Ukraine Is Teeming With Anti-Semitism. It Just Elected A Jewish President.
Ukraine’s always been a complex place when it comes to Judaism. The latest proof came on Sunday, when Jewish comedian Volodymyr Zelensky trounced incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in a landslide.
After Zelensky’s inauguration, Ukraine will become the only country outside Israel to have a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister. But it’ll also be the only country in the world to have a neo-Nazi battalion in its armed forces.
Both these things coexist. Both show the opportunity and the danger in a land that continues to defy simple depictions.
During the 2013-2014 Maidan uprising, Russian propaganda churned out lurid tales about a Ukraine overrun by neo-Nazis. In turn, this caused a backlash in Western media, which claimed Ukrainian Nazis were mostly phantoms of Vladimir Putin’s imagination. As I wrote at the time, neither depiction was right.
Maidan was an extraordinarily diverse coalition backed by numerous Jewish leaders who proclaimed their support for an independent and Western-oriented Ukraine. But Maidan also had a well-organized neo-Nazi contingent which provided crucial street muscle to the uprising.
Five years later, both trends have continued. On the one hand, synagogues and Jewish organizations became involved in aiding soldiers fighting Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, as well as refugees from the conflict. And in 2016, Ukraine got a Jewish prime minister, in the figure of Volodymyr Groysman.
At the same time, neo-Nazi gangs from Maidan grew into paramilitary formations such as the Azov Battalion, which were eventually incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard. As I and others have written in these pages, these groups have been steadily proliferating and have acted with impunity since Maidan.
Enter Zelensky: comedian, native Russian speaker, and ethnic Jew. (Zelensky’s religious identity is unclear: he’s been vague on the issue, stating that faith is a private matter.)
Ironically, the most positive aspect of Zelensky’s candidacy is that his ethnicity didn’t play a role in the campaign. This alone is a tremendous victory for Ukrainian Judaism and democracy. After all, less than a decade ago, it was common for politicians to smear rivals as “secret Jews” as a campaign tactic.
Indeed, in 2013, Poroshenko (the incumbent defeated by Zelensky) took pains to meet with one of the chief rabbis of Ukraine to “dispel” rumors that he was Jewish as a prelude to running for office.
A mere six years later, Zelensky scored a historic victory; his Judaism was barely mentioned. It’s an extraordinary and most welcome turnabout.
But Zelensky’s win shouldn’t be seen a referendum on his ethnicity, or in fact, any other characteristic. This is because Sunday’s election wasn’t about Zelensky; it was about Poroshenko.
To call Zelensky a novice doesn’t begin to cover it. The man’s a comedian who never held office; even more shocking is that his campaign didn’t have much of a platform.
Millions of people in a war-torn, economically mired nation just opted to cast their lot with an inexperienced, untested, and vaguely-defined comedian, rather than the five-year incumbent. That’s not an endorsement of Zelensky – it’s a condemnation of Poroshenko.
Specifically, it’s a condemnation of Poroshenko’s failure to address one of the central demands of Maidan: an end to endemic corruption.
Under Poroshenko’s leadership, Ukraine has continued to be mired in corruption. The country is now the poorest in Europe, with faith in the government the lowest in the world, at 9%. Oligarchs rule the land. Almost no one’s been punished for graft and corruption. Millions have already fled the country for economic reasons, forced to scrounge for menial jobs in Poland and elsewhere.
This would be painful for any nation, but doubly so for one whose citizens bled on Maidan in the name of ending corruption. Poroshenko’s failure to honor the sacrifice of the uprising that brought him to power led to an explosion of scorn and cynicism.
The result is President-elect Zelensky.
Zelensky himself acknowledged this when he told Poroshenko, “I’m not your opponent; I’m a verdict on you.”
What does this bode for Ukrainian Judaism? It won’t be a black-and-white issue. The election of America’s first African-American president certainly didn’t end racism in the U.S. The same goes for Ukraine.
Poroshenko came to power as a result of an uprising that ousted his corrupt predecessor. Five years later, Zelensky was brought in as a rejection of Poroshenko. Zelensky, too, will soon be issued a verdict. And that can cut both ways.
It’s clear Zelensky must crack down on corruption, bringing much-needed justice to Ukraine. He’s already promised to work on steps such as stripping immunity from members of parliament. If he succeeds, an entire generation of Ukrainians will be raised under a Jewish president who finally managed to shed the country’s corrupt past, take it on a democratic Western trajectory, and deliver on the promises of Maidan. If he succeeds, it’ll be a tremendous victory for Ukraine and Judaism, especially at a time when anti-Semitism is surging globally.
The flip side is that Zelensky’s election will fuel Ukraine’s deepest anti-Semitic stereotype: the Jewish yoke.
The core tragedy of Ukraine, as seen by the darker strains of ultranationalism, is that it isn’t controlled by Ukrainians (i.e. ethnic Ukrainians). Instead, the country has always languished under the yoke of Poles, Russians, and especially Jews. This infestation is what prevented – and continues to prevent – the nation from achieving greatness. The solution is, of course, obvious.
Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnytskyi’s 1648 uprising led to the torture and slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews in the name of cleansing Ukraine. So did the uprising of nationalist Symon Petliura in the early 20th century. So did the campaigns of WWII-era paramilitaries who had collaborated with the Nazis as well as butchered Jews of their own accord.
Indeed, if you’re an American Jew with Ukrainian roots, chances are your ancestors fled to the U.S. on the heels of an initiative to ‘shed the Jewish yoke’.
Today, as Ukraine continues to suffer economic misery, talk of the yoke has risen.
In 2017, member of parliament Nadiya Savchenko exploded in anti-Semitic tirade on live television. “Good question,” replied Savchenko to a caller who asked about the yoke. “Yes, our government has non-Ukrainian blood, shall we say. What should be done about it? We must think and take action.”
In a follow-up interview, Savchenko claimed 80% of those running Ukraine are Jews.
Savchenko isn’t alone. There have been numerous instances of similar rhetoric hurled by politicians, especially since Groysman became prime minister.
Now, for better or worse, that blood-stained stereotype has gained some credibility. Ukraine is about to be run by Zelensky – a Jewish president backed by Jewish oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi – and Groysman, a Jewish prime minister. For ultranationalists, every failure can now be cast at the feet of the Jewish trio. As one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis pointed out, this could have dangerous repercussions.
Will Zelensky pander to the nationalists or try to rein them in? Will he truly battle corruption, or will he act, as some fear, as Kolomoiskyi’s stooge? Will his triumphs and failures be seen as his own or ascribed to his ethnicity and to the wider Jewish community?
With the country in economic stagnation and with the raucous parliamentary elections around the corner, we may soon have an answer.
Lev Golinkin is the author of “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.”