On July 27, Israel passed a law officially declaring Victory in Europe Day a national holiday. Israel has always observed V-E Day as a day of national remembrance, but the new designation raises its status.
V-E Day commemorates the day on which the Allies accepted Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender in World War II. It’s commonly celebrated in Europe and the United States on May 8, when the signing took place in Berlin. But since it was already the next day in the Soviet Union, in Russia it is observed on May 9. Israel has traditionally followed the Soviet tradition of celebrating the event May 9.
Many Soviet Jews fought in the Red Army against the Nazis, and many immigrated to Israel; some are still alive. Moreover, Israel has always acknowledged the decisive role of Soviet soldiers in Germany’s defeat.
According to the new Israeli law, the WWII victory will be given special time in school and army curricula. In addition, every May 9 the Knesset will hold a ceremonial meeting, and the government will hold a state ceremony and a procession in Jerusalem.
To understand why this has special relevance for Russian-Israeli relations, it is important to mention at least two facts.
First, in 2012, Israel erected the Monument of the Victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany in the Israeli town of Netanya. The concept was developed by Russian sculptors, and its construction was heavily sponsored by Russia’s Jewish diaspora. Top government officials attended the dedication, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israel’s then-President Shimon Peres.
Second, the Knesset’s action fits the joint effort of Russian and Israeli parliament members to prevent Poland from implementing a new law giving a green light to demolish Soviet-era monuments in Polish territory. Most of the monuments commemorate WWII and Soviet events. Many Poles view the statues as reminders of their oppression under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin after the war. Israel was the only country that fully shared Russian negative reaction toward this move.
Why is Israel making the day a holiday now, more than 70 years after the war ended? There seem to be three primary issues involved.
First, states generally want to commemorate something that otherwise might be forgotten. For many years after WWII, there was no notion that it could be forgotten, but now in some countries the lessons of the war aren’t being taught, and there is a possibility that they will be neglected by future generations. Israel is special in this case not only because of the Holocaust but because Russian Jews who now reside in Israel consider the Red Army’s role in the victory over the Nazis a major historical and cultural event — something fully in line with present-day Russia’s discourse on the issue.
Second, culturally it is a joyful occasion when moral duty and political strategy coincide. The Jewish tradition is built on a detailed remembrance of historical events, which is critical given their dispersion all over the world. The Holocaust is, by all means, the kind of historical landmark that Jews want their next generations to remember. Similarly, a commemoration of the Red Army soldiers who sacrificed their lives to free the world from Nazis is deemed part of the effort to achieve that goal.
Third, Israel has occasionally tried to show Russia its loyalty on issues important to Moscow, so that Israel’s voice is heard by Russian decision-makers when needed. These days — as Russia has come to play a bigger role in the Middle East — this approach may have a very practical angle, for such issues are many: the Iranian threat, the Golan Heights, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and others. Russia’s current position in the region creates the impression that Moscow can have a say in all these matters — whether it’s true or not.
Actions like the new V-E Day commemoration allow Israel’s voice to be heard more clearly in the Kremlin. Today’s Russian leadership may be the most favorably disposed to the Jewish state in its modern history. Russian media project a rather sympathetic attitude regarding Israel. Certainly, that doesn’t mean Russia will follow Israel’s agenda on the issues, but Israel today has opportunities to communicate its perspectives to its Russian counterparts in a fast and direct manner. The V-E Day law — as well as other moves to recognize Soviet and Russian historical contributions to world peace — look to Moscow to be bricks in a solid foundation for long-lasting and mutually beneficial relations between the two nations.