Espreso. Global

Israelis are fighting and dying for Ukraine. In Israel, their deaths are not reported

25 April, 2023 Tuesday

Every day after school, the three teenagers - Andriy, Olha, and Artur - gathered at the Jewish Agency club in Lviv, Ukraine, to learn more about Zionism. In a photo taken in 1991, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Andriy Reznikov, wearing a blue tracksuit, poses happily with his friends. Posters of Israeli flags adorn the wall of the club behind them

One by one, the three friends left for Israel in their teens as part of the wave of Soviet Jewish immigration in the 1990s. Reznikov immigrated at the age of 18. He served in the Tzahal and studied in Ariel.

Reznikov lived in Israel for 10 years and then returned to Ukraine, where he settled down. He married a woman named Nadia Vyshyvana. At the time, he had a 3-year-old daughter from his previous marriage, who is now 10. After Russia's invasion in February 2022, he immediately volunteered to fight, even before the call was announced.

This did not surprise his Israeli friends at the club in Lviv, who describe him as a real IDF Golani Brigade member. He was always the first to volunteer for assignments. His wife Nadia recalls telling him that with his Israeli citizenship they could leave Ukraine. He replied, "I stand for the right thing." He promised Nadia that as soon as Ukraine won, they would visit Israel.

On November 7, 2022, Reznikov was killed in action in eastern Ukraine. His death was not reported in Israel, and he was not alone. According to the experts his friends consulted for this article, between 10 and 16 Israeli citizens were killed in the fighting in Ukraine.

Despite the increase in deaths during the conflict, the Israeli media reported only three of its citizens killed in the fighting in Ukraine. This is problematic because it does not allow the Israeli public to see the Israeli perspective on personal losses during the war and underestimates the participation of Israeli citizens in the conflict.

"It's very difficult to follow," admits Ukraine's Ambassador to Israel Yevhen Korniychuk. He adds that the embassy often learns about the deaths of Israeli citizens from the media, not directly from the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. For example, the embassy did not know the names of the two Israeli-Ukrainian citizens mentioned in this article.

Since the beginning of the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, has emphasized the commonalities between his country and Israel - both nations fought for their independence. His government has repeatedly asked Israel to supply military and intelligence equipment.

In a speech to Israelis in March 2022, he pleaded for sympathy for the tragedy of Ukraine, comparing the Russian invasion to the Shoah of European Jewry. "Indifference kills," he pleaded. But more than a year later, little seems to have changed, as Israel still walks a fine line, trying to support Ukraine in a light way so as not to jeopardize its relationship with Russia.

According to Yigal Levin, a former IDF officer and editor of Focus outlet who runs a popular Telegram channel analyzing the war, there are about 100 Israelis fighting in Ukraine, compared to about 200 at the beginning of the war.

Most of them have dual citizenship of Israel and Ukraine, and they have relatives and friends in both countries. However, it is difficult to give exact numbers. An Israeli-Ukrainian fighter based in Ukraine, who asked not to be named, estimates that there are several hundred Israeli-Ukrainians fighting today.

The Ukrainian army gladly accepts these volunteers, welcoming their experience in the IDF and their knowledge of the Ukrainian language. Although Israel does not call on its citizens to go to war in Ukraine, it does not prohibit them from doing so.

This makes it different from some Eastern European countries, such as Serbia, notes researcher Kacper Rekawek, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Extremism Studies at the University of Oslo and author of the first academic study on foreign military personnel in Ukraine.

In a number of Eastern European countries, there are still rules in place regarding participation in combat operations for another country, and volunteer fighters must obtain permission to leave. In some countries, this is just a formality with no consequences, but in others it can lead to imprisonment.

Rekawek adds that the real number of Israeli fighters would have to be collected from several different bureaucracies in Ukraine, and that some fighters never officially register as such and therefore are not included in the system.

When Russia's invasion of Ukraine first began, it was covered relentlessly in Israel and around the world. For several weeks, Israeli news channels rushed to send their correspondents to the scene, and military photographs were widely circulated. The Israeli media reported on the Israeli citizens who decided to fight in Ukraine, showing them in uniform, preparing to go to the battlefield, and training others. But later, the coverage weakened.

Today, for many Israelis, the war seems distant and alienating. Many may not even know that Israeli citizens are fighting in Ukraine.

Hanna Zharova, founder of the Association of Israeli Friends of Ukraine, the largest nonprofit pro-Ukrainian organization in Israel, says that even her organization does not know about all the Israeli citizens who have died in Ukraine.

"I think that in some cases the family doesn't want to talk about it, and in some cases it's so far away that it doesn't always make it to the Israeli media," she says. Hanna believes that the difficulty in getting the Israeli media to take an interest in Ukraine is also due to the fact that the country is focused on its own internal crisis.

