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March 11, 2022 11:57 am
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Denouncing War Crimes, Top Ukrainian Rabbi Calls on Russian Jews to Protest Invasion

avatar by Ben Cohen

Rescue workers in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro search for survivors in the rubble of an apartment building hit by a Russian airstrike. Photo: Reuters/State Emergency Service of Ukraine

Russian military actions in Ukraine amount to war crimes and both Ukrainians and Jews have “fallen victim to the same tragedy,” one of Ukraine’s leading rabbis declared on Friday.

In an extensive interview with the Ukrainian-language section of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Chief Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman spoke candidly about both the nature of the war, along with the need for Jews in Russia to overcome their fear and speak out against it.

“Russia and [President Vladimir] Putin united the Ukrainian and Jewish peoples against them, united the whole world,” Azman said. “Everyone is now praying for both Ukrainians and Jews. We have all fallen victim to the same tragedy … The fact that civilians are being shot, cars and homes are being shot at, is a war crime, I think.”

Calling for prayers and protests on behalf of Ukraine, Azman then issued a direct appeal to the Jewish community in Russia.

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“I ask you to keep praying, I ask you to protest and do your best. I have already told the Jews of Russia to do so,” he said. “I understand that some of them are ‘zombified,’ some are afraid.”

Russian authorities have treated anti-war demonstrations harshly, with more than 13,000 protestors already detained around the country.

Recalling that he had been born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the USSR, Azman said that he had been arrested and interrogated by the KGB, urging Russian Jews to follow his example. “I was taken to the KGB for interrogation for my activities,” he said. “I was not afraid … that is why, even now, everyone has to decide, good or evil, whether he is an accomplice to crimes.”

Azman said he had received several phone calls from Russian Jews. “I reminded them that they can’t just sit at the TV and smile, that they will have to take responsibility for what happens with their consent, tacit or otherwise,” he said. “Both Jews and Russians called me from Russia. Some said they had their eyes opened, some said they already knew what was going on, but were afraid to say anything about it.”

Azman emphasized that the Jewish community in Ukraine was fully behind the war effort. “We have established a call center that receives calls from people in need, and organizes buses to transport people to Israel and Europe, to safe places,” he said.

Jews were also fighting in the Ukrainian armed forces. “Jewish men who are conscripts feel the need to defend Ukraine, to go to war in the armed forces, or in territorial defense,” Azman said.

Addressing the Russian propaganda depiction of Ukrainian leaders as “neo-Nazis,” Azman sarcastically asked: “To whom are they going to apply ‘denazification’? To the Jewish president [Volodymyr Zelensky]? Or to the head of the opposition [Vadym] Rabinovich?”

As Russia widened its assault on Friday, with the city of Dnipro hit by air strikes and missiles for the first time since the invasion, Azman highlighted the terrible human cost being exacted, particularly on the most vulnerable.

“There are many elderly people who cannot move on their own,” he said. “Among them are those who miraculously escaped the Holocaust during World War II, who were forced to evacuate from Luhansk and other Donbass cities for the third and even fourth time in their lives.”

Added Azman: “They are shocked that the Russian army, which once defeated the Nazis, is now beating them.”

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