Natan Sharansky, perhaps the world’s most famous refusenik, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons before becoming an author, speaker and, eventually, Chairman of the Executive for the Jewish Agency, recently gave this very powerful speech:
“When I was growing up in Donetsk, Ukraine, there were [people from] many nations and nationalities. [Some] had ID papers that said ‘Russian,’ ‘Ukrainian; ‘Georgian; or ‘Kozak.’ These were not so important since there was not much difference between them. The single designation that stood out was ‘Jew.’ if that was written as your identity, it was as if you had a disease.”
“We knew nothing about Judaism. There was nothing significant about our Jewish identity other than the anti-Semitism, hatred, and discriminatory treatment we experienced because of it. When it came to a university application, for example, no one tried to change his designation from ‘Russian‘ to ‘Ukrainian’ because it did not matter. However, if you could change your designation of ‘Jew’, it substantially improved your chances of university admission.”
“This week I was reminded of those days, when I saw thousands of people standing at the borders of Ukraine trying to escape. They are standing there day and night and there is only one word that can help them get out: ‘Jew.’ If you are a Jew, there are Jews outside who care about and are waiting for you. There is someone on the other side of the border who is searching for you. Your chances of leaving are excellent.”
“The world has changed. When I was a child, ‘Jew’ was an unfortunate designation. No one envied us. But today on the Ukrainian border, identifying as a Jew is a most fortunate circumstance. It describes those who have a place to go, where their family, an entire nation, is waiting for them on the other side.”
Friends, we are the ones waiting on the other side. This is the vision of the State of Israel, to bring in Jews, from wherever they are, to safety in our own land. This is American Jewry raising $24.5 million in less than a week to make it happen. This is the JDC providing emergency food and medicine.
And, we’re not only helping Jews. Israel is also accepting thousands of non-Jewish refugees into the country as well as setting up field hospitals in Ukraine to provide emergency medical care for all.
Steven Cyros wrote, “Remember, when disaster strikes, the time to prepare has passed.” Jewish Federations, with our partners Jewish Agency and JDC, prepare every single day, year after year. My colleagues use the phrase, “We were there on 9/11 because we were there on 9/10.” We’ve provided food and medicine in Ukraine for decades. These past few weeks, we’ve just had to step it up.
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