To justify its illegal invasion of Ukraine, Russian propaganda has long painted its neighbor – falsely – as a fascist state that needs to be “de-nazified.”
Recently, a prominent Malaysian politician sympathetic to Russia took the opposite approach, accusing Ukraine of being a “Zionist” puppet.
In an April 7 Facebook post, Abdul Hadi bin Awang, president of the Malaysian Islamic Party and the Malaysian Prime Minister’s special envoy for the Middle East, baselessly claimed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is part of a Zionist plot to get Jewish Ukrainians to settle in Israel.
Abdul Hadi accused Zionists of “causing chaos [across] the whole world,” clandestinely colonizing other countries and forming “proxies to engage in warfare directly through leaders who were tools or by subtle provocations.”
“Most recently, Ukraine became an established Zionist base, as 40 percent of its citizens were Zionists or Jews despite the real, hidden statistics. Most of [Israel’s leaders] come from Ukraine or surrounding countries such as Poland, Hungary, Austria and others,” Abdul Hadi said.
“Now, the Zionists have succeeded in appointing a new head of state of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, from among the Jews and hardcore Zionists. In his statement, Zelenskyy mentioned that the state of Ukraine needs to be saved like the state of Israel, thus making the allegations clear and obvious.”
Abdul Hadi claimed Ukrainians have received better treatment as refugees than “war victims in West Asia and Africa” due to “how strong the Zionist influence is on European countries and their allies.”
He compared “provocations” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to Nazi Germany leader Adolf Hitler’s incitement of World War II.
Echoing false Kremlin claims, he said NATO expansion “was an act of provocation that forced Russia to launch an initial attack to save its country.”
Abdul Hadi then made this bogus claim:
“[Ukrainian Jews] did not respond to the Zionist call for them to emigrate to the state of Israel to strengthen the struggle of the Supreme State of Israel as the sole aspiring superpower at the end of time. Thus, the war that took place wisely forced them to migrate to Israel.”
The idea that Zionists are behind Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine to prompt Ukraine’s Jewish population to emigrate to Israel is absurdly false, as is the claim that 40 percent of Ukraine’s citizens are “Zionists or Jews.”
According to some estimates, Jews represent at most 1 percent of Ukraine’s population. And while a recent survey showed Ukrainians generally have favorable attitudes toward Israel, that does not necessarily mean they are Zionists, that is, supporters of the movement for Jewish people to have a homeland in the Land of Israel and the region of Palestine.
Even support for the existence of the state of Israel does not necessary correlate to support for the status quo, which Amnesty International and others have described as a policy of apartheid against Palestinians.
However, criticism of Zionism goes beyond support for Palestinian rights. It also crosses over into antisemitic conspiracy theory, including, as Abdul Hadi’s comments imply, the belief that Jews somehow secretly control Western governments.
Abdul Hadi also drastically overestimated the size of Ukraine’s Jewish population.
In 2016, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research estimated that the “core Jewish population” of Ukraine at 56,000 or 0.13 percent of the country’s total population. The World Population Review puts the number of Ukrainian Jews at 43,000.
The European Jewish Congress estimates that Ukraine’s Jewish population is 400,000, or less than 1 percent of Ukraine’s total population. That figure has been contested, however, and there are reasonable explanations for discrepancies in the population estimates.
Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Jonathan Boyd of the London-based Jewish Policy Research Institute noted that the religious aspects of Judaism were “strongly suppressed in the Soviet Union,” while Yiddish culture was “all but destroyed after the Second World War.”
That, he said, left Soviet Jews with “an extremely limited knowledge of Jewish religion or culture, able only to be identified as Jews by nationality or to affirm their Jewishness on the grounds of being part of a minority group with common ancestry.”
According to Boyd, multiple criteria are used to determine who is and who is not Jewish. About 45,000 people in Ukraine self-identify as religiously or ethnically Jewish, he said, adding that if you include those with at least one Jewish parent who do not identify as Jewish, the figure grows to 90,000.
Ukraine’s “enlarged” Jewish population – including those living in Jewish households who might not even be Jewish – is 140,000.
Taking into account people eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which includes anyone who is the descendent of at least one Jewish grandparent and their immediate family members (regardless of whether they are Jewish or not) – brings Ukraine’s total Jewish population to 200,000.
Thus, the estimate that Ukraine’s Jewish population is 400,000 is “way off,” Boyd argued in his piece for the Jewish Chronicle.
After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Israel did encourage Ukrainian Jews to immigrate to Israel. On March 24, the Times of Israel said 6,000 Ukrainians did so. The newspaper did not explicitly state whether those individuals qualified to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.
Some 500,000 of Israel’s 9.5 million citizens have Ukrainian heritage.
Still, the idea that Israel would clandestinely drive Russia to invade Ukraine to attract, at most, 200,000 Ukrainian refugees to resettle there, strains credulity.
And while Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish, he was elected by Ukraine’s overwhelmingly non-Jewish population. The claim that he was “appointed” by Zionists is baseless.
Zelenskyy has drawn criticism for expressing sympathy for Israelis targeted in Palestinian rocket attacks.
Zelenskyy also drew criticism, and not only from Abdul Hadi, for a March 22 speech before Israel’s legislature. In it, the Ukrainian president said: “We are in different countries and in completely different conditions. But the threat is the same: for both us and you – the total destruction of the people, state, culture. And even of the names: Ukraine, Israel.”
However, in that speech, which the Times of Israel described as “scathing,” Zelenskyy cited the Holocaust and other tragedies to upbraid Israel for failing to arm Ukraine or take in more refugees. He also lambasted Israel for not following the lead of other Western nations and instituting harsh sanctions against Russia. Zelenskyy and others have called Russia’s actions in Ukraine genocide.
His personal views on Israel aside, Zelenskyy was making a rhetorical appeal to get more support for Ukraine’s war effort. He had specifically pushed Israel to share its Iron Dome air defense system with Ukraine. In order not to hurt relations with Russia, Israel had previously stopped the United States from delivering several batteries of the system to Ukraine.
This shows that Ukraine and Israel have separate and independent foreign policies.
Ukraine has also criticized Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories.
In December 2016, Ukraine was one of the 14 Security Council members to vote for a resolution stating that Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
While Zelenskyy was not president at that time, Ukraine then had a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman.
Israel’s then prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, canceled a visit with Groysman over that vote.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry at the time said the country had experienced the tragic consequences of violations of international law — a reference to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and clandestine war in eastern Ukraine.
Political analysts in Malaysia said “pro-Moscow messaging” had widely shaped Malaysian public opinion about Russia, the South China Morning Post reported.
They said anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim-majority country, fueled by the view that the United States has treated Palestinians and Muslims elsewhere unfairly in the post 9/11 era, also spurred that sentiment.
Similar trends have been observed in neighboring Indonesia.