After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Jerusalem's Putin Pub is now just named Pub
JERUSALEM — A bemused German tourist stands outside the pub he had visited the other day.
"There was Putin's pub," he says. "And today, just pub."
On Feb. 24, the day Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian-speaking co-owners of the Putin Pub yanked the Russian president's name from the sign outside.
"We think we did the right thing," says co-owner Leon Teterin, 36. "We are getting away from politics. This is supposed to be a happy place. Not to make people feel they're somewhere aggressive or [connected to] some dictator."
Israel is home to one of the world's biggest Russian-speaking diasporas. More than 1 million Jews — or those claiming Jewish relatives — from Russia, Ukraine and former Soviet states fled to Israel from the collapsing Soviet Union in waves of immigration that surged in the early 1990s.
When the Putin Pub was founded by and for Russian-speaking immigrants in 2000, Teterin says the name was a gimmick: Putin was running for president for the first time, so his was an easily recognizable name that would attract Russian speakers.
Now Teterin can no longer tolerate it.
"All Russian-speaking Israelis have friends or relatives of friends who live in Ukraine," he says. "It's horrible. War is not a good thing."
Many immigrants to Israel have relatives now seeking shelter from Russian attacks in Ukraine
A customer kisses Teterin on the cheek on her way out. Her mother is in a shelter in Ukraine.
Teterin scrolls through a torrent of text messages from friends there. He opens one from a pub regular who flew to Kyiv to visit her parents and now finds herself in a shelter.
"At least we have the mamad," Teterin said, using the Hebrew acronym for the reinforced room every new Israeli apartment must contain to protect from rocket attacks. "They don't. They're sleeping in the metro, in shelters."
Bartender Sima Kogan, 25, fled to Jerusalem from Donetsk when Russia instigated war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Her dad was killed and her mom fled to Kyiv, where she has now taken shelter in a metro station.
Kogan lights up as she recalls how the bar owner told her the pub will no longer be named after the man responsible for upending her life.
"How I was happy!" she says, laughing.
Israel has offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine
Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is walking a diplomatic tightrope between Russia and Ukraine.
"We are conducting a measured and responsible policy," Bennett told his cabinet ministers Sunday.
He is keeping good relations with Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, another Jewish head of government, while also maintaining close ties with Putin.
Bennett is opening Israel to new Ukrainian Jewish war refugees; Israeli diplomats are setting up six stations along Ukraine's borders to process new Jewish immigrants. Israel is also sending 100 tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including water purification kits, medicines and blankets.
But Israel has reportedly rejected Ukrainian requests for military equipment. Putin remains a beloved ally. His military is stationed in Syria, and he gives Israel the freedom to bomb Iranian and Syrian weapons and soldiers there.
Zelenskyy asked Bennett to mediate a cease-fire with Russia, and Bennett suggested it on Sunday to Putin.
Ukrainian officials have met Russian negotiators on the Belarus border, but Israel is not a part of those "technical" talks, Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk tells NPR.
Some Israelis are sympathetic to Russia's position
While native Israelis and those of Russian and Ukrainian descent have staged anti-war rallies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, some Israeli public figures want to protect a Russian-Israeli who is one of Putin's loyalists.
In a letter to the U.S. ambassador to Israel, they asked the U.S. not to sanction oligarch turned billionaire philanthropist Roman Abramovich, who has extensive business interests in the West. He is a major donor in Israel, giving millions of dollars to causes including Israel's leading Sheba Medical Center. The hospital director was one of those who signed the letter, a Sheba spokesman tells NPR.
"I do not leak my correspondences. Especially not those signed by additional people," Dayan tells NPR.
Israelis have mixed reactions to Putin's "denazification" claims
At the pub formerly known as Putin, Shlomi Azran, 40, an Israeli who dabbles in real estate, is ambivalent about the Russian invasion.
"I'm not for or against," he says.
He enjoyed a vacation in Ukraine once but believes there is a darker side to the country. He pulls up a photo on his Facebook feed, allegedly depicting a man in Ukraine holding a red Nazi swastika banner.
"We have history with this nation. There is still Nazism. They don't repudiate those people," Azran says.
Putin accuses Ukraine's leaders of "genocide" and says Russia's goal in Ukraine is "denazification."
In World War II, a small number of Ukrainians fought alongside Nazi Germany, but many Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainians were Nazi victims. Scholars of genocide and World War II have said that Ukraine, like other countries, has its share of right-wing extremists, but they reject Russia's "equation of Ukraine with the Nazi regime."
Azran believes Russia is using "denazification" as a pretext for invading, but says he will not be upset if Russia topples Ukraine's government as long as there is minimal civilian harm.
"I do not have pity, as if they just entered a country without a reason," Azran says.
He respects Ukraine's Jewish president but thinks his government should have done more to reckon with extremists.
Israelis are suggesting new names for the pub
Some things haven't changed at the pub formerly known as Putin. Putinka vodka, made by Russia's state-owned distillery, is in stock. The cocktail menu still offers a Medvedev (Midori liqueur with gin, banana liqueur and Sprite) and a Chernobyl (beer, XL Energy Drink, vodka and grenadine syrup). The tip jar bears a message requesting customers to "Put-In" some change.
But the pub is looking for a new name. A popular Israeli Facebook group is soliciting suggestions. Some offer variations on the theme: Input. Put Out.
Teterin, the co-owner, chuckles but rejects those ideas.
He opens the cardboard box where he stores the large wooden P, U, T, I and N from the sign outside, and says he doesn't want to ever touch those letters again.
Sami Sockol contributed to this report from Jerusalem.