The war that turned Volodymyr Zelensky into a Ukrainian Jew
So-called denazification and Volodymyr Zelensky
The Russian invasion that commenced on February 24, 2022 was waged under the ideological pretext of the “denazification” of Kyiv. In other words, the stated justification for the invasion — which the Kremlin continues to call a “military operation” — was to wipe out the allegedly revanchist fascist junta ruling Kyiv.
Ukraine is a pluralist liberal democracy; the attempt to decapitate the government and replace it with friendly proxies was based on all sorts of miscalculations by autocratic Russian president Vladimir Putin, but perhaps the worst part is that he seems to have believed his own propaganda about the Ukrainians.
Thus, it is both a remarkable historical irony and a quotidian fact of contemporary Ukrainian life that its dashing wartime commander-in-chief is a Ukrainian gentleman of Jewish descent.
Volodymyr Zelensky — a former comedian, producer and actor who hails from the Russian-speaking southeast of the country — has never hidden or downplayed his Jewish heritage. Indeed, Ukraine’s history of ethnic strife and antisemitism did not prevent 73 percent of the Ukrainian population from voting for the political novice in the 2019 presidential elections, making him only the second Jewish head of state in the world at that time. Zelensky and the Israeli prime minister have since been joined in the rarefied club of Jewish world leaders by another post-Soviet head of state: Egils Levits, president of Latvia, an arch supporter of Ukraine. This perhaps intimates that the post-Soviet phenomenon of multi-ethnic national belonging is a regional trend (as is the corollary desire for cleansing the national sense of shame through revisionist World War II history).
The election of Zelensky was fascinating exactly for how ordinary it all seemed to Ukrainians at the time, and for how little his being a Jew had mattered during the presidential campaign. He had even casually made ribald jokes about it (“I will send my Jewish mother after you!” he threatened his opponent, incumbent president Petro Poroshenko during one of their debates). The banner of contemporary Ukrainian civic nationalism — one based not on ethnic or linguistic definitions of regional belonging, but on values and mentality and national pride — was being carried by a slight, muscular Jewish comedian from a Russian-speaking part of the country.
This sort of political and social equanimity has not — to put it mildly — been the historical norm.
The modern creation of the Ukrainian state
Ukrainian Jews are in many ways a new phenomenon because the Ukrainian state in its current form is a modern creation. The accomplishments and identities of Ukrainian Jews almost always belonged to other national histories. In that way, Ukrainian Jewish history resembles the broader Ukrainian national history and is a microcosm of it. Each has simultaneously existed and not existed over the course of many centuries. Occupied, effaced, partitioned and continually expunged out of existence as a separate nation, Ukrainians have been ruled successively by Turks, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, and Russians.
And all the while, they engaged in continuous — and often doomed — national rebellions. Jews have also lived with them, in the lands of the Slavs, for centuries during their suppression – the often systematic repression of the Ukrainian nation, its culture and language – and have been targeted by parallel suppression.
Since the Russian war against Ukraine began, Jews all over the world have found themselves re-examining their identities. Being a “Russian Jew” has become an uncomfortable and unattractive marker as Russia becomes even more of an internationally toxic pariah state. Similarly, many American, Canadian, French, or British Jews who had always thought of themselves as Russian have revisited their family histories and noticed that the towns in which their ancestors lived were in fact in Ukraine. The majority of Ashkenazi Jewry can trace their ancestry back to Ukraine, as well as to Russia — where their ancestors usually wound up only after the 19th century.
In fact, any attempt to delineate a particularly “Ukrainian” Ukrainian Jewish history — especially one that existed prior to the 16th century — often involves making capricious or contestable judgments about which Jewish histories, movements, artworks, facts, or personages to assimilate into that history.
The Russian assault on Kyiv on February 24 was meant to decapitate the Ukrainian government within three days. Western intelligence agencies and the Kremlin both assumed that the capital would fall and that the government would flee. This clearly did not happen. Instead, Zelensky refused an American offer to leave the capital (whether he ever actually uttered the immortal words “I need ammunition, not a ride” will become known in time from the archives), and rallied the nation during the steadfast defense of the capital. His performance, as the entire world has since learned, was phenomenal and heroic.
Ukrainian Jews and Jewish identity for the good of the country
While bombing the main Kyiv television tower in the north of Kyiv, the Russians hit the park at the edge of the ravine of the Babyn Yar memorial, killing two citizens. The symbolic aspects of this assault were obvious. Zelensky leaned into his Jewish identity for the greater good of the country. His becoming a wartime president and world historical statesman melded with his acceptance of his Jewish identity. It is not coincidental that Ukraine, in the midst of this war, has been led by Russian-speaking Ukrainians – many of them, such as defense minister Oleksii Reznikov and the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, of Jewish descent.
