In a Europe where anti-Semitism is on the rise, a country Jews still associate with the pogrom of family horror stories looks like it’s about to elect a Jewish comedian as head of state.
It’s Ukraine, a country of nearly 44 million people. More than one million Jews were murdered here by the Nazis and their local collaborators during World War II. Yet it’s also a place where a Jewish man, actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, won the first round of Ukraine’s presidential elections in early March, garnering 30% of the vote and carrying all but five of Ukraine’s 25 regions. The second-place finisher, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, finished with a 16%.
On Sunday, April 21, the 41-year-old Zelensky will face off in the second and final-round runoff against Poroshenko. Buoyed by his stronger-than-expected first-round results, Zelensky is highly favored to ascend to the presidency, and become something that sounds contradictory – a Jewish head of state on a continent where anti-Semitism is on the rise. Then again, Ukraine is full of contradictions when it comes to Jews and anti-Semitism.
It’s a prospect that seems to have left many in Ukraine, even those who don’t support Zelensky, with a strange sense of satisfaction. Five years of war with Russian-led forces in the country’s east – a war that has taken an estimated 13,000 lives – has come with lots of Russian propaganda about apparently rampant anti-Semitism in Ukraine, from fake flyers threatening local Jews to completely fabricated news stories about nonexistent pogroms.
Zelensky’s potential victory is being used as evidence that Ukraine is hardly the Nazi-filled, pogrom-happy land Russian media has tried to claim it is. But it doesn’t change the fact that Ukraine still has its problems with anti-Semitism, even if local Jews seldom experience the kind of victimization and violence seen in other parts of Europe.
Ukraine’s past, certainly, has not been free from that kind of hostility, or from the worst ravages of anti-Semitism. The collaborators who helped the Nazis murder more than a million Jews during the Holocaust were followers of ultranationalist, anti-Semitic figures like Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych – figures who, despite criticism from historians and international Jewish groups, have seen a rehabilitation of their reputations in official post-Maidan Ukraine.
Outright violence against Jews in Ukraine is relatively rare, researcher Vyacheslav Likhachev said in a recent report documenting anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine. Yet a survey from the leading Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KMIS), from September 2018, asked Ukrainians if they would accept members of particular ethnic and religious groups into their country, using a seven-point scale called the Bogardus Social Distance Scale. 12 per cent of Ukrainians, when asked about Jews, chose the last option —“wouldn’t let them in Ukraine” at all.
Another survey from KMIS was even less positive. Only 36 per cent of Ukrainians, when asked in October and November 2018, said they’d even vote for a Jewish candidate for president.
Findings like this that leave observers like Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, unconvinced that Zelensky’s ascension says anything significant about anti-Semitic attitudes in the country.
After all, Zelensky was born in the southern industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, where a flourishing pre-war Jewish community is mostly lost. Before the Second World War, according to the local Jewish community, there were 45,000 Jews in the city, some 25% of the city’s population. After the war, some Jews remained in the city - including many who had escaped the city and environs before the Nazis reached it - though its synagogue and Jewish school were closed, leaving the city’s estimated 15,000 Jews unable to study Hebrew or gather in a house of worship. Eventually, most also stopped speaking Yiddish, the language of most European Jews for almost a millennium.
Indeed, “Zelensky is not seen as a Jew by most of voters,” Dolinsky told The Forward. “He’s never been associated with the Jewish community, no one has ever seen him in synagogue, he has never commented on Jewish things. I don’t see a connection between his victory and anti-Semitism.”
Zelensky’s campaign did not reply to a request for comment.
Dolinsky also points out that anti-Semitic rhetoric can still be found in Ukraine. Last month a pro-Poroshenko blogger made waves when he declared on Facebook that, while he “respects the Jews” – who he described as “a very wise people” – the president of Ukraine had to be “Ukrainian and Christian,” a comment that one Ukrainian parliamentarian described as “xenophobic” and “anti-Semitic.” Dolinsky also points out that anti-Semitic graffiti, and with overt Nazi symbolism can still be found on Ukrainian streets, even if it’s far from an everyday phenomenon.
