Ambassador to a warring country: Michael Brodsky. Interview with the Ambassador of Israel to Ukraine

Two years of work as an ambassador in Kyiv were divided into six months of peaceful life and a year and a half of wartime. What is the difference between the experience of an ambassador during a peace period and an ambassador during a war?

The experience is really different. As a "military" ambassador, I had to do things that ambassadors usually don't do in a normal situation. For example, to evacuate the embassy and Israeli citizens. This is a rare experience.

This was our main occupation for the first few weeks after the outbreak of the war. We set up a hotline. All employees worked 24 hours a day. The phones were ringing because there were more than 10,000 Israelis who remained in Ukraine at the time the war began. Although we urged them all to leave, no one believed us. Almost every one of them considered it their duty to call the ambassador and say that they were, for example, in Kharkiv in a bomb shelter, under fire, and whether it was possible to send a plane for them for urgent evacuation.

But the whole sky of Ukraine was already closed, and the only thing we could offer was to take people out by buses and cars. To do this, we contacted Jewish organizations and cooperated for the joint evacuation of people. At the same time, the embassy ensured the removal of people from Lviv — those who could get to Lviv on their own.

Were you more scolded or thanked then?

Most were grateful, but some said: "Why didn't the embassy evacuate us from Chernihiv? We pay taxes!"

That is, the Israelis really had legends in their heads that Israel, represented by the embassy, was obliged to send troops to rescue them from any hot spot?

Something like that. Some were indignant: "Why did the embassy leave us?! We do pay taxes." I didn't check their tax returns to see how they paid taxes to Israel while living in Ukraine. But this is a typical Israeli feature, unfortunately. We begged them for a month, "Please leave, the war will start soon!" In response, everyone said: "You are sowing panic; nothing will happen; leave us alone." But when the war broke out, voices immediately rang out: "Where were you? Why weren't we taken out?"

Has this war added any unique experience to Israeli diplomats?

Our embassy set a precedent — for some time, we were an "embassy in exile," which was not the case in the history of Israeli diplomacy. For several months, we worked from Poland.

Did the American and British diplomats also leave Kyiv at the beginning of the war?

Almost everyone left Kyiv. The Americans and British left first, more than a month before the start of the war. Except for the Poles and Turks who remained, everyone left. We were almost the last to leave, three days before the beginning of the war. The war found us in Lviv, and we left for Poland by the end of February.

By the way, about Lviv: I was told that at a dinner with the city's mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, on the evening of February 23, you received a text message, got up, and left with a stone face. What was that message?

I don't remember that. There were no unequivocal signals that a war would begin that night. That is if you disregard Putin's speech the day before when he talked for an hour about “showing Ukraine what decommunization is." This is what prompted me to decide to transfer the embassy from Kyiv. But we still thought that everything would end in the east of Ukraine. No one could have imagined that Kyiv would be shelled that night.

Do Israeli diplomats currently working in warring Ukraine receive some "military pay raise" in their salary?

They only get a small bonus for working in difficult conditions.

On a personal, human level, although it is difficult for an ambassador to abstract, how do you feel: could Israel, both a state and a civil society, do more to help Ukraine?

You can always do more. And, of course, we could have done more. Why didn't we? I think there are many reasons. First, the war is not over yet. And Israel, I am sure, will still do a lot of useful things for Ukraine. At least I do my best for this — what depends on me.

Israel has provided rather valuable assistance to Ukraine and continues to provide it, above all, in healthcare. We treat the wounded and children in Israel, train psychologists, and assist with psychological and physical rehabilitation. Israel helps with this.

However, unfortunately, Israel also had a difficult period — elections and no budget for several months. Therefore, it was impossible to find a budget to provide assistance to Ukraine.

And secondly, unfortunately, I must say that the position of the Ukrainian embassy and those who determine this position did not add motivation to Israel to help Ukraine. Unfortunately, instead of establishing a normal and constructive dialogue and focusing on common interests, it seems to me that the wrong tone was chosen. Especially at the beginning, and then it was partially corrected.

