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Let’s save Ukrainian lives

The war in Ukraine could become a humanitarian crisis. Still, Americans can act to save lives.

Yael Eckstein, right, helps Koronina Nelia deboard a plane at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Photo courtesy of Ilan Assayag

(RNS) — Whether in Iraq in 2015, Afghanistan in 2021 or now in Ukraine in 2022, here’s a lesson I have learned: You don’t have to wait for governments to save lives. You can do it.

I saw it again just days ago in Tel Aviv.

The arrival of Jewish immigrants to Israel is an extraordinary sight to behold under any circumstance. Routinely, they descend the steps of the airplane, bend to their knees and kiss the ground in gratitude to God.

Whether young or old, they arrive these days during a rise in antisemitism around the world. Because the State of Israel allows Jews anywhere in the world to immigrate to the country, many from around the globe have found a refuge there.

I’ve been to Israel a number of times but have been unable to visit for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the country has reopened to the world, I returned last week and met diplomats from Islamic-majority countries, representatives in various ministries of the Israeli government, religious leaders of all types, professors from the University of Haifa, technology entrepreneurs, archeologists and even Israel’s famed Muslim parliamentarian-turned-kingmaker, Mansour Abbas.

I also enjoyed a Shabbat dinner with a mentor and friend and made near-daily trips to meaningful places like the City of David and the Western Wall.

Yet, long after those memories have faded, the sight of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine arriving at Ben Gurion Airport Sunday morning will remain in my memory.

I was to greet a flight sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity my company works with. Aboard the flight were 77 Ukrainian Jews leaving their home in Europe to start a new life in Israel. As they arrived, the drums of war were already beating loudly back in Ukraine, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world outside Israel.

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I watched Yael Eckstein, who runs the fellowship, help an elderly woman named Koronina Nelia down the stairs. Nelia’s mother was pregnant when World War II began, and she never met her father, who was killed in that war.

“I am so relieved to be in Israel,” Nelia said. “I am not a healthy person, but since arrival to Israel, I feel cured.”

A young couple, Evgeni and Jana, carried their exhausted little girl down the stairs, relieved to have arrived. Later, Jana told the Times of Israel that everyone back home had been worried about the likelihood of a war with Russia.

Evgeni carries his daughter as Jewish immigrants from Ukraine arrive at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Photo courtesy of Johnnie Moore

Evgeni carries his daughter as Jewish immigrants from Ukraine arrive at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. Photo courtesy of Johnnie Moore

“Until the last moment,” she said, “we were worried that the flight would be canceled due to the situation.”

Not everyone was as fortunate as Nelia and Evgeni and Jana. Some of the Ukrainians on that flight’s manifesto were unable to make the trip. They tested positive for COVID-19 on the way to the aircraft and had to delay their immigration.

The image of Evgeni holding his daughter — her head resting on his shoulder — brought the reality of the war in Ukraine home to me. My wife and I have a daughter not much older than Evgeni and Jana’s daughter, and I wondered what it would be like to have my daughter’s head resting on my shoulder after having fled a war zone.

Ukraine is a type of litmus test of the Western democratic order, because Ukraine isn’t part of NATO. An attack on Ukraine, therefore, doesn’t require NATO powers to intervene because Ukraine isn’t a member.

The West doesn’t have to respond by law. They have to respond because it is the right thing to do. Leaving the Ukrainian people, in effect, to fend for themselves is leaving democratic values to fend for themselves against a rising autocratic order embodied not just by this new war but by Xi’s China.

Still, we aren’t beholden to our political leadership in order to save lives. Democracies have given us the world’s greatest charities, from Israel to America. Now, they need our help to save more lives.

Sometimes, our best defiance of those who want to wreck our world is to preserve the lives they want to destroy. As the Jewish sage says, “Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”

Let’s save Ukrainian lives.

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(The Rev. Johnnie Moore is the president of The Congress of Christian Leaders, founder of The KAIROS Company and a recipient of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s prestigious “medal of valor.” He was twice appointed by the president of the United States to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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