Opinion | Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s revolutionary Jewish hero https://t.co/lljxhKk6Wr
— Tsuyoshi Goroku (@t_gordau) March 8, 2022
◆Opinion | Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Revolutionary Jewish Hero ―― Until Russia’s invasion, Zelenskyy’s Jewish roots seemed almost incidental. But now, his Jewishness has become hugely powerful and symbolic, not only for Ukraine but for contemporary Jewish identity and history
【Haaretz：Eitan Nechin 2022年3月7日】
In the summer of 2019, walking around the streets of Kyiv, my father and I stumbled upon the most perplexing and ironic landmark a Jew can come across: In the middle of Sophia Square, a colossal monument to Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the first Cossack Hetman (military commander).
Khmelnytsky led a 17th century revolt that resulted in the creation of a proto-Ukrainian state. And he also sought to eradicate Jews from it. Approximately 50,000 Jews were slaughtered by the Cossacks and their allies in a decade of terror.
It was perplexing because while statues of confederate generals were falling in the U.S., it was jarring to see a monument gracing a European capital dubbed the “New Berlin” for its nightlife and culture dedicated to someone whose description in Jewish history is framed in terms only reserved for Hitler.
But what made this grotesque statue so ironic is that only three months before, a comedic Jewish actor – Volodymyr Zelenskyy – was elected as the president of Ukraine.
Looking back, it’s unfathomable that just three years later, this Zelenskyy character would become the face of humanity and freedom in defiance of tyranny and violence. If I could have told my great-grandfather, who left Ukraine to escape racism and persecution, that a Jewish comedian was leading a revolt against the modern Russian Tsar, he would probably think it was a bad joke. But this comedian-cum-president’s character is no joke. And neither is his Jewishness.
On its face, Zelenskyy’s Jewishness is almost accidental. In an interview with the Times of Israel, Zelenskyy said he comes from “An ordinary Soviet Jewish family. Most Jewish families in the Soviet Union were not religious.” In the Soviet Union, practicing religion was not tolerated; there was 80 years of religious suppression.
Zelenskyy spoke more about his grandfather who served in the Red Army fighting the Nazis in WWII, but hardly ever about his three great-uncles who were murdered by the Nazis, among the 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
During his candidacy, the fact that he was Jewish was a sidenote. And apart from the anecdotal fact that he, like the vast majority of Russian-speaking Jews, “has relatives in Haifa and Ashdod,” there was nothing majorly “Jewish” about him to the Israeli public.
Besides, he was from Ukraine, the diaspora, where centuries of persecution, annihilation and the inevitable flight of Jews made Ukraine a black hole of Jewish history. For many Jews, Ukraine is synonymous with Khmelnytsky, with pogroms, with the WWII massacre of Babi Yar.
[Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the nation in the days after Russia’s invasion from Kyiv, UkraineCredit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP]
But Zelenskyy’s crash landing into the most consequential crisis of the 21st century is a reminder that much as Ukraine is a country of storied Jewish misery, it’s the crucible of modern Jewish history.
While Jews were caged in the Pale of Settlement, barred from moving freely through the Russian empire, Ukrainian cities and towns offered Jews a place to live, assemble, speak, and think freely. Until the breakout of the Second World War, a third of the population of Odessa and Kyiv were Jewish. Disasters but also cultural and political resurgences were the lot of Jews in Ukraine on a grand scale because there were so many Jews living and affecting life, thought, and politics as the world was turning into the 20th century.
Just think about it: Ukraine is the birthplace of three Israeli prime ministers and two Israeli presidents. It is where the members of Bilu dreamt of a Jewish agricultural utopia, where a young David Ben-Gurion got into rowdy arguments over Zionism in Odessa cafes, where Ze’ev Jabotinsky articulated a more nationalist view of a homeland, and Bund members rallied against it; where Leon Trotsky envisioned a completely different world.
Jewish authors and poets such as Isaac Babel, Vasily Grossman, Sholem Aleichem, Shaul Tchernichovsky and Haim Nachman Bialik didn’t only capture a Jewish voice but articulated the life and vision of what it would mean to be Israeli, a Soviet, what it means to be human, in times of joy and war.
