Volodymyr Zelensky won Ukraine’s presidential elections by a landslide. He is a Jewish comedian.
The background circumstances are, however, extraordinary. Zelensky is the 41-year-old son of scientists who lived near major Soviet army bases in Ukraine.
Zelensky though is a professional comedian who appeared in “Servant of the People” – a primetime television show where he portrays a teacher thrust by an unlikely chain of events into becoming Ukraine’s president.
If that isn’t strange enough, now Ukraine will be the only country in the world, besides Israel, to have a president and a prime minister who are both Jewish. When Zelensky is sworn in as president, his prime minister — until the parliamentary elections later this year — will be Volodymyr Groysman, a Jewish politician who was the mayor of the city of Vinnytsia.
Zelensky’s win was not as surprising as it should have been, but the level of resentment over the continued corruption under under his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, near guaranteed the result. Poroshenko was elected in 2014 specifically on a platform that promised to deal with corruption.
Some commentators have expressed surprise that Zelensky won the elections so decisively despite his Jewish ancestry. Ukraine has a legacy of extreme antisemitism.
In an analysis published earlier this month by the Regnum news agency, a Russian NGO, Russian-Israeli columnist Avigdor Eskin wrote: “Imagine, a pure-blooded Jew… wins by a landslide in a country where the glorification of Nazi criminals is enacted into law”. In 2018, 57 USA members of Congress condemned Ukrainian legislation that “glorifies Nazi collaborators” and therefore goes even further than Poland’s controversial laws limiting what can be said about local complicity during the Holocaust. Their letter constituted the harshest public rebuke in years of Ukraine’s anti-Semitism by US elected officials.
Anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine doubled from 2017; this surpassed the total for all the antisemitic incidents reported throughout the countries of the entire region combined. More than 130 antisemitic incidents were reported in Ukraine in 2017.
Poroshenko’s government greatly encouraged glorification of those troops and leaders, as fighters for Ukrainian freedom, who the government insisted sided with Germany only in order to fight against the Russian-controlled Soviet Union.
Several cities across Ukraine have named streets for the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. Prior to Poroshenko’s time in office, Bandera was only openly glorified in western Ukraine.
In the city of Lviv, nationalists celebrated, with permission from the city authorities, the anniversary of the 14th Galician division of the Waffen SS. The anniversary events featured men parading in Nazi SS uniforms on the street.
Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, condemned the march on Saturday honouring the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, or the 1st Galician, as “a scandalous event that should not be allowed to happen in Ukraine in which murderers of Jews and others are glorified”.
The march was held on the 75th anniversary of the 1st Galician’s establishment by the Nazis.
The 1st Galicians saw the allegiance with Germany as being the opportunity to fight the Russian occupier. By all accounts they were brave and dogged fighters. They had been involved with the Nazis in the killing of Poles and Polish and Ukrainian Jews. However, the real disgrace has been with the Nazis as the masterminds of the near annihilation of the region’s Jews.
In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law that criminalised denying the “heroism” of some of these allies of Nazi Germany, which oversaw the near annihilation of Jews across the region.
Zelensky has said only that he personally does not favour the veneration of people like Bandera, whom he described as “a hero to some Ukrainians.”
In some far-right circles, Zelensky’s work for a television stationed owned by the Jewish billionaire Igor Kolomoisky was proof of his belonging to a “Jewish cabal”. However, it has made Zelensky popular with other nationalists who appreciated Kolomoisky’s reputation as a fiery patriot.
Alexander Paliy, an influential political analyst who supports Poroshenko, stirred controversy recently when he wrote on Facebook that despite his “respect” for Jews and some Russians, “The president of Ukraine should be Ukrainian and Christian, like the absolute majority of Ukrainians.”
Ukraine has about 300,000 Jews, the descendants of Jews who suffered murderous anti-Semitism in Ukraine for centuries before, during and for decades after the Holocaust.
The French-Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy referred to Ukrainian Jews’ bloody history in an interview with Zelensky. “His Judaism. It’s extraordinary that the possible future president of the country of the Shoah** by Bullets and Babi Yar is a self-affirmed Jew from a family of survivors from Kryvy Rih near Dnipro – the land of pogrom if ever there was one,” Levy wrote. “This postmodern kid, is he new proof that the virus of anti-Semitism has been contained after the revolution?” Levy added.
Although Zelensky does not deny his Jewish ancestry, he declined to explore it at length in the interview. Zelensky told Levy: “The fact that I am Jewish barely makes 20 in my long list of faults.” Zelensky’s mother, Rima, is Jewish; to be born Jewish a person must be born to a Jewish mother.
Zelensky’s popularity allowed him to win on a vague platform and to distinguish himself from his political rivals, who use hyperbole and nationalist slogans. When a reporter asked him how he would deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zelensky said: “I would speak to him at eye level” – a reference to both him and Putin being at least three inches shorter than Poroshenko, who is over 6 feet tall.
Zelensky’s opaqueness creates great uncertainty, according to Eduard Dolinsky.
“We will need to wait and see what kind of president Zelensky turns out to be,” said Dolinsky, who was an outspoken critic of some policies of the Poroshenko administration. “What is clear is that Poroshenko’s attempt to appeal to nationalism has failed. Ukrainians said they wanted change. And I am feeling optimistic.”
There are significant parallels between Ukraine and South Africa: both countries emerged from tyranny to imperfect democracy within a short space of each other.
South Africa differed in having in the African National Congress (ANC), a party that had the image of being the ‘saviour’ of South Africa to govern the country from the start. This founding myth has helped to keep the ANC in power for 25 years.
In Ukraine, unlike South Africa, people vote directly for their president. This means that the perception of the candidates as being real leaders becomes very important.
Notwithstanding the different systems, leaders still matter. The ANC president is perceived as a saviour, the Economic Freedom fighters definitely has a leader perceived as strong and decisive, albeit one we daren’t have. For the Democratic Alliance, introspection is necessary.
What we can finally take from contemporary Ukraine is that endemic corruption may eventually lead to unexpected electoral results.
* bittere gelegte – Yiddish for a sad or ironic joke. Pron: bie-teh-reh ghe-lech tah
** Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.
Main source: Zelensky win makes Ukraine 1st country outside Israel with Jewish PM, president, The Times of Israel, Cnaan Liphshiz, 22 April 2019
If you like what you have just read, become a Friend of the IRR if you aren’t already one by SMSing your name to 32823 or clicking here. Each SMS costs R1.’ Terms & Conditions Apply.