17 May 2019 / 12 Iyar 5779
At times fact can be stranger than fiction. This is certainly true with the recent election of Ukraine’s President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky . He is a Jewish comedian and television personality-turned-politician, who won more than 70 percent of the vote in Ukraine’s April 21 election. In a case of real life mimicking television, Zelensky had previously played a schoolteacher who accidentally finds himself president of Ukraine, before finding himself president of Ukraine.
What is no joke and very complimentary is the high-profile and visibility with which he has embraced his Jewishness, not a small factor in a country with as deep and troubled a history of anti-Semitism as Ukraine.
On May 6 he called a “historic” meeting in Kiev with the six leading representatives of the country’s Jewish communities, all Chabad Rabbis sent by the Rebbe with the fall of the Soviet Union. The delegation was led by Rabbi Kaminezki, who says the conversation touched on the enormous size of Ukraine’s Jewish community, which he estimates at some 500,000 individuals, and its status today. “This is the sixth-largest Jewish population in the world, and he was interested in every detail: why people stay, why they leave, what we’re all seeing in our individual communities.” There is a sense of euphoria in the Jewish community that the man who won the presidency is openly Jewish. He won and with a big percentage, and his being Jewish wasn’t an issue in this campaign at all. That’s very heartening to everyone here.”
Anti-Jewish history in Ukraine runs very deep. Even prior to the Holocaust, Ukraine was the site of the infamous pogroms of 1919-1921 causing the death of some 150,000 Jews. Local collaboration in Holocaust-era German atrocities, including among other places at Kiev’s Babi Yar killing grounds, is also an established fact.
While anything close to such terror has long been a thing of the past, a more casual anti-Semitism has prevailed for years. In recent decades, street-level anti-Semitism was a staple of everyday life for Ukrainian Jews, although such incidents have fallen rapidly in the recent years. In fact, it’s come to the point where local Jews feel more comfortable displaying their Jewishness openly in Ukraine than they do in many parts of Western Europe.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Jewish politicians throughout Ukraine have most often either buried or shied away from their Jewish identity. Not so with Zelensky, whose open Jewish identity was not a factor during the election and his eventual landslide victory. In fact, after his meeting with the Chabad Rabbis, Zelensky posted a picture and statement to his Instagram page, garnering 38,000 likes.
In his post, Zelensky quoted Kaminezki as telling him, “A little bit of light drives away a lot of darkness. There are three central factors behind the success of your leadership: justice, honesty and peace, Never do what you would not wish to be done to you.”
Rabbi Kaminezki presented Zelensky with a Chumash (Five Books of Moses), with a Russian translation—that his election was a part of the healing process of the country, particularly its Jewish community who have a brighter future in Ukraine.
Rabbi and Sheyna Riesenberg