There are only two countries in the world that currently have a Jewish prime minister and a Jewish president. The fact that Israel is one, is no surprise. But the fact that Ukraine is the other is a remarkable piece of news.
By any measure, today’s Ukraine is different from the Ukraine of our fathers — although the country’s road to where it is today has been rocky. For centuries, Ukraine was a part of Russia; then it was ruled by Soviets and Nazi Germany; and finally Ukraine became independent in 1989. Ever since, it has faced varying degrees of Russian aggression — the Putin government annexed Crimea in 2014 and is running a proxy war of secession in eastern Ukraine.
But the country has not given up. Ukrainians are fiercely independent and proud. And, according to a recent poll, Ukrainians are the least anti-Semitic people in Eastern Europe. That may explain why Ukraine, with a population of 44 million, which includes up to 300,000 Jews, just elected Volodymyr Zelensky, an unapologetic Jew, as president – and did so with an impressive majority vote.
So, who is Zelensky? Prior to his election, Zelensky was a popular TV comedian, whose character was elected president of Ukraine. He unseated Petro Poroshenko, who was elected as a reformer after the 2013 Orange Revolution that that tilted Ukraine toward the West, but also unleashed Nazi-glorifying, anti-Semitic ethno-nationalism. Poroshenko’s administration and the man himself have been accused of corruption, and the electorate became increasingly concerned about where that could lead the reform-minded, westward-leaning agenda they thought they would be getting.
Enter Zelensky, a well-recognized, fresh voice of promise, even if he lacked any government or other significant leader- ship experience. As a political novice, Zelensky had no record to defend, and his vague platform didn’t raise a lot of questions. On top of that, his candidacy managed to avoid the familiar ethnic, religious and national divisions that plague most campaigns.
Ukrainians sided with a familiar, friendly face they knew from television — who held out hope — rather than the seasoned politician they didn’t trust.
Under the circumstances, one would think that Ukraine’s Jewish community would have been solidly behind Zelensky’s candidacy. But that wasn’t the case. Given the tortured history of anti- Semitism in their country — the horrific scars of Babi Yar and Cossack pogroms among them — many couldn’t help but wonder whether a President Zelensky would be good for the Jews. In describing the dilemma, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, chief rabbi in Dnipro, the capital of Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region, explained: “They said, ‘He should not run because we will have pogroms here again in two years if things go wrong.’”
None of those concerns stopped Zelensky from winning. We believe that is a good sign, and hope that Ukraine has turned the corner and truly abandoned its dark anti-Semitic past. Perhaps a successful President Zelensky will help the country stay there.