This Jewish reporter found ‘uplifting’ humanity on Moldova-Ukraine border

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In early March as the Russians invaded Ukraine, Gil Hoffman, the Jerusalem Post’s chief political correspondent, and analyst, was reporting at Moldova’s border with Ukraine and saw “some sights that I thought I would never see and yet somehow left uplifted,” he said.

“It wasn’t just the Jews. The Moldovan people were coming with cars and vans and telling (Ukrainian refugees), ‘I will drive you anywhere in Europe,’ ” recalled Hoffman, who visited the area as part of a trip funded by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization aimed at building cooperation between the two religions and support for Israel. “The Jewish organizations were absolutely incredible, how they were working nonstop to save people.”

For most observers around the world, however, the war has not provided an emotional boost. For example, its ripple effects have reached Israel because of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempt at mediation between the two sides; Russia’s possible obstruction of a new Iranian nuclear deal; and the influx of Ukrainian refugees to Israel, among other reasons.

Hoffman will discuss some of those issues during a talk, “Peace, Politics, Putin and the Pandemic,” on April 6 at 8 a.m. as the keynote speaker at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Midwest Breakfast for Israel, which will be held virtually and is free to attend via Zoom.

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“In all four of those challenges, Israel has found ways to take groundbreaking steps,” said Hoffman, who grew up in Chicago and lives in Jerusalem, where he has worked at the Post for 25 years.

In Moldova, residents opened their homes to refugees, gave them free food at restaurants and allowed them to work anywhere, even without official documents, Hoffman said. Orthodox rabbis visited the border on Friday night and were “on their phones constantly to help people.”

“The Orthodox synagogue in Kishinev (the Moldovan capital) constantly had more and more busloads of refugees coming there, and they were given a hot kosher meal,” Hoffman said.

Chabad rabbis in Ukraine had worked to get their local communities out of the country and then also left, carrying Torah scrolls, which they danced with on Shabbat, Hoffman said.

They were “people who lost their whole community, people who had worked for decades to build up what they had and then lost it immediately when the war began … and there they were on Shabbat in Kishinev, and they danced with hope and faith, and it was really shockingly beautiful,” Hoffman said.

While Hoffman was in Moldova, Bennett, who is an observant Jew, flew on Shabbat to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He did so at the behest of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and in coordination with the United States, France and Germany, according to Jewish Telegraphic Agency and other reports.

In addition to trying to mediate between Zelensky and Putin, Bennett also made the trip because he was concerned about the large Jewish communities in Ukraine and Russia and wanted to maintain good relations with Russia because of Israel’s campaign against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, where Russia still has a significant presence, according to The New York Times.

“It’s very strange for Israel to be Switzerland (traditionally a neutral country) when there is a world conflict, instead of very much being on one side and very much being a combatant,” Hoffman said. “We can enjoy that for a little bit because we have had such good ties with both sides, and we have to be careful with both sides because we have Putin right there on our border with Syria.
“I have no idea if it will succeed, but Bennett was in a position to try, and I commend him for that. He is an observant Jew and flew there on Shabbat to save lives.”

(News organizations reported that Bennett received permission to break the Sabbath for that reason.)

Israel and Russia are also paying attention to ongoing efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which would restrict its nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions against the country. In March 2015, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the unusual step of testifying before Congress because he was so opposed to the proposed agreement, which went into effect that July. Then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2018.

Iran and Western countries are now reportedly close to restoring the agreement, but the Russian foreign minister has demanded that sanctions against the country not interfere in its trade with Iran, according to the Times.

“Russia is trying to hold up the deal” because they and the Chinese were the only ones who weren’t honoring it, “so now if the world will be open for business with Iran, [Russia] won’t have that advantage,” Hoffman said. “That is something that works to Israel’s benefit, if the Russians will delay the Iran deal.”

If Iran and Western countries do revive the original deal, some of the limits on Iran’s nuclear program could be lifted in 2025.
“That’s frightening,” Hoffman said. “The last 10 years or so have proven that Israel can be open-minded in terms of all kinds of ideas to postpone Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear capability (including the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist) and it will continue to have to use a wide variety of methods.”

The war is also affecting Israel because among the more than 2 million refugees fleeing Ukraine, 20,000 have entered Israel. Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced Tuesday that the country would allow 25,000 refugees to remain in the country even if they don’t fit the law of return, which allows all people with at least one Jewish grandparent to immigrate to Israel.

“That’s a reasonable compromise,” Hoffman said. “We are talking about people who are not Jewish in any way, not even a Jewish grandparent, and [the country] is really trying to focus on those who do fit the Israeli law of return. … If you have a possibility of 100,000 Ukrainians and Russians who fit that category, then we are doing our part.”

At the Midwest Breakfast, Hoffman also plans to discuss what “Israel has done that surprised the world and could be a model for the world.”

For example, it was the first country to fully vaccinate most of its citizens.

“We are always a couple of months ahead, and right now we are removing restrictions again, and the numbers are way down — thank God — and I think it’s a sign that it’s going to happen in America soon, too,” Hoffman said. “You guys are going to have a Passover with your families again, and that’s something to look forward to.”


‘Peace, Politics, Putin and the Pandemic’

WHO: Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman is the guest speaker at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Midwest Breakfast for Israel

WHEN: 8 a.m., Wednesday, April 6

WHERE:  Online via Zoom

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: Register at jnf.org/BFImidwest or contact Kim R. Levy, executive director, Midwest at [email protected] or 847-656-8880, ext. 763.