Ukraine, Russia, and Lessons In Courage

7 March 2022

As I write this, Ukraine is being violently attacked, its people murdered by a dictator chasing the fantasy of a past empire and willing to commit atrocities to attain it. Putin is forcing average people to make unspeakable choices and face incredible peril.

And yet, so many ordinary people have responded to unimaginable circumstances with resounding courage.

These stories are ones of people faced with violent political conflict that they didn’t start and never wanted. Mothers explaining to children that they must abandon their home; elderly people learning how to make a Molotov cocktail; young 20-somethings shocking themselves by picking up weapons they never thought they’d touch. Courageous resistance, in one form or another, seems to permeate every choice the average Ukrainian is making, and the basic human questions they are being forced to ask — Will I see my loved ones again? Will I have food, electricity, and a place to sleep tonight? — make us, those not immediately enmeshed in this conflict, look at our own lives with something akin to awe, realizing how much we have, and how safe we are.

The Ukrainian people are not alone. So many around the world are standing with them, working to help. Vadim Blumin, one of NIF’s board members who was born in Ukraine, currently serves as the Director of Educational Strategy at the Jewish Agency for Israel. He has been working around the clock to get friends, family and colleagues (and so many others!) out of the region, while other staff members of the Jewish Agency are still on the ground helping refugees to escape the horrors of the war. As a part of that work, Vadim has encountered people making remarkable personal choices.

At a recent board meeting, Vadim recounted one example, and explained that “the Israeli Ministry of Education instructed us to bring back all Israeli teachers serving in local Jewish day schools in Ukraine. But two of them, who worked at an orphanage in Odessa, refused to come back to Israel. They told us: ‘These kids have been abandoned once—we will not abandon them again.'”

This, Vadim said, is almost an unbearable dilemma for him. “On the one hand,” he said, “the Jewish Agency and Ministry of Education are responsible for the lives and the wellbeing of our emissaries and our teachers—so we simply had to evacuate them and their families out of what had become a war-zone. But on the other hand, we know that we cannot teach about Janus Korscak and leave the moment the tanks roll in.” Korscak was a Polish Jewish educator who spent years working as a principal of an orphanage in Warsaw, and then refused an offer of sanctuary from the Nazis, remaining with his orphans until the bitter end. Eventually, Vadim told us, the teachers from Odessa found a way to return to the city and, together with their kids, safely escape Ukraine.

We have so much to learn from the moral and physical courage of these teachers. May we always — like them — live up to our truest, deepest values.

And this this is not just a Ukrainian story — it’s also a Russian story. There are so many Russians who are against this war — despite a brand-new law passed by Putin on Friday that threatens anyone who shares “false information” with up to 15 years in prison. This law, according to The New York Times, may make it illegal in Russia to label the invasion of Ukraine a “war,” as the Kremlin is calling it a “special military operation.” The Russian government has blocked access to major Russian-language outlets that are based outside the country as well as Facebook. The Nobel Prize winning Editor-in-Chief of Russia’s only independent newspaper, Dmitry Muratov, told the New Yorker that so many Russians “are feeling shame as well as sorrow…only an anti-war movement of Russians can save life on this planet.”

Watching Russians protest these authoritarian moves in their own country is another light in the darkness of this horrific conflict.

Indeed, around the world, the war in Ukraine has mobilized so many in defense of democracy – including progressive Israelis. One of NIF’s grantees, Zazim — Community Action, which normally mobilizes for crucial local causes in Israel, has decided that this historic moment calls for looking beyond borders. In an email they wrote that “neutrality at times like these is immoral and dangerous,” and they called on their members—and all Israelis—to “stand in solidarity with innocent citizens in Ukraine…and demand that our government fulfill this duty as well.”

Zazim is taking action to push Yair Lapid, currently Israel’s Foreign Minister, to take a stronger stance on Ukraine. Their letter to him on Facebook is here – feel free to share it. This is a part of a grassroots effort across the globe to urge foreign ministers to stand strong against Putin’s war of aggression. Zazim is also a member of the Online Progressive Engagement Network, which brings together people-powered movements around the world. Through that network, Zazim receives on-the-ground updates from Ukraine, including learning that its Romanian sister organization, DeClic is getting ready to receive and support refugees streaming in from Ukraine to Romania.

At times like these, it can often feel that there is nothing that can be done – no way to help from afar. But that’s just despair speaking, and Zazim’s example shows that this is never true. Hands can be held, arms outstretched—and something can always be done. It may not seem like much, but it matters.

Zazim’s actions are a small ray of light in a dark moment. May there be many more. May the suffering of Ukraine end soon. May tyrants be brought to justice.