By: Elishama Marmon  | 

‘Evil is Coming’: YU Professors Discuss Ukraine, Russia and What To Know

Editor's Note: The panel in question took place on Monday, Feb. 28. There have since been significant developments in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

On Monday evening, Feb. 28, Yeshiva University held a round table of six YU historians and political scientists focusing on the conflict in Ukraine, part of a variety of programming organized by the university in response to Russia’s large-scale military invasion of Ukraine. Over 280 people attended the Zoom event.

The event, entitled “Ukraine Under Attack,” was moderated by Prof. Ronnie Perelis, head of the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs, and featured six speakers who brought their knowledge and expertise to bear on the current conflict. President Ari Berman gave opening remarks on the conflict and YU’s duty as a Jewish university to not just pray for the situation but to study it. He expressed the fear that, in an unfortunate reversal of the prophecy of Isaiah, our generation may be forced to study war once again, as it becomes increasingly relevant to our lives. “We thought we had a period of time of ‘Lo Yisah Goy El Goy Cherev’; we thought that was our reality…Patterns that we thought were broken now can be learned once again.”

The panel discussed a variety of topics related to the current conflict. Some of their addresses overlapped, with various professors’ fields of expertise touching on each other.

Prof. Jess Olson, an associate professor of Jewish history at YU, debunked Putin’s claims that Ukraine was somehow lacking in history or culture. He explained some of the history of Western Ukraine and the recent moves that Ukraine has made toward increased liberalization.

The focus then shifted to Prof. Joshua Karlip, the Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair of Jewish Studies, who spoke about the similarities between the Ukrainian story and that of the Jewish people, as well as the ties between the Jews and Ukraine. Both were stateless people for generations but have, in recent years, finally gotten their own country, he noted. Both, however, are faced by a larger and more powerful enemy with no compunction about arbitrarily attacking innocent civilians.

Prof. Joshua Zimmerman, the Eli and Diana Zborowski Professorial Chair in Holocaust Studies and East European Jewish History, brought a comprehensive understanding of both the history of Ukraine, particularly as it relates to world Jewry, and an interesting view of the Russian perspective on the European Union and NATO that may have started this war. Russia, after losing millions of soldiers and civilians in WWII, Zimmerman told the audience, is naturally fearful of the encroaching of the West, and the EU has in recent years expanded to the point that only Ukraine stands between the EU and Russia. This perceived Western threat may be a significant factor in this aggression.

Prof. Maria Zaitseva, one of the professors in the Department of Political Science who grew up in the Soviet Union, spoke about the developing nuclear situation in Russia, which is the worst, she said, since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Russia has put nuclear forces on high alert, a situation that greatly increases the possibility of accidental or unauthorized use. This is on top of the risk that a weakened Putin may just be desperate enough to do something rash.

Also originally from the Soviet Union, Prof. Dina Shvetsov of the Department of Political Science, shared a fascinating perspective on the war based partially on correspondence with Russian protesters. Despite facing brutal repression, these brave protesters, she said, continue to remind us that the Russian people are not all guilty for Putin’s crimes. Many are standing up to him, despite the intense consequences. She also pointed out that this war shakes up the world order significantly: Taiwan, Georgia and other small struggling democracies all over the world are now less sure about their futures than they were just one week ago. This 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 the police while protesting, who wanted his story to be spread. “The only thing you can do now is to spread the word of a terrible danger that is looming over the whole planet. Please make people understand that what we see here is evil is coming.”

Prof. 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, has a tendency to glorify certain Ukrainian heroes, some of whom have a significant amount of Jewish blood on their hands. While this might make some Jews hesitant to support Ukraine, we must try to bypass these feelings and fully support them. He also mentioned that while Russia may have had some legitimate complaints to make against NATO or the EU, Putin nullified any moral complexity in this situation by starting this war.

After these engaging speeches, the event opened up to the audience for questions. Among the questions was one about the Western response to this newest Russian aggression, and whether we have done enough. Zimmerman expressed the firm belief that we shouldn’t have taken the military option off the table, and we may well come to regret that we did later (referencing his article on the topic from earlier in the day). Zaitseva pointed out that while many Russian citizens do support the war, Putin needs the backing of the Russian oligarchs and elites to keep his power, and we can work to help undermine that backing.

Another question was about whether Russia might be getting so aggressive in response to the fact that they are losing their status as an energy superpower. Zaitseva was quick to point out that Putin likely doesn’t feel that way, given that he met only days ago with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to discuss building a new oil pipeline. Shvetsov also pointed out that even as countries turn to nuclear power, Russia is in control, based on maintenance and other factors, of over half of Asian nuclear power. Both agreed that Russia is not ready to give up on being an energy superpower just yet.

Another interesting discussion was how this situation will affect Israel. Karlip pointed out that Israel has a very close relationship with Ukraine, based in part on immigration and sympathizing with a fellow democracy facing hardship. Olson discussed the fact that this moment appears to be, despite all the hardship, a realization of the dream of Jewish and Ukranian greatness, embodied in President Zelensky, the Jewish president of Ukraine. Perelis mentioned that there is a truly thriving Jewish community in Ukraine, which is easy to overlook in a time of struggle like this one.

Finally, the event closed with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, rabbi of New York’s Park East Synagogue and a global leader on the topics of religious freedom and human rights, utilizing his personal knowledge of the actors in the conflict, specifically Putin and his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, to give unique insights into the conflict, as well as pointing out the particularly tricky position Israel is placed in.

The event was sponsored by a range of YU clubs that are involved with 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 the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

A tremendous amount of appreciation is owed to the organizers, co-sponsors, and speakers of this incredible event, which helped many people to better understand the current war and the ramifications it may create for the Jewish community, Ukraine, and the world as a whole.

Photo Caption: The event was held on Zoom on Feb. 28.

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University