Israeli war for Ukraine, or brothers in different ways

Shimon Briman on the Maidan in Kyiv in March 2014.

[Author's note: This article was written in the spring of 2014, on the heels of Ukraine's Maidan victory and Russia's annexation of Crimea. The text in Russian was published in the print version in the Kyiv magazine "Novoe Vremya." The Ukrainian- and English-language versions of this text, updated by me in 2024, are published below for the first time.] 

The siblings Semyon Briman and Isaac Briman, who lived through the Second World War, did not know that their grandchildren, Shimon Briman and Simon Tsipis, living in Israel, would stand on different sides of the barricade because of Ukraine and Russia. But it happened: two Jewish cousins are having a heated argument in the Holy Land.

Shimon, a journalist and the author of these lines worries about Ukraine, and his second cousin Simon, a researcher of security problems, organizes pickets with St. George (pro-Russian) ribbons in Tel Aviv.

Where are the roots of this split? Maybe in that ordinary school in Kharkiv, where the wonderful teacher Raisa Fedosiivna Andryushchenko taught me the Ukrainian language and literature. Half of the Ukrainians in the class refused to learn their native language, and the teacher prepared young Briman for the city Olympiad in Ukrainian literature.

Meanwhile, Simon grew up in Sevastopol — "the pride of Russian sailors," with all the ensuing Soviet-patriotic consequences. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, Simon ceased to be embarrassed by the question asked in Israel, "Where did he come from?" — before he was offended by the need to say, "from Sevastopol, Ukraine."

My cousin, feeling like a man of exclusively Russian culture, was embarrassed by the very word "Ukraine "as a symbol of something second-rate.

But now I am correcting Israelis in Hebrew: no, I am not "mi-Rusiya," not from Russia — I am "mi-Ukrayna." For many Israelis, this word after the Maidan means the desire for freedom, opposition to dictatorship, and hope for a better future.

The energy of the Maidan, the take-over of Crimea, and the fighting in the Donbas have made Ukraine an active newsmaker in Israeli media. I remember when, in 2007, President Yushchenko's visit to Israel was reflected in an article on the last page of the Maariv newspaper about the arrest of a steward on Yushchenko's plane who was trying to smuggle thoroughbred puppies into Israel. Now, the front pages feature the battles on the Maidan and detailed reports on Crimea, Donbas, and presidential elections in 2014.

Ukraine has become clearer and closer to the Israelis. Mostly, they sympathize with Ukraine — after all, we have experienced something similar: We were also eager for freedom and independence, and much stronger aggressive neighbors opposed us.

The irony is that the annexation of Crimea "helped" Israel by providing a very important argument. When the United States, the European Union, and Russia try to break us by making concessions in favor of the Arabs, we point to Ukraine and say: "Your international guarantees and agreements are not worth the paper on which they are written. Today, one cannot rely on pieces of paper like the Budapest Memorandum — but only on oneself and one's strength."

Ukraine was also lucky to have an ambassador in Israel. On Friday, 21 February 2014, when the fall of the Yanukovych regime was far from obvious, the energetic Ambassador Hennadii Nadolenko was already visiting Israeli hospitals, arranging to receive the wounded from the Maidan.

The kind "fairy" of Kyiv volunteers, Maryna Lysak, took the coordination between the two countries upon herself. On 5-6 March, Kyiv's central synagogue on Shota Rustaveli Street was buzzing like a beehive — it became the headquarters for preparing those wounded on the Maidan to be sent to Israel.

A day before departure, a deposit needed to be transferred urgently to the hospital — Olexander Levin, the head of the Jewish religious community in Kyiv, immediately sent 60,000 US dollars.

On 7 March, at Boryspil airport, Kyiv Rabbi Moshe-Reuven Azman went into all the ambulances and blessed each wounded person.

I saw this surrealism: On the runway, German paramedics brought a stretcher with Ukrainian men into the plane under the blessings of the Rabbi. Three hours later, in Israel, the flight was met by 30 volunteers of the "Israeli Hundred" led by Anna Zharova, Zinaida Nevzlina, and Oleksiy Ostapenko.

Shimon Briman on the runway of Boryspil near the plane with the first group of wounded from the Maidan — before flying to Israel, 7 March 2014.

The Knesset and the Israeli Foreign Ministry are trying to maneuver while maintaining neutrality — they say that good relations with Russia and Ukraine are equally essential to us. But when, at the beginning of May 2014, a warship of the Russian Navy was supposed to call at the port of Haifa, the Israeli authorities refused to allow the ship to stay — out of fear that if, after refueling, a Russian ship attacks Ukraine, Israel will then be accused of complicity.

The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has split Israelis — repatriates from the former Soviet Union. Longtime acquaintances are torn apart, Internet wars are blazing, and thousands of people are discussing Kyiv and Donetsk more passionately than Jerusalem and Netanya. Even thousands of kilometers from their countries of origin, this conflict touches deep chords in the Israelis' souls.

As to Simon, someday, I will probably have a beer with him on the Mediterranean embankment. After all, we are brother-Israelis, albeit second cousins.

Updated: November 2024
Text and photos: Shimon Briman (Israel)