But this does not fully explain Israel's general apathetic attitude toward the war.

"If someone [an Israeli] dies in a motorcycle accident in Nepal or something like that, it makes the headlines, but an Israeli soldier who dies in Ukraine does not. This is not normal. I have no explanation for this. It should be in the headlines," says Jenya Lerer, an Israeli volunteer who currently distributes humanitarian aid in Ukraine.

The lack of public interest may have something else to do with it. Israeli society still has strong stereotypes about repatriates from the former Soviet Union. While previous waves of aliyah prioritized the "melting pot" model, encouraging new immigrants to reject their roots in favor of Israeli ones, many of the aliyah of the 1990s retained their ties to their home countries and often returned there for a time.

Native Israelis do not perceive many of these returnees - because of their attachment to the culture and language of their countries - as people who have fully integrated into Israeli society. Although these "olim" feel comfortable with their multifaceted identities, their affiliation with Israel is often questioned. They are sometimes looked down upon, considered not "Jewish" enough due to the widespread nonobservance of religious rituals among Russian-speaking immigrants.

An example of other stereotypes is a recent song by Israeli pop star Omer Adam about a young Russian woman who loves vodka and cannot speak Hebrew. He sings, "Where is she from / She says Hebrew is a hard language / All day long it's just 'Niet' and 'Da!’”

"There is always a division between a real 'sabra' [native Israeli] and a Russian. Who is a Russian? It doesn't matter if they came from Georgia, they are still a Russian," Levin says. He himself was born in Ukraine, in Odesa. He cites Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the National Democratic Party, a political party supported mainly by Russian speakers, as an example, "Everyone knows that he is Russian, but he is not a Russian. He is from Moldova. But who [in Israel] even knows what Moldova is?"

The war was a moment of crystallization for Israelis who came from Ukraine. If earlier they would not have corrected Israelis who called them "Russians," now they do. They mobilized their forces to serve the country where they were born, some as soldiers, others as volunteers. They also held large protests and rallies outside the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv.

War and its tragedy are not abstract concepts for this group. Many have lost friends, their relatives are hiding in bomb shelters. It is a struggle for survival and freedom of their dear country.

Andriy Hlembotskyi was one of the Israelis with dual citizenship who died during the fighting in Ukraine. He was killed on August 23, 2022, and his death also did not receive public attention in Israel, although it was widely covered in the Ukrainian media. He was born in 1973 in Shostka, eastern Ukraine. He became interested in Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"We lived in the Soviet Union. There was no freedom there. There was no democracy. The gates opened, and he saw a democratic country where he could fulfill his potential," explains his friend Yuriy, who has known him since childhood.

Hlembotskyi made aliyah at the age of 22, along with his mother and sister. But his connection to his country of birth remained strong. After 10 years in Israel, including service in the IDF, he returned to Ukraine to help run the family business. During this period, Hlembotskyi met his wife and became an active participant in the 2014 Maidan protests that led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

After the Maidan, he and his wife Alina returned to Israel and settled in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv. A photo taken during this period shows a happy young family: on a warm summer day at the Ramat Gan Safari, Hlembotskyi holds his young son on his shoulders.

After the Russian invasion in February 2022, Hlembotskyi returned to Ukraine to rescue his elderly father, who lived in the city of Dnipro. At first, he did not plan to fight, but "decided to stay to defend the country that gave him life," says Yuriy. Since his wife was pregnant at the time, under Ukrainian law, which exempts fathers of three from service, he was to be demobilized after the birth.

In July, after the birth of his long-awaited daughter, he returned to Israel, spending precious days with his family. But he felt he could not leave his soldiers, whom he also considered his children. He returned to the war, planning to return to Israel in September, before the start of his children's school year. Returning from a mission through the Kharkiv region to a base in Kyiv, he was hit by a Russian mine and died on the spot.

Hlembotskyi, like Reznikov and other fallen Israelis of Ukrainian descent, were deeply attached to both their countries and willing to fight for them.

While they have received attention and official honors in Ukraine, where they are buried, Israel has failed to appreciate either their loyalty to the country of their birth or the essence of their personalities, and has not given them the recognition they deserve.

On a Saturday morning in Jaffa, shortly after his death, a dozen of Reznikov's Israeli friends from the Jewish Agency Club gathered to honor his memory. After prayer, they went to a cafe in the city center, where they spent the next three hours. Olha Khabibova, his longtime friend, brought photos of their childhood in Lviv, and the friends were surprised at how little they resembled themselves back then. They laughed, cried, and raised a glass to their fallen friend.

It is time for more Israelis to learn the story of Reznikov and others like him, those who died in battle and those who are still fighting for Ukraine and for whom Israel and Ukraine were home.

Anat Peled, HaAretz

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