On the other hand, Dolinsky’s extremely critical observations about anti-Semitism in the country have left him at odds with other Ukrainian Jewish organizations – to the point where he’s been accused of being pro-Kremlin.
Today, the World Jewish Congress estimates that Ukraine’s Jewish community is the fourth largest in Europe, behind France, the UK and Russia.
Some say Jewish life has rebounded there since Ukraine’s independence in 1991. One Kryvyi Rih rabbi wrote effusively several years ago of new opportunities for the city’s Jews – and stressed that “the issue of interethnic hostility has never come up in Kryvyi Rih.”
Zelensky isn’t even the first politician from a Jewish background in Ukraine. The current Prime Minister is Volodymyr Hroisman, also Jewish, as is Boris Lozhkin, the former head of Ukraine’s presidential administration. So are a number of former and current local politicians like Gennady Kernes, the mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.
But Zelensky is the only one who performs patriotic song-and-dance numbers at campaign events that are more like concerts. And he’s the only one who cracks jokes in the manner of, well, Jewish comedians. “Why does Poroshenko want a second term?” Zelensky joked at a number of events over the campaign period. “So he doesn’t get a first term” – in prison.
Another prominent Jewish figure in the country is controversial self-exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi, a man to whom Zelensky has murky ties. Kolomoiskyi is currently living in Israel, seeking to avoid criminal charges from Ukrainian authorities for allegedly defrauding a Ukrainian bank of billions of dollars.
Kolomoiskyi’s 1+1 TV network airs Zelensky’s popular show, “Servant of the People,” where Zelensky plays a fictional president and on which the funnyman declared his candidacy on New Year’s Eve – in a time slot usually reserved for the sitting president’s address. It’s led to accusations that Zelensky is little more than Kolomoiskyi’s “puppet,” as the oligarch uses the comedian and actor to get back at his rival Poroshenko.
What do Ukrainian voters make of the Jewish backgrounds of not just Zelensky, but his alleged patron Kolomoiskyi? Not much, apparently. “No one cares about the Jewish origins of Zelensky” or Kolomoiskyi, Kyiv-based Jewish activist and blogger Ilya Aizenshtat told The Forward. Aizenshtat says that Zelensky himself has seldom even publicly noted his Jewish origins; it’s why, he says, “no one attaches importance to the fact” that the presidential frontrunner is Jewish.
Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Paniotto pointed out despite the surveys that did find prejudice against Jews, stated behaviors don’t always line up with actual behavior. “at least in mayoral elections, prejudice against Jews doesn’t manifest itself,” he wrote, given that there are Jewish mayors in cities like Vinnytsia and Kharkiv.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center over 2015 and 2016 shows that Ukrainians are “far more accepting of Jewish fellow citizens than other countries throughout the former Eastern Bloc.” Only five per cent of Ukrainians, according to the survey, said they would not accept Jews in their country as fellow citizens – a number far below other countries in the region, including Russia.
It doesn’t take long to see some of the contradictions when it comes to Ukraine and anti-Semitism. Walking through Podil, Kyiv’s traditional Jewish quarter, one can find a few scattered bits of the graffiti Dolinsky talks about; one reads “White Pride.” On a nearby lamppost is a small sticker advertising a neo-Nazi group (“Wotanjugend”) associated with the far-right Azov movement, with the slogan “blood, fatherland, faith” above a stylized black sun, the esoteric Nazi symbol that used to be in the SS’ general’s hall – and that the Christchurch terrorist had sewn onto his backpack.
But at the same time, not far away, there’s a man sitting on a bench at the playground, watching over two young boys playing. The boys look just like any other boys who’d be at a playground around here. The only difference from most of the other boys around the neighborhood is that they’ve got earlocks and are donning kippahs, and they’re all a stone’s throw from an Orthodox synagogue around the corner.
Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist based in central and eastern Europe, where he focuses mostly on themes related to nationalism and the far right.