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SOCIETY

«We can't celebrate May 9 the way we used to.» Israel's change of heart towards V-Day

Diana Fishman

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, Israeli veterans' organizations canceled the traditional May 9 parade, and Russian-speaking Israelis are rethinking their favorite holiday. Without disputing the importance of remembering the great victory, the natives of the former Soviet Union disagree on the form it should take. World War II researchers accuse Russia of appropriating the right to the Victory and call for abandoning the narrative Russia has been promoting. At the same time, veterans themselves condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine, consider it unfair, and regret that the new generation has not learned the lessons of history.

ALL CARDS
  • Reformatting the V-Day

  • Victory Narrative

  • Moral burden on conscience

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Reformatting the V-Day

There will be no traditional Victory Day marches in Israeli cities this year. According to Abraham Grinzaid, chairman of the Union of World War II Veterans, the decision is not politically motivated, but dictated by the desire to avoid «unpleasant incidents and provocations.» Over the past two months, more than 13,000 refugees and repatriates have arrived in Israel from Ukraine, and the organizers fear the parades might end in clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists.

Ukrainian Ambassador Yevgeny Korniychuk also insists that under the current circumstances it is wrong to celebrate Victory Day following the usual protocol. In April, he requested the Israeli government that the celebration be pushed forward from May 9 to May 8.

Organizers fear the parades might end in clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists

As a result, according to Grinzaid, the ceremonies in honor of the 77th anniversary of the Victory will be held based on a different format:

«We decided to give them more of a national character, without forgetting the brothers in arms with whom we went into battle and won this victory. There will be rallies and wreath-laying ceremonies at the 68 monuments erected to commemorate both the heroic victory and the Shoah.
We do it in honor of the 1.5 million Jewish soldiers who fought simultaneously against Nazism as part of the armies of the anti-Hitler coalition, and in memory of more than 250,000 Jews who died on the battlefield. Without the victory in 1945, there would have been no Israel in 1948. It is our moral obligation not to forget it.»

It was decided not to invite representatives of diplomatic missions to the main ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem this year. «The situation is very tense,» Grinzaid stated. One of The Insider's interlocutors admitted he would not have agreed to speak at a celebratory rally in his city if Russian embassy officials had been present.

The outrageous announcement by the Russian Foreign Minister about Adolf Hitler's alleged Jewish descent heated up the situation even more. Israeli veteran organizations did not respond to the statement publicly: they value their ties with Russia and exercise caution when speaking out on politics. However, in conversations with The Insider, people associated with these organizations expressed outrage at Lavrov's «highly surprising» remark and called the reference to the «Jewish question» a «forbidden card.»

Victory Narrative

Tens of thousands of World War II veterans, ghetto and concentration camp prisoners, and Leningrad siege survivors came to Israel from the former Soviet republics. For many years, the repatriates and their representatives in the Knesset had been fighting for the inclusion of May 9 in the calendar of public holidays. It was achieved only in July 2017, after the passage of a special law. But despite official recognition, the celebration of victory over Nazi Germany has yet to become part of the national tradition.

The reason lies in the specific attitude of Israeli society toward World War II and Jewish participation in it, explains David Zelvensky, founder of the military-historical museum Energy of Courage:

«After the war, the image of the new Jew was formed here – unaffected by the burden of pogroms and repression, a strong and courageous builder of the state of Israel. The creation of Israel was associated with the Holocaust, not with the victory over fascism. Israelis believed it was not their war. That's why they considered very distasteful the parade of veterans, with medals hanging down to their waists.»

The debate about the appropriateness of celebrating Victory Day against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has divided the Russian-speaking community: some say it is necessary to glorify the grandfathers who fought in the war while they are still alive, while others call for an end to «pobedobesiye» (demonic victory cult) and for pushing the official ceremonies forward to May 8, following the example of Western countries.

Most Israelis continue to view May 9 as the holiday of «Russian» Jews

There is no consensus among of World War II and Holocaust scholars as to the form in which Israel should commemorate the anniversary of the victory over Nazism. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israeli and Eastern European branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (which exposes Nazi criminals), is convinced the war in Ukraine should not affect the holiday's reputation:

«There is no connection between the parade, where we pay tribute to the Jewish soldiers who served in the Red Army, and the war crimes that the Russian army is committing today in Ukraine. Russia must certainly pay a high price for this war, but this does not cancel out the decisive contribution the Soviet army made in defeating Nazi Germany. History cannot be changed.
There is no connection between the parade and war crimes

Leonid Smilovitsky, a historian and researcher at the Center for the Diaspora at Tel Aviv University, has an opposing view. According to him, the actions of the Russian military in Ukraine cannot but affect the attitudes toward the Victory cult, which has become one of the ideological foundations of Putin's regime:

«When the Red Army entered Germany in 1945, they were forbidden by a special order to touch civilians. Anyone who violated this order, that is, killed, abused, looted, and so on, had to deal with the military prosecutor's office. And what do we see today? The Russian army in Ukraine is violating the principles on which it was built and on which more than one postwar generation was raised. I am the son of a participant of World War II, but I believe we cannot celebrate May 9 the way we used to. We need to look for new formats of celebration and, of course, abandon both parades and the «Immortal Regiment» campaign, whose meaning was completely distorted by the proposal to include portraits of soldiers who were recently killed in Ukraine.
There is another important point. Russia, by declaring itself the successor to the Soviet Union and the Red Army, has usurped the right to victory in 1945. The Russian embassy has been handing out jubilee medals to our veterans in honor of victory anniversary. While the grandchildren of those veterans serve in the Israeli army and fight against Lebanon, for example, with missiles received by Hezbollah from Russia through Iran flying over their heads, and over ours. Unfortunately, the veterans are unable to connect the former and the latter».
The actions of the Russian military in Ukraine cannot help but affect the attitudes toward the victory cult

Historian and journalist Grigory Reichman also believes it is high time for Israel to get rid of the narrative imposed by Russia as the legal successor of the USSR, and develop a new one that is «relevant to the Jewish people»:

«The Russian authorities have turned this holiday into a grotesque, a profanation, a celebration of victory with the slogan «We can repeat!» and completely ruined its very idea. This V-Day is not so much a day of victory as a day of remembrance and mourning. And we understand this as no one else, because if the forces of the anti-Hitler coalition had not crushed the Germans, the Jews as a people would have ceased to exist. This is exactly what we need to emphasize in our own tradition of celebrating the Victory. And parades have long since outlived their meaning, there are hardly any veterans left».

Moral burden on conscience

Israeli World War II veterans and Holocaust victims admit that the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine came as a shock to them. Abraham Grinzaid, head of the Veterans Union, temporarily stopped wearing his uniform with his battle decorations as a sign of protest:

«I went to the front as a 17-year-old boy. There were 13 of us in the regiment's reconnaissance unit: me, the only Jew, Ukrainians, Russians, Mordvins, Georgians... And we fought for a common cause - for our land, against a common enemy. And now our grandchildren are killing each other! It is very painful for us. We, those of us who went through that war and lived to see these days, know all too well the price of life and the price of death.
Every war must have its reasons and motives. But personally, despite all the explanations, the reasons for this war are still incomprehensible to me. It's hard for me to assess the events, it's a serious matter, but struggle against nationalists, even though they do exist in Ukraine, cannot justify the suffering of so many people. This saber-rattling really disgusts me. Entire cities are being destroyed, and most importantly, children, the elderly, all of them innocent, are being killed. I am against bloodshed, against war, I condemn it! Military actions must stop, all problems must be solved only peacefully.»

David Meltzer, head of the Haifa branch of the Union of Veterans, also says that the Russian aggression is unjustified and that resolving conflicts by means of war is inadmissible:

«This war is unjust, and it is being waged against all the people, although [in Russia] it has been declared otherwise. There were no real reasons for it, they were just invented. I was born, grew up, lived in Ukraine, served in the army there, was a defender of our common motherland. And no one could ever think Ukraine would be attacked by its neighbor.
I was especially outraged by the way the war was launched - suddenly, without declaration, by night. You can see a lot of similarities with 1941. When the Great Patriotic War ended, I was ten years old. I spent several years in a ghetto. We were not considered people then, a human life was not worth anything. That war taught us a lot. But people forgot its lessons. Unfortunately, that's the way we are.»

Military historian David Zelvensky initially considered the accumulation of 100,000 troops near the Russian-Ukrainian border as maneuvers and did not believe it would be followed by an offensive:

«After so many relatively peaceful years since World War II, we have all, of course, been jolted by the new military storm. The war continues, relentlessly and uncompromisingly, in an extremely brutal manner--the world is no longer accustomed to such things.
No matter what the so-called nationalists do in Ukraine, one is left with a sense of injustice and disproportionate retaliation - with so many victims and completely inadmissible criminal actions. Everything has been turned upside down: the concepts of humanism, humanity, compassion. The war is being waged to destruction, to final subjugation. But our world today is so flammable that these sparks can ignite something bigger, spill over from Ukraine to somewhere else.
I was born in 1930 and I remember very well both June 22, 1941, and the time I spent in evacuation. The memory of World War II is still pulsing, those who caught it are still alive. I think that now, listening to the news, these people are projecting today's events onto what they themselves experienced back then, and it's a very difficult experience. Today's war is a heavy moral burden on the consciences of so many people. Propagandists make enormous efforts, trying to justify all of it. But there is no truth in such a war and there cannot be.»

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