Ukraine(?!) Elects Jewish President

Ukraine, the Eastern European country with a history of Holocaust revisionism, Nazi collaborators, centuries of pogroms, and anti-Semitism in all its casual and oppressively enforced forms, just elected a Jew as president – by a landslide.

Go figure that one out.

Volodymyr Zelensky won the Ukrainian presidential elections with over 72% of the vote on April 21, going head to head with incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky already has a strange history, having no previous political experience. In fact, he’s an incredibly popular comedian and actor who stars in a tv show about a schoolteacher who accidentally becomes the president of Ukraine.

It’s hard to get more meta than that. But now, Ukraine is also the only country in the world to have both a Jewish president and prime minister – other than Israel.

This is another one of those stories where it’s nearly impossible for me to separate myself from it. My mother is from Ukraine, and I have a well-honed sense of anti-Semitism, particularly in Eastern Europe, courtesy of coming from a family of immigrants from the Soviet Union.

Ukraine electing a Jewish president – even a comedian – is no laughing matter. Anti-Semitism is rising across Europe, tied to a resurgence of populist far-right political movements in the East, and left-wing populist movements in the West.

The United States is no exception, as American Jews are increasingly divided and unsettled, to the point where I know many Jews from the USSR who wonder, “didn’t we come to America to get away from anti-Semitism?”

And in the midst of this, Ukraine elected a Jewish president. Does this mean there’s hope for anti-Semitism to be overcome? Well…

Zelensky may be Jewish, but his wife and son are Christian, and he kept mention of his heritage to basically zero during the election campaign. The difference is that, while many Ukrainian politicians are said to be Jewish (with little to no proof in some cases and many denials from those politicians) Zelensky never tried to deny anything, and it’s well known that yes, he is indeed Jewish.

Ukrainian politics are also in a unique situation, where a longstanding military and media war with Russia has redirected most of the country’s emotions. I once had a conversation with a Ukrainian neo-fascist who openly told me that he had no problems with Jews now because Russia is the real enemy.

While anti-Semitism, and right-wing fascist populism, absolutely still exists, Ukraine has relatively low levels (when I traveled there, Ukrainian Jews kept telling me how horrified they were with French and German anti-Semitism. Many were surprised when I asked about Ukrainian anti-Semitism, feeling there really wasn’t any.)

It helps that most of the Jews left, either after the Soviet Union fell or the Ukrainian economic collapse post-2014’s political revolution and war with Russia.

Seemingly there shouldn’t be many Jews to draw attention to or to inspire anti-Semitism. But it doesn’t feel that way when Jewish politicians and oligarchs are very prominent, and there’s still a strong memory of the Jewish community across the country.

“Ukraine is a complicated place that defies stereotypes,” tweeted Sam Sokol, an Israeli-American journalist who has covered Ukraine extensively. “It’s both a country tolerant enough for both the prime minister and president to be Jews and intolerant enough that racist thugs are under the patronage of the interior ministry. Both can be true at the same time.”

So a specific set of circumstances led to an almost random result. Zelensky won the elections due to massive popularity, and unprecedented use of social media strategy, helped by most of Ukraine wanting fresh blood in the presidency.

For now, his heritage is a happy surprise to Jews watching Ukraine from around the world, especially those like myself with a close personal connection.

But Ukraine is a country with massive economic, healthcare, and corruption problems, still engaged in war with Russia. If Zelensky can’t deliver, how long until popularity turns to dissatisfaction, and then, outright hatred and anti-Semitism?

As always, the Jewish tightrope is in action. If Zelensky does well, he will be called a Ukrainian, and if he does poorly, he will be called a Jew. But I, and many others, are watching what comes next. Even though we’re unsure if what we feel is hope.