Muscle flexing in the Middle East
Russia’s war against Ukraine should profoundly change the way in which Ukrainian society perceives itself and the world. This seems to be the necessary prerequisite of Ukraine’s survival, rebirth and rise from the ashes.
I would like the illusions that long kept us poor, weak and dependent to stay in the past forever, and our society to understand how complex, multidimensional, interdependent and dynamic the modern world is once and for all, learning to live a full life in it and taking the place that corresponds to our potential.
Unfortunately, we still exist in the two-dimensional world of victory versus treason. Sadly, this problem has only aggravated as the war proceeds. Whatever does not fit our worldview is unapologetically seen as treason.
Illustrations are at hand. Look at how Ukrainian society perceives help for Ukraine or our enemies from other countries. Helping Ukraine is victory while helping the enemy is treason. Not helping Ukraine is treason and not helping enemies is victory.
On the one hand, it is easy to understand Ukrainian society – when help comes on time, it enables physical survival and saves the lives of Ukrainian citizens.
On the other hand, a black or white interpretation of the world in the era of color television prevents us from properly perceiving reality and making balanced assessments of opportunities. It is Ukraine that suffers from this. After all, Ukraine is not the world’s only worry. If Ukraine wants to get the most support out of it, it should understand well the interests and red lines of all it asks for help.
Israel is probably the best illustration in this context. Monopolized information space makes Ukrainians think that Israel could help Ukraine but is not doing so. And even if it has, its help has been far below what it could have done. Is this so? Was Israel obliged to help Ukraine? Could it have done so without creating serious risks for its own society? These questions do not come up from the media, political elite or Ukraine’s President often. Unfortunately, not answering them makes us weaker.
The Russia-Ukraine war and the Arab-Israeli conflict seem very similar. Both are based on denial of existence of a nation as such, incomparable size of the territory and populations of the warring parties, and on cultural and historical connection between the parties. At first sight, these circumstances should have clearly and unquestionably determined who Israel sides with in the Russia-Ukraine war. That is what Ukrainian society thinks.
However, this perspective is of an egocentric child with an illusion that the world owes him something. While he is dominated by these illusions, life passes by bringing him back to earth roughly from time to time. These falls will only end when the child matures.
Maturing is only possible when the child understands one simple truth: nobody owes him anything. In the bitter time of trouble, he should first and foremost count on himself and thank those who can help and do so as well as those who are empathetic but cannot help. Israel is a country where armed struggle for existence began when the state was created and continues to this day.
This fight has become an integral part of its history and its present days, a context so permeating in Israeli society and everyday life that there is no single area where you do not see it. Many researchers mark 1929 as the beginning of this conflict: the Hebron (Palestine) riots and destruction of the Jewish community. 90 years later, the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians and most of the Arab world – 430 million people versus Israel’s population of slightly over 9.4 million – continues.
The painful losses and constant flare-ups of this conflict have taught the Israelis a habit of self-reflection. They constantly think about how to accomplish a balance between the need to wage the war of survival while also see humans in the enemies in the context of the conflict. This requires constant analysis and revision of moral norms. Without this, it is impossible to build a modern progressive society. People have been suffering on both sides of the frontline, but Israeli society stands out – and will stand out in the future – for its tendency of self-criticism. Writers and politicians have been insisting that the country should correspond to the values that accompanied it on its path of establishment and independence. Otherwise, this path will lose its point. Such a self-critical stance has become one of the key sources of Israel’s internal strength that pushed the country forward in huge leaps through the most difficult times.
This worldview was shaped by circumstances. The Israeli were filled with the feeling of despair, fear of facing the armed, more numerous and motivated enemy one on one, pressured by circumstances and in a losing position civilizationally. The sense of resistance shaped their “one on one with the universe” state.
Society accepted, enrooted and handed over as legacy the axiom relying on your own mind first and foremost. You can rely on loyal friends but be aware that circumstances can limit their help. Israel’s history, especially modern history, has been described from various perspectives – that of the Israeli people, as well as of the Arab lens. It is very difficult for an outsider to find the truth in this.
At the same time, Israel is too important in the modern world to be ignored. Its existence and fate will hardly leave anyone indifferent. Some will see in it a stubborn urge to survive and an example of the nation and state rising from the ashes. Others will see it as injustice towards the Palestinians who have been living in this land for centuries.
Some will think of the heroic mad resistance and fight for the existence of the Jewish state – a dream of centuries – when the world is against you and friends only provide you with the crumbles of what you really need to survive. Some will point to a civilizational clash with the West that has robbed the East, then weak, of part of its cultural and civilizational heart treacherously, defiantly and with a whim of colonial arrogance.
What should we, Ukrainians, see as we beg the world for help against the mad barbarian aggression? What should we expect from a country that, in our view, is suffering the same injustice as us, from which we expect empathy and notable support? The problem might be that Israel is telling us: we are with you Ukraine, we are helping you with what we can give you.
Could we give you more? Maybe… For us, this will then mean a war that your enemy (Russia) and our enemy (Iran) will fuel. We have a permanent conflict with Lebanon in the North supported by Iran and a very fragile status-quo with Syria where Russia has strong influence. We have the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nothing that can prevent the Russians from pouring some oil into it.
We have an undefined position of Jordan that can change at any moment. We are not telling you that we have already warned our population about a possible escalation and recommended making food and water stocks for several weeks. Why are you demanding from us something that will mean the death of our sons and daughters that can be prevented? How will you support us when our enemies start tearing us apart? What will you help us with?
These are very simple worlds that stay behind the cautious Israeli diplomatic etiquette and drown in the whirlpool of our emotions. What can we say in response? Is it fair for us to expect a society – that has been balancing on the verge of destruction for centuries, that has been physically resisting an ethnic group 50 times larger than itself – to enter an open war? For the Jewish community, the State of Israel is the accomplishment of an old dream. It can turn into ashes if society and government make the mistakes that can trigger a Middle Eastern tsunami.
Therefore, our aggressive demands of Israel’s help sound arrogant and wild. In this context, the actual help of the Israeli – such as recent massive attacks on drone production facilities in Iran – is an example of how a great state helps Ukraine cure its childishness in spite of everything.
I would like to avoid conversations about historical uniqueness of societies, state formations and such, or bitterness over Israel not interfering with our fight for our existence . I would like Ukraine to learn to use the resources and civilizational opportunities which others are willing to share with us, and appreciate them and the critical existential lessons we are given by those who do not opt for self-destruction for our sake.
This is very valuable experience. And it is up to us alone whether we will learn it and make a step into the future, or not – remaining hostage to childish illusions.