double standards: we could treat all refugees as though they were white-skinned Ukrainians, as though they were human.
By Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.
Independent Media Institute
Ukraine War Challenges Israel’s Relationship With Jews Worldwide
As Ukraine remains consumed by fierce fighting, fresh geopolitical calculations are taking shape worldwide. Jolted into action, European nations led by Germany have promised to increase their military budgets and impose harsh sanctions on Russia. Few countries have remained neutral about this conflict.
Given its “special friendship” with the United States, Israel’s tepid response to the crisis has surprised some analysts. While the Israeli foreign minister has condemned Russian aggression towards Ukraine, the official line from Tel Aviv has been remarkably muted. This ambiguity is all the more shocking considering Ukraine’s sizable Jewish population because it pits Israel’s understanding of the national interests of the Jewish people against the narrow interests of the Israeli state. The Ukrainian crisis demonstrates the limited extent to which Israel will place the interests of Jewish people above that of statecraft.
Since its founding, Israel has used the threat of global anti-Semitism as its raison d’etat. After the horrors of the genocide against Jews in Europe, the Jewish people cannot exist without a state and army of their own. This line of argument has proven to be remarkably useful for the Israeli government in defending its own aggression against Palestinians and other nations in the Middle East. Israel regularly invokes the interests of the Jewish people to explain its actions such as the occupation of East Jerusalem and the settlement of the biblical lands of the West Bank.
For millions of Jews living outside of Israel, their support for the country stems from a deep-seated feeling that Israel is their only refuge. If an outbreak of anti-Semitism forced them to flee, Israel would be there to protect them. Powerful pro-Israel advocacy groups such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) play on these emotions in order to drum up support for Israel’s political objectives and silence critics of Tel Aviv’s aggressive treatment of the Palestinians.
The Ukrainian crisis presents a fascinating challenge to this core tenet of Israeli propaganda because Ukraine is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Eastern Europe. There are an estimated 50,000 practicing Jews in the country and Jewish life is visible from places of worship to cultural centers. The number of Ukrainians with Jewish ancestry (and eligibility to immigrate to Israel) is estimated at between 200,000 and 400,000. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and some of his key ministers are also Jewish. Outside of Israel, Zelensky is one of the world’s only Jewish heads of state.
Given the sheer scale and visibility of Jewish life in Ukraine, one would think that Israel would be on the front lines of finding a solution to the conflict and aiding the Jewish community there. That hasn’t been the case.
As the conflict drags on, Israel’s approach will become increasingly difficult to sustain. A Russian attack on Kyiv’s main TV tower on Tuesday damaged the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial site nearby and killed five people. The site marks one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during World War II. Zelensky said Russia’s attack showed history was repeating itself. Israel denounced the strike but did not single out Russia as the perpetrators.
It’s easy for Israel’s leaders to express concern about the well-being of Jews around the world but when push comes to shove, Israel is a country like any other with its own geopolitical concerns. In this case, Tel Aviv doesn’t want to disturb its relationship with Russia. Not only does Russia play an important role in regional politics (most notably in Syria) but it is a vital trading partner for Israel. “It is so important for us that Russia turns a blind eye to what we have been doing in Syria, acting against the transfer of weapons, the entrenchment of the Iranians,” Orna Mizrahi, a former deputy national-security adviser for Israel, told the New Yorker.
In the early days of the conflict in Ukraine, Israel rejected a request from the US to co-sponsor a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s assault. Tel Aviv walked this position back, saying that it would join a resolution but wouldn’t support sanctions against Russia. It would seem that Realpolitik trumps Israel’s hollow rhetoric about protecting the Jewish people around the world.
For its part, Israel has reiterated its support for any Ukrainian Jew wishing to immigrate to Israel but it has stopped short of offering support to Jewish Ukrainians who wish to remain at home and fend off Russian aggression. What’s remarkable about this position is that it doesn’t make any attempt to protect Jews where they are. As a Jew living in Ukraine, Israel seems to be saying, you are basically on your own.
Let’s be clear, Israel has no binding duty to protect Jewish people (or any people) outside of its borders. Many Jewish people actually have a moral problem with Israel claiming to represent them since they have made a conscious decision not to immigrate to the country. Israel will continue to speak in the name of the Jewish people when it finds it convenient. That’s what this crisis is revealing in obvious detail. Because it isn’t in Israel’s interest to challenge Russia, the Jews of Ukraine have been left to essentially fend for themselves. The next time Israel invokes worldwide Jewry in explaining its own actions, it will be instructive to remember the battle for Ukraine’s sovereignty.
By Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in the UAE exploring change in emerging markets.
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