‘Evil happens’: YU professors discuss Ukraine, Russia and what you need to know
Editor’s note: The panel in question took place on Monday, February 28. There have since been significant developments in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
On Monday evening, February 28, Yeshiva University hosted a panel discussion of six YU historians and political scientists on the conflict in Ukraine, part of a variety of programs organized by the university in response to the invasion. large-scale military of Ukraine by Russia. Over 280 people attended the Zoom event.
The event, titled “Ukraine Under Attack”, was moderated by Professor Ronnie Perelis, Head of Rabbi Arthur Schneier’s Program for International Affairs, and featured six speakers who brought their knowledge and expertise to bear on the current conflict. President Ari Berman delivered a keynote address on the conflict and YU’s duty as a Jewish university to not only pray for the situation, but to study it. He expressed concern that, in an unfortunate reversal of Isaiah’s prophecy, our generation may be forced to study war again, as it becomes increasingly relevant in our lives. “We thought we had a period of ‘Lo Yissa Goy El Goy Cherev’; we thought it was our reality… The patterns we thought were broken now can be relearned.
The panel discussed a variety of topics related to the current conflict. Some of their addresses overlapped, with the areas of expertise of various professors overlapping.
Professor Jess Olson, an associate professor of Jewish history at YU, denied Putin’s claims that Ukraine was somehow lacking in history or culture. He explained some of the history of Western Ukraine and the recent steps taken by Ukraine towards further liberalization.
The focus then turned to Professor Joshua Karlip, Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair of Jewish Studies, who spoke about the similarities between Ukrainian history and that of the Jewish people, as well as the links between Jews and Ukraine. Both had been stateless for generations but have in recent years finally obtained their own country, he noted. Both, however, are up against a bigger, more powerful enemy that has no qualms about arbitrarily attacking innocent civilians.
Professor Joshua Zimmerman, Eli and Diana Zborowski Professorial Chair in Holocaust Studies and Eastern European Jewish History, provided a comprehensive understanding of Ukrainian history, particularly regarding world Jewry, and an interesting take on the Russian perspective on the European Union and NATO that may have started this war. Russia, having lost millions of soldiers and civilians in World War II, Zimmerman told the audience, understandably fears encroachment from the West, and the EU has expanded in recent years to the point that only Ukraine sits between the EU and Russia. This perceived Western threat may be a significant factor in this aggression.
Professor Maria Zaitseva, one of the professors of the Department of Political Science who grew up in the Soviet Union, spoke about the development of the nuclear situation in Russia, which she said is the worst since the crisis Cuban missiles. Russia has placed its nuclear forces on high alert, a situation that greatly increases the possibility of accidental or unauthorized use. This adds to the risk that a weakened Putin will be just desperate enough to do something rash.
Also from the Soviet Union, Professor Dina Shvetsov from the Department of Political Science, shared a fascinating perspective on the war based in part on correspondence with Russian protesters. Despite brutal repression, these brave protesters, she said, continue to remind us that the Russian people are not all guilty of Putin’s crimes. Many are standing up to him, despite the intense consequences. She also pointed out that this war is seriously shaking the world order: Taiwan, Georgia and other struggling small democracies around the world are now less sure of their future than they were just a week. It is ultimately a fight for democracy and the continued existence of sovereign democratic nations. She ended her speech by reading a letter from a Russian protester who had been injured by police while protesting, who wanted his story to be aired. “The only thing you can do now is to spread the word of a terrible danger that threatens the whole planet. Please make people understand that what we see here is that evil is coming .
Professor Shay Pilnik, director of the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, approached the topic from the perspective of a descendant of Holocaust survivors who has spent his life studying the Holocaust. Ukraine, he said, tends to glorify certain Ukrainian heroes, some of whom have a significant amount of Jewish blood on their hands. Although this may make some Jews hesitant to support Ukraine, we must try to circumvent these feelings and support them fully. He also mentioned that while Russia may have legitimate complaints against NATO or the EU, Putin has negated any moral complexities in this situation by starting this war.
After these engaging speeches, the event opened to the public for questions. Among the questions was one about the Western response to this new Russian aggression, and whether we have done enough. Zimmerman expressed the firm belief that we should not have taken the military option off the table, and we may well regret that we did so later (referring to his article on the subject earlier today) . Zaitseva stressed that while many Russian citizens support the war, Putin needs the support of Russian oligarchs and elites to retain power, and we can work to help undermine that support.
Another question was whether Russia could become so aggressive in response to losing its status as an energy superpower. Zaitseva was quick to point out that Putin probably doesn’t feel that way, given that he met Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan just days ago to discuss building a new pipeline. Shvetsov also pointed out that even though countries are turning to nuclear power, Russia controls, based on maintenance and other factors, more than half of Asia’s nuclear power. Both agreed that Russia was not yet ready to give up being an energy superpower.
Another interesting discussion was how this situation will affect Israel. Karlip pointed out that Israel has very close relations with Ukraine, based in part on immigration and sympathizing with another struggling democracy. Olson spoke of the fact that this moment seems to be, despite all the difficulties, a realization of the dream of Jewish and Ukrainian greatness, embodied by President Zelensky, the Jewish President of Ukraine. Perelis mentioned that there is a really thriving Jewish community in Ukraine, which is easy to overlook in a time of struggle like this.
Finally, the event ended with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, rabbi of the Park East Synagogue in New York and a world leader on the topics of religious freedom and human rights, using his personal knowledge of the actors of the conflict. , in particular Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to provide unique insight into the conflict, while highlighting the particularly delicate position in which Israel finds itself.
The event was sponsored by a series of YU clubs that are involved in various political issues: the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs, YU Political Action Club, Dunner Political Science Society, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, YU College Democrats, YU College Republicans and Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
Huge gratitude is due to the organizers, co-sponsors and speakers of this incredible event, which has helped many people better understand the current war and the ramifications it can have for the Jewish community, Ukraine and the world in as whole.
Photo Caption: The event took place on Zoom on February 28.
Photo credit: Yeshiva University