Musicians, artists, and thinkers like Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Spielberg, all of whose parents came from Ukraine, helped more than most to write the American experience. And the lineage of comedians of Ukrainian descent such as Mel Brooks and Jon Stewart no doubt backtracks to Odessa, the City of Humor, where Jewish dockers, horse thieves, and poets sat in underground bars sharpening their jokes.
[Thousands of demonstrators holding a huge Ukrainian flag march through Odessa, Ukraine, days before Russia’s invasion, marking the 100 lives lost in Ukraine’s Maidan revolutionCredit: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti]
Despite the woes and horror, the cities and towns of Ukraine were where a large part of the 20th century was born. Without Odessa and Kyiv, there wouldn’t be Tel Aviv or Jerusalem – and there wouldn’t be New York.
For most of us, especially those who grew in Israel, the story of Ukrainian Jews ends with a flight into the world of the Jewish diaspora of the 20th century. But this story is far from a complete retelling, and Zelenskyy proves it wrong. What makes him a revolutionary Jewish leader is the fact that he stayed.
[Anti-tank ‘hedgehogs’ or traps on the outskirts of Odessa, Ukraine in preparation for a Russian assault after Russian forces pounded civilian targets in Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities Credit: AP Photo]
Despite his skills as an actor, his perseverance doesn’t seem performative; unlike generals turned politicians clad in grotesque uniforms or Uniqlo puffer jackets, Zelenskyy comes out as genuine. It comes from being a people being pushed, persecuted, probed, a resilience that doesn’t come from a grand ideology, but one that’s borne from the urge to live with dignity.
Dignity is key in Zelenskyy’s speeches, whether he’s talking to Russian citizens, the West, or Jews and the Israeli public. That’s why he puts us, the “West,” to shame when he reprimands the world for not instituting a no fly zone, or Israel for insufficiently standing by the Ukrainian people; when he speaks about the plight of refugees leaving the country, those who are stuck, and those choosing to stay and fight.
As Russia is set on devouring Ukraine and targeting Zelenskyy personally for what he is and what he stands for, his Jewishness has become symbolic for something much more significant: that despite centuries of being outsiders and persecuted, we can belong, we can come together around universal human ideals.
His staying-in-place also reminds us that there were always Jews there, that life outside Israel or New York or Paris didn’t end in 1945 or 1948, or even in 1991; Jewish life has taken different forms, and Zelenskyy’s experience is a shining example of it.
[Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during commemorative events last year marking the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre of Kyiv Jews by Nazi German forces in 1941Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP]
And the flourishing of those hybrid and varied identities is exponentially boosted when there is civic and political freedom, not the flattening and erasure of identity inherent to Soviet rule. As the Ukrainian Jewish dissident Josef Zissels puts it: “I believe that such an identity as that of a British Jew, French Jew, or Ukrainian Jew is only possible in a free, independent country and, preferably, a democratic one.”
Unlike religious Jews, Zelenskyy’s Judaism – or Jewishness – isn’t tethered to scripture and mitzvahs. It is more expansive, almost ineffable, a spirit of a modern, free world, where everyone is responsible for making a better world.
His ideals embody the family of Jewish ideals and injunctions centered around the norms of how people should behave towards their neighbor and their society. When Zelenskyy said, “Nazism is born in silence,” he asks us to stand up and speak out against transgression.
Zelenskyy’s accidental Jewish heroism corresponds with the values of the Talmud as it does with the UN Human Rights Charter. He’s a Mordechai Anielewicz as much as he’s a Lech Walesa. And in the age of social media, his image is both of a Babel-like everyman and an influencer.
The narrative of the Jews was significantly shaped by what society projected upon them: their hatred, hate, racism, and preconceptions. By contrast, despite coming from a Jewish family whose family was killed by the Nazis and the Cossacks before that, Zelenskyy has managed to spur people worldwide to project their ideals, wishes, and hope on this accidental leader.
Perhaps this is putting on too much meaning on just one man. But maybe the world is galvanized around Zelenskyy because he embodies the quiet, simple but courageous act of leadership, solidarity and testimony advocated by the Jewish sage Hillel: “Where there is no man, be thou a man.”
Or, more in a Jewish-Ukrainian spirit, as Isaac Babel wrote in “The Red Cavalry”: “You might not be able to budge these [Odessan] Jews, but there’s a whole lot you can learn from them.”
— Tsuyoshi Goroku (@t_gordau) March 8, 2022