WASHINGTON (JTA) — In an emotional call with American Jewish leaders, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky characterized the Russian invasion of his country as “pure Nazism.”
Zelensky also invoked his Jewishness in an appeal for assistance while speaking Monday via Zoom with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
On the call, Zelensky angrily rejected claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia launched the war to “denazify” Ukraine, saying that it was the Russians who were acting like Nazis.
“This is just pure Nazism,” Zelensky said of the indiscriminate Russian attacks that have killed civilians. “He’s just destroying the citizens of Ukraine of different nationalities. This is just pure Nazi behavior. I can’t even qualify this in any different manner.”
He also decried Putin’s demand that Ukraine concede totally and likened what is happening to the start of the Nazi Holocaust.
“For some reason, we have to kneel down and give our weapons away. We have to hoist the Russian flag. We are supposed to say that we don’t want anything, we want to put our hands up,” Zelensky said. “Listen, all of this already happened. In Europe. All of this happened during Nazi times when the German army rolled through Europe and everyone gave the Jewish people away.”
Zelensky’s meeting with the Conference of Presidents comes amid his campaign, so far rejected by NATO, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which has faced bombings by Russian plans for more than a week. “We need to make pressure to make sure this bombardment to stop, we need to close the sky,” Zelensky said.
A portion of the meeting was held privately. During the public portion of the meeting, Zelensky invoked, as he has several times before, Russian strikes near areas of Jewish importance, including the site of the Babyn Yar mass murder during the Nazi Holocaust, and Uman, a sacred site to haredi Orthodox Jews.
And he said he felt intense sympathy with Americans on 9/11, when he realized that all people are connected.
“Despite the fact that I’m a Ukrainian citizen with Jewish blood, I was looking at what was happening with the American people and it was as painful to me,” he said through an interpreter. “It was hurting because I thought if America is not protected, if terrorists can just kill people…, if the Twin Towers are falling down in the United States it can happen in Ukraine as well.”
Also speaking on the call, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, invoked Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister who was born in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. “It would be great to have her now with us,” she said. “I think she would help a lot in this great fight.”
Markarova also likened Russian military strikes in Ukraine to the rocket fire Israel endured in conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah, saying that the Russian strikes were indiscriminate and hitting civilians.
“The majority of the strikes are from the air, and it’s something that again, you know, all brothers and sisters in Israel are, unfortunately, too familiar with,” she said.
William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents, said Zelensky’s appeal to U.S. Jews was timely.
“During this troubling and chaotic time for Ukraine, President Zelensky’s appeal to the leadership of the Conference of Presidents is particularly salient given his role as a member of the Jewish community whose citizenry are suffering in ways unseen in Europe for many decades,” he said in a statement to JTA. “In tandem with American Jewry donating tens of millions of dollars for rescue and relief efforts in Ukraine, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters praying for peace and continued US leadership to end the conflict.”