The Russian accusations of the state being run by neo-Nazis appear all the more absurd when the commander-in-chief and many in the political class are Jewish. The Ukrainian nation has often engaged in revolts against its oppressors, but they were often doomed — especially when they represented a narrow ethnic Ukrainian identity that excluded, sometimes violently, Jews, Poles, and other ethnic groups. Now, a modern vision of Ukraine has emerged — a Ukraine whose ideals were liberal and democratic and inclusive of everyone who had been born on its soil.
Zelensky is a prime example of a generation of late-Soviet Jews who did not know what Jewish culture or tradition was. When I discussed the issue with him before he was president, he made some vague, pro forma comments about Jews having always lived in Ukraine without issues. Zelensky was from a typical assimilated family and, having been exposed to limited Jewish education, had little understanding of Jewish life, other than through the Holocaust, which had claimed many relatives of his uncle and other family.
His Judaism, and what it means to be Jewish in his country, were not topics he was particularly comfortable with — until the war. During one of his countless public addresses to national parliaments, Zelensky began to berate the Israeli Knesset for not doing enough in light of the genocide being experienced by Ukrainians.
He also described Ukraine, facing a foe like neighboring Russia, as a “big Israel” which would need to focus on security and self-defense. The war has reshaped the territory, culture, and politics of Ukraine for generations to come. At least a quarter — and perhaps as much as 40 percent — of the Ukrainian pre-war population has been displaced. One of the less well-known stories of the war is the role of former Israeli special service operators who extracted untold numbers of at-risk individuals from the country, including elderly Holocaust survivors and those on Russian kill lists, be they Jews, evangelical Christians, Protestants, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
An estimated 10 million Ukrainians took refuge in neighboring European countries, though some have returned as the Ukrainian army has secured parts of the country. This number is thought to include at least half of all the Jews in Ukraine — though statistics are, as ever, impossible to come by. Adult men are not allowed to leave, but many have sent their families to other countries, such as Poland, Moldova, Israel, and Germany. The Jewish communities in eastern Ukraine have been emptied of all but the very elderly who do not wish — or are not able — to leave their homes. But some Ukrainian Jews who have fled their homes have been settling in the country’s west, raising the prospect that communities may start to grow there for the first time in decades.
When I attended the Passover seder in Odesa last year — during the first two months of the war, when the city was still entrenched behind sandbags and anti-tank emplacements — only a quarter of the 200 or so people in the room were women.
The seder took place the day after the Ukrainian navy had succeeded in sinking the Moskva, the warship flag carrier of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The room was lit by candles after curfew so as not to give light signals to Russian bombers flying over the city. Everyone at the seder, from the rabbi down, made the same jokes comparing Putin to Pharaoh: “So God opened up the Black Sea as if for Moses and the Russian warship was submerged in it.”
My own friends in Odesa were by this time sending their kids and grandmothers to Germany and Romania, understanding full well the irony of Romanians and Germans — who had slaughtered their grandparents and great-grandparents during the Holocaust — now providing succor to Odesan Jews. It was a total and surreal reversal. My Russophone friends and acquaintances began to send emails and texts to each other in Ukrainian, and the city council voted to take down its statue of Catherine the Great.
Jews newly at war with each other
The war has, for the first time in 100 years, put large numbers of European Jews at war with each another. It has reshaped and will continue to reshape the Jewish Diaspora, from Berlin to London to New York City. Many pro-Putin Ukrainian Jewish and Russian Jewish oligarchs found that their previous game — living in opulence abroad off the benefits of stolen assets — was no longer tenable and wound up on sanctions lists with their assets frozen.
Russophone Jewish communal life throughout the Diaspora was now disrupted, with Russian and Ukrainian Jewish ties fraying. Honorable — and not so honorable — Russian-born Israelis who had led international Jewish organizations for decades were being forced to step down because of their relationships — however close or informal — with Putin and the Russian state.
The long divorce between Russians and Ukrainians is mirrored by the schism between Ukrainian and Russian Jewish communities, as the two nations are set to evolve in different directions after the war. Putin, ironically, has done more to Ukrainianize the country with missiles and rocket fire than anyone else in the decades since independence. Ukraine will certainly become more Ukrainian when the fighting finally ends.
Much like Ukraine, Ukrainian Jewry — a category that at its fullest expression incorporates legendary figures such as the Baal Shem Tov, Isaac Babel, Golda Meir, and now Volodymyr Zelensky — will doubtless survive, and over the years even flourish. Yet the damage already wrought is monstrous, and this community has once again been scattered and disturbed due to the whims of a foreign power.
We will be sifting through the ruins of a single psychotic megalomaniacal gamble for years to come.
This is an edited extract of Vladislav Davidzon’s “The Jews of Ukraine: Baal Shem Tov to Zelensky” from the latest issue of The Jewish Quarterly.