I partly understand why this happened. There were high expectations [regarding] Israel. There was a misunderstanding of our situation or an unwillingness to understand it. But if the Ukrainian leadership had behaved differently, there could have been much more help. I think this also played a role.

That is, this was caused by Ukrainian mistakes?

I think that the wrong tone was chosen in relations with Israel.

Did those Israelis who came to Ukraine voluntarily to participate in hostilities on the side of Ukraine apply to the embassy?

They didn't apply. However, unfortunately, there were several cases when they died, and we had to participate in the transportation of the bodies. Moreover, we are not interested in receiving information on this topic — for obvious reasons. But if an Israeli citizen dies and their wish was to be buried in Israel, we get involved and help transport the body.

How did you react to the personal attacks against you by Maria Zakharova from the Russian Foreign Ministry and her "disappointment" that the Israeli ambassador does not condemn Ukraine, and so on? 

I don't take things like this personally. We are talking about propagandists, and I perfectly understand their goals and objectives.

Speaking of personal, you have a family story about a grandmother rescued in the Vinnytsia region during the Holocaust. How did the search for these people go?

I was engaged in the search. We even started to prepare a program about this story on a TV channel, but the search stopped because of the war. But I hope to find someone who was at least somewhere nearby, not necessarily members of the family who were rescued, who could tell the details. I talked about this with the mayor of Vinnytsia. I was there several times. The mayor promised to help. So far, no one has been found, but I do not give up hope — maybe after the war.

My grandmother was in the Pechora concentration camp and, before that, in the Tulchyn ghetto. She was 20 years old and was able to escape from the concentration camp after the death of her father and ended up in a family of local residents who sheltered her. At first, they did not know she was Jewish, and when they found out, they did not hand her over [to the Nazis. Ed.]. And she was saved thanks to them. Then, the connections were lost, and it was difficult to find them. But their names are known. There is a documentary by the Spielberg Foundation in which my grandmother told the whole story in the 1990s.

Has Ambassador Brodsky already been to Brody?

Not yet, but I pass through Brody every time I go to Lviv. But we have never had the opportunity to stop because we travel in a column. I don't think I'll see anything that can shock me.

There is a beautiful old synagogue in Brody, which, unfortunately, is in the process of destruction.

Yes, I heard. It's like that everywhere. In Zhovkva, there is a colossal old synagogue, which is also under the threat of destruction.

A question about the future — about a possible change in Israel's policy towards Ukraine and this war in general. If the Israeli government decides to intensify support for Ukraine, will you interfere with this?

Personally, I will only support it. Moreover, I seek to intensify support for Ukraine. In this case, I act as the most pro-Ukrainian element in the Israeli government. Because I'm right here, and I understand what's going on here. And I keep saying that we need to help Ukraine more.

All humanitarian aid from the State of Israel to Ukraine passed through the embassy. We prioritize who receives this assistance. If this assistance is increased in our country, we will be able to help Ukraine more. And this will improve the image of Israel.

What do you feel when communicating with Ukrainian leaders and ordinary Ukrainians? What is their attitude towards Israel that they throw at you? How do people react to the word "Israel"? 

This attitude has changed. No need to focus on relationships during a war. This is an emotional state. You can't judge people in this situation. There was a lot of criticism against us, especially at the beginning of the war. But in the end, I think most people in Ukraine understand that Israel itself is in a difficult situation. They understand our limitations. They realize that Israel helps as much as possible and that the potential for help is huge.

Most understand that in the process of restoring Ukraine after the war, they cannot do without the Israeli experience. Our experience suits Ukraine best today because we are also a country at war and for other reasons.

Therefore, I feel that in Ukraine, there is a very personal, emotional, and interested attitude towards Israel. Despite the criticism, Ukrainians see Israel as a close country.

Published in September 2023.