Analysis

Ukraine Just Elected Its First Jewish President. Here’s Why It’s Not an Issue

Jewish comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won by a landslide according to an exit poll Sunday. Does this suggest the anti-Semitism of yore is fading?

Volodymyr Zelensky speaks as he performs with his "95th block" comedy group in Brovary, near Kiev, on March 29, 2019.
Genya SAVILOV / AFP

UPDATE: Jewish comedian Zelensky wins Ukranian presidential election by landslide, exit poll shows

KIEV — It’s said that reality is often stranger than fiction. In Ukraine, a popular comedian is taking both by storm. The 41-year-old Volodymyr Zelensky is better known for playing a president in the wildly popular TV show “Servant of the People,” which sees an earnest history teacher unexpectedly thrust into the backstabbing world of Ukrainian politics. Now Zelensky could have a shot at the real deal as an exit poll shows Ukrainians voted for him in the final round of the presidential election Sunday. The incumbent President Petro Poroshenko conceded he had been soundly defeated. 

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The comedian surprised everybody with the scale of his victory in the first round on March 31. His antiestablishment message and creative campaigning have resonated in a country mired in poverty and armed conflict, while deeply disillusioned with its political elite.

Zelensky won the first round with 30 percent of the vote, nearly double the showing of Poroshenko, the confectionary mogul who has ruled this country of 44 million since 2014. As neither candidate won a majority, the two faced off in Sunday’s run-off with an exit poll showing Zelensky winning 73 percent of the vote.

The comedian would thus become Ukraine’s first Jewish president, making his country the only one outside of Israel to have both a Jewish president and prime minister; Volodymyr Groysman took the latter post in April 2016.

What might that mean for Europe’s fourth-largest Jewish community in a country that has sometimes made headlines for anti-Semitism and a resurgent far right? Does it mean anything at all?

Zelensky was born in 1978 to Jewish parents in Krivyi Rih, a predominantly Russian-speaking industrial city in southern Ukraine. He left to pursue a career in show business; in 2003, he and two friends from his hometown founded the film studio Kvartal95 in the capital, Kiev. The studio became enormously successful throughout the post-Soviet world, and several of Zelensky’s Kvartal95 colleagues now play key roles in his campaign team.

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Appropriately for a showman turned politician, the charismatic Zelensky is something of a screen onto which Ukrainian voters can project their hopes. Zelensky’s detractors see this as evidence that he has no serious vision for the country — his proposals include tax amnesties and a series of advisory referendums on major policy issues. They also say he isn’t a professional politician, but some members of the diverse electorate appear to take the last charge as high praise.

Even as Poroshenko fights for his political survival and the election campaign peaks, Zelensky’s Jewish heritage hasn’t featured in his opponents’ attacks. Vladislav Davidzon, a Russian-American journalist and editor of the monthly Odessa Review, told Haaretz that he didn’t perceive any anti-Semitic rhetoric during the campaign.

Instead, much of the anti-Zelensky messaging has castigated him as soft on Russia and therefore a national security threat. One pro-Poroshenko billboard even portrayed the second round as a face-off between Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin.

The president has also suggested that Zelensky is nothing but a puppet of Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskyi — an influential figure in Ukrainian-Jewish communal politics (and a far more prominent one than Zelensky).

Kolomoyskyi, who lives in Israel but runs a business empire in Ukraine, has a score to settle with Poroshenko for the nationalization of his bank, PrivatBank, in a putative “anti-oligarchization” drive. The tycoon makes no secret of his preference for Zelensky, whose comedy shows regularly appear on Kolomoyskyi’s 1+1 TV channel. Zelensky has repeatedly denied that Kolomoyskyi is funding his campaign.

‘A South Ukrainian vaudevillian’

These charges don’t appear to dissuade Zelensky’s supporters — but they may not be the intended audience. “Presenting Zelensky as incompetent, a bad speaker, uneducated, a drug addict, pro-Russian … this is all enough to mobilize Poroshenko’s electorate in Galicia alongside higher-educated professionals and the national-liberal intelligentsia,” says Volodymyr Ishchenko, a sociologist and lecturer at Kiev’s Polytechnic Institute. Galicia, a region in western Ukraine, voted for the president in the first round.

According to Ishchenko, the approach described above “makes a dangerous play with anti-Semitism redundant.”

Some observers point to the interests of Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s influential interior minister who is believed to have a degree of influence over far-right groups. As Ukraine’s elites jockey for position in the new order, Avakov appears to have been reaching out to Zelensky and his team.

As Davidzon puts it, “The right-wing groups focused their ire on the president. Many Ukrainian voters might not be aware of Zelensky’s Jewish heritage, but he’s never hidden it. His humor certainly has a kind of south Ukrainian, vaudevillian, stand-up style. ... There’s undeniably a very Jewish inflection to it.”

As one of only a handful of journalists who has been able to meet Zelensky in person during the campaign, Davidzon could discuss Jewish life in the country with the presidential hopeful. “He forcefully, passionately, to me personally, defended the place of Jews within Ukrainian society historically and sees no problem whatsoever with his election for the community,” Davidzon says.

According to Davidzon, while some degree of “kitchen” or ordinary anti-Semitism is unfortunately part of the country’s social fabric, “Ukraine is certainly the least anti-Semitic place of the 15 [post-Soviet] republics, and likely in Eastern Europe, and I have been telling people that for five years.”

But just as Groysman’s emergence as Ukraine’s prime minister didn’t augur the end of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, neither would the election of Zelensky as president. Although anti-Semitic attacks are relatively rare, some observers write of a newly emboldened far right with a strong street presence alongside a creeping rehabilitation of Ukrainian ultranationalists such as Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) and Roman Shukhevych (1907-1950).

