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Volodymyr Zelensky: From Rootless Cosmopolitan to Democratic Icon

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Zelensky feature

Martin Elliot Jaffe profiles the Ukrainian Jewish President.

 “Both Ukrainians  and Jews value freedom and they work equally for the future of our states to become to our liking—not the future others want for us—we know what it’s like not to have our own state and land and with weapons in hand at the cost of our own lives.” — President of Ukraine, Volodymyr  Zelensky, quoted at the third annual Kyiv Jewish Forum, Jewish

I’d like to offer my gratitude and support to a vigorous Jewish leader of a democratizing country, hoping to align with the West, deal candidly with an antisemitic legacy and not be locked behind a new iron curtain. As Zelensky struggles against the overwhelming power of the Russian military it seems much of the world has missed the aspect of Zelensky as the Jew, the perpetual outsider, growing up in the antisemitic Soviet Union where Jews were always suspect as “rootless cosmopolitans.”

While so-called American conservatives and media stars like Tucker Carlson fawn over Orban in Hungary as their role model for society and progressives in America and the UK see the liberal societies of the West as oppressive and identify with third world romantic revolutionaries, the story of  Ukraine reminded me of the anti-fascist struggles during the Spanish civil war as described by George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia.

Zelensky, 44, has been President of Ukraine since 2019, elected in a vigorous democratic process. After a successful career as a comedian entertainer and film personality, his role on the Ukrainian TV series Servant of The People seemed to be a precursor to his real-world rise to leader of Ukraine. With the fall of the Soviet Union followed by Russian dominance and threats to Ukrainian autonomy, Zelensky has emerged as the symbol of the outsider, the oppressed seemed to fit the Ukrainian world view of the time as a resurgent patriotism and national identity surfaced.

From 2013 onwards, Jews were on the frontline of building a democratic Ukraine, including the Euromaidan demonstrations that forced the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. 

Zelensky’s grandfather served in the Russian Red Army during WW2 and three of his brothers were killed in the Holocaust. In post-WW2 Soviet Union the Zelenskys were well educated technically, his father was a maths professor and his mother trained in engineering but the eternal prejudice against Jews restricted them from power centres and leadership of Soviet society, as they were always seen as disloyal dissidents.

From my perspective, as I researched varied sources for this article, Ukraine has made a concerted effort to deal with the antisemitism of the past. It allows the open expression of Jewish identity and if Pew research is accurate is the least antisemitic country in Europe.

From the era of Cossack pogroms forward Ukraine, has had a dark and dismal history of Jewish persecution: 1917-1921—over 1,000 pogroms, 30,000 dead; Babi Yar— the Nazi-organised massacre of 34,000 Jews. By the time the Soviet Union fell, 500,000 Ukrainian Jews had emigrated in the face of persistent persecution.

Ukrainian nationalists/ Nazi collaborators still are venerated in Ukraine, for example, Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych are commemorated by statues and streets named in their honour with no mention of the role of the troops they led in perpetrating the Holocaust.

“We have antisemitism today, but no antisemitism as state policy,” said Igor Shchupak, Head of the Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies. According to David Fishman, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America who has taught in Kyiv, “ though anti-semitism persists with Russian invasions, the war in eastern Ukraine, and a shift in national identity from Ukrainian ethnicity to Ukrainian citizenship thanks to Putin—we are making progress.”

A 2018 Pew research survey of Ukrainians seems to support his perspective: 5% of Ukrainians would prefer not to have Jews as fellow citizens—the lowest percentage among 18 countries surveyed. The following year Pew found 83% had a favourable opinion of Jews.

While estimates of the Jewish population of Ukraine vary from 200,000 to 350,000 the city of Dnipro has over 50,000 Jews in a city just under one million. In 2012, the 100 million dollar Menorah Center opened in Dnipro, with a Holocaust museum, synagogue, kosher restaurants, Jewish research institute. It is said to be the largest Jewish Community Center in Europe.

The Ukrainian government seems to be supportive of Jewish life in Ukraine as well: In January 2021 it approved a museum memorial to be at the site of Babi Yar which will be the world’s largest Holocaust memorial. In September 2021, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law defining and banning antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

Let Mr Zelensky have the final word here as he stares down Mr Putin. In a speech in Jerusalem on January 24, 2020, describing the sacrifices and struggles of his grandparents during WW2, he hoped that, “there is a good heart that guides you when there is evil you confront.”

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Martin is a retired career counsellor from Jewish Family Services in Beachwood, Ohio.  He is a musician and writes and performs music with his wife Sheila Ives.
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Martin Jaffe
Martin Jaffe
8 months ago

Nathan I so appreciate your publishing my thoughts on Zelensky and democratic leadership–my friends, relatives and people I only know as “friends” on facebook have reached out to me and truly believe I have captured the zeitgeist of the moment– I also appreciate your editing touch— my work often benefits from a cooler eye

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