By Arnie Fielkow, guest columnist
I have never been so proud of my country and my president, Joe Biden. I write these words after returning from a whirlwind trip to central Europe in order to lead an initiative helping Ukrainian youth, to try to get one of my daughters’ sisters out of Ukraine, and to enjoy my truly favorite part of the world.
So why such gratitude and proudness? Because we in America — as well as our NATO allies — continue to do the absolutely right thing in supporting Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, including the recent decision to supply much-needed new tanks and ammunition to combat the criminal activities of Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. These tanks will allow the Ukrainian military to fight back against Russian aggression, and hopefully recapture Ukrainian land wrongly taken by Russia over this past year as well as previously with regards to the Crimea.
Despite being a much larger country with supposedly military superiority, Russia continues to face huge challenges on the battlefield given the courage and “unwillingness to lose” attitude exhibited by ordinary Ukrainian citizens forced to fight for their own land and to stand up for global democracy. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who even had time this week to root out corruption within his own cabinet, will go down in history as one of the most heroic figures our world has ever seen.
America and our Western allies — as they were 80 years ago — are on the right side of history. During my trip, I was a mere 75 miles from the Ukrainian border — I so wanted to go into the country and help my family evacuate — and it was heartbreaking to still see (as I had witnessed last April) Ukrainian mothers and children having to flee their country and live elsewhere, while their husbands and sons continue to protect their homeland.
Putin continues to destroy Ukrainian schools and hospitals, kill innocent Ukrainian citizens, knock out energy infrastructure (causing many Ukrainians to keep warm through wood stoves), and commit war crimes of murder and rape wherever Russian forces go. Indeed, there should be no doubt America is on the right side of history.
It was fortuitous I ended my trip in Germany, where there was admittedly much angst about sending German tanks to Ukraine. Optically, it was a bit unnerving to see the German iron cross on tanks again heading east to fight Russian soldiers, as eight decades ago such an image invoked fear and disgust. Today I applaud Germany, England and a host of other countries in standing up to autocracy and not allowing Russia to change a world order that has seen peace in Europe since World War II.
It is also ironic that today (Jan. 27) is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we memorialize the loss of over 6 million Jews and other innocents at the murderous and inhumane hands of Nazi fascism. The lesson to be learned is that inaction and silence in the face of evil can no longer be accepted, whether it be in Ukraine, on the streets of Tehran, or elsewhere where the voices of freedom and democracy are stifled. Putin frequently contends that he is again fighting Nazism in Ukraine despite facts to the contrary, including that today Ukraine is led by a Jewish president and the current war was initiated by Putin’s Russia. The real fascists in the current conflict reside in Moscow, and no idle threats of nuclear retaliation will justify Russian criminality.
One should not be misled to believe that all Americans or Europeans are on board with rightfully helping Ukraine. The nightly airwaves are filled with the inflammatory rhetoric of the likes of Tucker Carlson and congressional isolationists like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Their “America First” philosophy — also invoked by our former president — was wrong in the 1930s and ’40s, and remains flawed today.
Lastly, I will be forever haunted by a late-night conversation I had with an Austrian woman in the Vienna train station. After hearing of my Ukraine interests, she calmly told me her country should remain neutral and not be helping the Ukrainians, and that she wished for the good old days when Austrians would not have to be bothered by Ukrainians or any other immigrants. When I asked if her Austria should have fought back when Nazi Germany invaded in 1938, she quickly advised me that, as a proud Austrian, there was ample justification for the rise of Nazism back in the day. Clearly this was not the Von Trapp family from the “Sound of Music,” but rather a woman who, in another life, would have been saluting the swastika and wondering why this Jewish American was allowed to even be in her country. Pretty eye-opening!
I hope and pray the Ukrainian conflict will end in 2023. I concur with President Zelensky that the best chance for just peace is for Ukraine to continue to win on the battlefield. America’s support is crucial to this strategic objective, and I applaud our executive and legislative branches of government for doing the right thing. I am grateful for their support and so very proud to be an American. “Slava Ukraini-Glory to Ukraine.”
Guest columnist Arnie Fielkow is the CEO and president of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. He is the former executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints and served as an at-large member of the City Council from 2006 to 2011.