Still, a Jewish president of Ukraine certainly could be a powerful rebuff to claims that Ukraine after the 2014 revolution is unambiguously under the thumb of anti-Semitic extremists — a claim repeatedly made by several Russian state media outlets.

Other voices in Ukraine’s Jewish community caution against exaggerating the significance of Zelensky’s heritage. “It wouldn’t be correct to speak of Zelensky as a ‘Jewish showman’ or even a Jewish president,” says Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, a Kiev-based community organization. “He’s a Ukrainian with Jewish ancestry; he’s not a member of the Jewish community, he’s not religious, doesn’t keep Jewish traditions and never speaks of himself as a Jew.”

Meanwhile, when The Times of Israel approached several figures in Ukraine’s Jewish community for comment last month, its reporter met with mixed responses. One rabbi was under the impression that Zelensky had converted to Christianity, whereas some Ukrainian news outlets reported that Zelensky’s son had been baptized into the Orthodox Church five years ago.

In an interview this week with the RBK-Ukraine news agency, Zelensky was reticent to discuss his religious beliefs. “Faith is something we never discuss at the dinner table in my family,” he said, “but I do believe in God.” When asked whether he would, like previous Ukrainian presidents, flaunt that faith publicly, he responded that religion was his personal business and not something to be broadcast on television. Zelensky also said he would take the presidential oath on the Gospel, as it was tradition to do so.

Perhaps rather than representing Ukraine’s Jewish community per se, Zelensky’s candidacy is more a reflection of another Ukraine that rarely features in journalists’ portrayals of a country cleft between a pro-Russian East and Ukrainian-speaking, pro-European West. In the first round, Zelensky appealed across ethnolinguistic boundaries to win over a vast majority of Ukraine, with the exception of three western provinces in Galicia and two in the government-controlled areas of the Donbas region to the east.

This multicultural Ukraine, well encapsulated by Zelensky’s hometown, is often Russophone but not necessarily pro-Russian. Ukrainian and Russian are spoken interchangeably here, and the country is inhabited by Armenians, Bulgarians, Gagauz, Jews, Roma and Tatars, to name but a few minorities. This plays an important role in a more civic form of Ukrainian national identity, juxtaposed to a form of Ukrainian ethno-nationalism that gained prominence after the 2014 revolution. It’s not for nothing that, as the sociologist Ishchenko told Haaretz, “Many intellectuals see Zelensky’s candidacy as a defeat to their utopian vision of Ukraine as a monolingual anti-Russian periphery of the West.”

As Zelensky himself said in a recent campaign video, his opponents “want to divide us into right and wrong, Little Russians and Vyshyvanki, Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers” (Vyshyvanki is a term for patriotic ethnic Ukrainians derived from the name of a traditional embroidered shirt).

A libertarian twist

Antiestablishment but eschewing ethno-nationalism, Zelensky’s campaign seems unusual in Europe today. Some analysts identify a quasi-libertarian appeal to Zelensky, giving a voice to Ukrainians who feel the government has overstepped its boundaries in intruding in personal, social and cultural life.

“Ukrainian society and government have been moving in opposite directions: Society was becoming more fragmented, focusing on survival in harsh political and economic conditions. Meanwhile, the government was slowing down reforms while it increased nation-building, an ideological monopolization over politics, culture, and education,” says Mikhail Minakov, a political scientist and associate professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

“A very negative assessment of today’s life united very diverse groups; voting for Zelensky was a way to demonstrate this assessment by democratic means rather than in protests on the Maidan,” Kiev’s central square.

Zelensky’s broad appeal has rested on his ability to distance himself as much as possible from divisive issues lacking a consensus. Questions of historical memory fit squarely into that category.

So would a President Zelensky be willing or able to curtail some of the more extreme manifestations of that nation-building program that stoke the international perception of the country’s anti-Semitism?

“First, we can suppose — or reconstruct — the worldview of a man like Zelensky,” says Vyacheslav Likhachev, a researcher on anti-Semitism in Ukraine and director at the National Minorities’ Rights Monitoring Group. “He’s from a family of Jewish Soviet intellectuals from a Russian-speaking, industrial region. ... He has repeatedly made fun of over-the-top [Ukrainian] national patriotic discourse.”

As Likhachev puts it, “There’s a small chance that Zelensky might make some symbolic gestures toward nationalist sentiment to fend off accusations that he’ll sell us out to Russia. But that seems unlikely to me. He probably realizes that it’ll be hard for him to win over the most nationalist-oriented part of society, so he’ll wash his hands of them so as not to alienate the majority.”

Jerusalem-based journalist Sam Sokol notes that the controversial “decommunization bills” of 2015, which enshrined Holocaust collaborators in Ukraine’s national pantheon of heroes, were passed when Groysman was speaker of the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament.

“Zelensky’s likely election appears to be eliciting a similar reaction among Ukrainian Jewish leaders as the selection of Groysman as prime minister in 2016: A collective yawn, as they have no real expectation that he will take political action as a Jew,” says Sokol, author of the forthcoming book “Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.”

“There is some worry that if he screws up it could result in anti-Semitism. But at the same time, the almost nonexistent focus on his Judaism among ethnic Ukrainians is seen as a good sign — a sign that the deep-rooted anti-Semitism of the past is fading away in contemporary Ukraine,” Sokol adds.

“So the people who are most excited about Zelensky’s ascension in this sense are probably Jewish journalists,” concludes the Jewish journalist.

Maxim Edwards is a British journalist covering central and eastern Europe.