KIEV — Speaking in Ukraine this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the actions of the Nazis and collaborators at a killing site in the country show that Jews must defend themselves.
The issue is a highly sensitive subject in Ukraine, which has seen several major controversies over state and other honors for people who fought alongside the Nazis against the Soviets.
Netanyahu spoke Monday, Aug. 19, during a state visit to Ukraine, during which he attended a Holocaust commemoration event at the former killing site of Babi Yar near Kiev.
Also attending were dignitaries including Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky, who is the first Jew elected to that office in Ukraine’s history.
Ukrainian auxiliary police on Sept. 29-30, 1941 took about 33,000 Jews to be murdered by German soldiers at Babi Yar, a patchwork of ravines on the margins of the Ukrainian capital.
During his speech, Netanyahu, whose previous visit to Ukraine as prime minister was in 1999, praised Ukrainian non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.
But he also addressed in several places in his speech the role that collaborators of the Nazis had in the Holocaust.
After mentioning how the Holocaust was carried out by “the Nazis and their collaborators,” Netanyahu also said that “with one swipe of their sword, the Nazis and their partners ended a thousand years” of coexistence between Jews and Ukrainians.
He further said that the murders at Babi Yar “didn’t happen on a different planet, but minutes away from Kiev’s bustling center. The murders of Babi Yar by the Nazis and their collaborators prepared the murder of the Jews of Ukraine.”
Netanyahu has mentioned collaborators in the past in commemoration speeches, but he does not always do so. In his 2016 Holocaust Day speech, for example, he mentioned no collaborators, despite mentioning the Nazis 11 times.
“To humanity, Babi Yar is a warning sign,” Netanyahu said. “To Jews, it’s a timeless command: We’ll always defend ourselves by our own force against any enemy.”
Zelensky, a former comedian who won the presidency last month, expressed admiration for Israel’s defense capabilities during his swearing-in in May.
“We must become Icelanders in soccer, Israelis in defending our land, Japanese in technology,” he said.
Israel and Ukraine signed a free-trade agreement earlier this year. During the trip, Zelensky announced the opening of a Ukrainian government high-tech and investment center in Jerusalem. Israel will open its own high-tech and investment center in Kiev.
Zelensky did not mention collaboration in his speech. “We cannot forget and forgive” the events at Babi Yar, Zelensky said. “The Ukrainian people will always remember crimes against humanity. We will never forget what racism and xenophobia lead to.”
Zelensky told reporters that he had asked Netanyahu to recognize as a genocide the Holodomor famine, caused in 1932 by the Soviets.
Ukrainian media devoted some attention to claims that Sarah Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, insulted Ukrainians when she threw to the ground a piece of bread offered to her during a welcoming ceremony.
Benjamin Netanyahu received the piece of bread from a welcoming party of three women on the tarmac of an airport in Kiev upon landing there. He dipped the bread in salt and bit off a piece, offering the rest to his wife. But she quietly dropped it to the ground without tasting it, in what many Ukrainians online described as a sign of disrespect.
Andriy Bohdan, head of the office of the President of Ukraine, dismissed these claims, saying Sarah Netanyahu, who wore an outfit featuring the Ukrainian national colors to the welcoming ceremony, had “no intention” of disrespecting Ukraine.
Netanyahu has urged many world leaders he has met to follow the US in moving their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.