Zelensky Is a Jewish Hero. Some Jews Worry the Acclaim Won’t Last.

By Jane Eisner | March 22, 2022

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on March 17, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Most American Jews, like most Americans, view the war in Ukraine as a horrific human catastrophe that demands political support, philanthropic dollars, and fervent prayers. We are entreated to attend rallies, assist refugees, and raise funds; some are participating in humanitarian missions to the neighboring countries that are reeling from waves of desperate Ukrainians fleeing to safety, as many of our relatives were forced to flee from the Nazis decades ago.

There is also an unexpected surge of pride. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the global hero of the moment, is a Jew, and for now, his identity is not a liability and often an asset.

Across the usually fractious American Jewish spectrum, from the Orthodox to the most liberal, Zelensky has been embraced with a kind of familial hug as a charismatic symbol of resolve and courage. As Rob Eshman wrote in The Forward, this is not simply one-directional hero worship, but a deeper mutual admiration.

“Not only did we embrace Zelenskyy, he embraced us back. On two occasions since the invasion began, he has spoken directly to American Jews, asking them to speak out as Jews on behalf of Ukraine,” Eshman wrote.

In this, Jews are largely aligned with other Americans, a majority of whom approve of the Biden administration’s approach of working with European allies and tightening economic sanctions against Russia (even if Republicans still don’t approve of President Biden himself). Zelensky’s address to the U.S. Congress on March 16 drew a sustained standing ovation. And polling shows that U.S. hatred of Zelensky’s nemesis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is at an all-time high.

But this seemingly straightforward picture of unanimity and support across the religious landscape is laced with anxiety. For while it appears as if American Jews are firmly on the side of the good guys in this brutal conflict, the global reality is fuzzier. And the eagerness to rally and raise funds cloaks a gut-wrenching worry: that the moment won’t last. Zelensky could be knocked off his pedestal in a flash, his global goodwill dissipated if he makes a misstep, or the war drags on at great cost, or he is deposed or worse, murdered.

There’s a good reason for this anxiety. Historically, Ukraine has been a graveyard for Jews, a minority targeted by all sides of its politics. The wave of tolerance and pluralism that enabled Zelensky to become president in 2019, after an election campaign during which his religion was never instrumentalized by his opponents, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The 2014 Maidan uprising, when the pro-Russian Ukrainian government was overthrown, ushered in this period of Western-leaning liberalism, in which a vibrant nationalism seemed to override ethnic and religious divisions. The worry is that it will be short-lived.

“When things go wrong, it would not surprise me if one or another group starts to blame the Jews,” Jeffrey Veidlinger, professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, told me in an interview.

Complicating the religious landscape is the role of Israel, which is treading a narrow middle ground—as the government joins the West to welcome refugees and condemn Russia, it also hesitates to sanction Jewish oligarchs and tries to pursue a role as mediator with Putin to end the conflict.

In the first weeks of the war, more than a dozen private planes from Moscow reportedly  landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport; some Russian billionaires also have Israeli passports, and their vast wealth and real estate holdings have granted them social and political power in the country. The avoidance of fully sanctioning the many oligarchs who claim Jewish heritage has particularly rankled some American officials. Victoria Nuland, the U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, told an Israeli television news channel that “you don’t want to become the last haven for dirty money that’s fueling Putin’s wars.”

In a caustic address to Israeli leaders on Sunday evoking the Holocaust, Zelensky himself criticized the Jewish state for failing to arm his country. As the journalist and historian Gershom Gorenberg warned in The Washington Post, Israel will eventually have to decide where it stands. “In our dark new world, half-neutrality is impossible,” he wrote.

Jewish identity in these complicated situations is, in and of itself, complex. Decades of Soviet rule forced a strange contradiction: Jewish life was suppressed at the same time that Jews were targeted for persecution, and many found safety in thinking of themselves as Soviet rather than Ukrainian. As Stanford University history professor Steven Zipperstein told me, “Part of this story is a reminder of how identity is not made out of one thing.”

Indeed, like so many more well-known American Jews—including Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, and Jon Stewart—I can trace my ancestry back to Ukraine, in my case Kolomyia, a city that was variously ruled by Moldavia and Poland, and now is in western Ukraine. While for centuries Jews lived in thriving communities in these contested areas, there were also long periods of extreme and violent antisemitism, which is why my family emigrated to America in stages, before and after World War I.

In his recent book, In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust, Veidlinger argues “that the presence of Jews on all sides of the conflict that enveloped Ukraine during the revolutionary era following the First World War meant that whichever side you were on, there was always a Jew to blame.” As a result, about 100,000 Jews were killed in more than 1,000 pogroms that took place in 500 locations. And this was before an estimated 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, among them Zelensky’s family members.

Only in the last few years, and particularly since Zelensky’s unexpected election as president, has Ukraine begun to reckon with its bloody past. When I visited what was known as Babi Yar outside Kyiv in the early 1980s, the site of one of the worst massacres during World War II was still under Soviet rule and was left forlorn and neglected. The fact that 34,000 Jews were murdered there was not even mentioned. Last year, Zelensky presided over the commemoration of a planned new $100 million memorial for what is now known in local parlance as Babyn Yar. (In the early days of this latest war, Russian military bombed a nearby radio tower, killing five people and damaging the existing memorial.)

The recent flourishing of Jewish religious and cultural life in Ukraine has come to an abrupt halt with the war, as thousands of Jews flee death and destruction, leaving those who remain a smaller minority, even if their co-religionist is president. “Things have changed dramatically in Ukraine in the last five years,” said Veidlinger. “It’s hard to know how much the old patterns can be revived even if someone tried to revive them.”

And so the anxiety continues. Veidlinger said he would not be surprised if Putin started to employ coded antisemitic tropes to characterize Zelensky—as a tool of “western cosmopolitans,” or George Soros, or Israel—and try to discredit the Ukrainian leader in the eyes of his citizens.

As Veidlinger wrote in a recent forum for the University of Pennsylvania: “The presence of Jews today on all sides of the current conflict is a testament to the ease with which Jews, after decades of repression in the Soviet Union, have been able to succeed in the modern states of Russia and Ukraine. But as rockets fall on Babyn Yar and synagogues turn into bomb shelters, it is worth remembering how Jews have fared when wars have ravaged the region in the past.”

Jane Eisner is director of academic affairs at the Columbia School of Journalism.

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