The Ukrainian election – the antisemitism that is and isn’t

Congratulations to the Ukrainians for having a democratic election that expressed the will of the people and to Volodymyr Zelensky, the nation’s new President. By deposing of an incumbent, the Ukrainian people sent an important message that corruption, lies, and holding citizenry for fools have electoral consequences despite the incumbent’s enormous resources. Such a political statement is not to be taken lightly when we consider the political landscape of many sovereign states that were once Soviet republics.

However, what do we make of the electorate’s choice of a Jewish comedian as the nation’s new President? Countless hyperbolic reactions have seen the light of day over the last month or so, as Zelensky appeared as a clear front runner over the nationalistically inclined incumbent, Petro Poroshenko.

Much has been made in the Western media of Zelensky’s status as a comedian. And while it’s true that he rose to fame thanks to his highly successful stint in KVN (collegiate competition of humor and wit), where he elevated his team from a provincial Ukrainian town to previously uncharted heights of success, comedy is only a small part of who he is. Zelensky is a skilled entrepreneur with a law degree, who turned his college hobby into a highly successful media enterprise that employs hundreds of people. This is quite different from the profile granted to him by much of the Western media.

While it is true that Zelensky comes from a Jewish family and most of the country is aware of his heritage, he is married to a Ukrainian woman and is known to have baptized at least one of his children.  His comedy show, Kvartal 95, occasionally dabbles in traditional stereotypes that paint the Jews as greedy and cunning, with Zelensky playing the role of a Jew. Zelensky is also often perceived in collaboration with a Ukrainian Jewish oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyskyi on whose channel his shows appear. Outside of his early biography and the aforementioned details, there appears to be little that would openly tie Zelensky to Ukrainian Jewish life.

There is a divergence of opinions with regard to Ukrainian antisemitism, with some claiming that Zelensky’s election decisively shows that there is little to no antisemitism in Ukraine, which is, of course, absurd. The other absurd notion belongs to those who label Ukraine an antisemitic country. It is not. Certainly not more so than a host of other European nations.

Zelensky won 73% of the vote, which is an amazing tally, however let us not forget the remaining 27%. Certainly, not all those who voted for the incumbent are antisemites, far from it. However, it is reasonable to posit that a significant percentage of antisemites voted for Poroshenko. Though the more radical of Ukrainian antisemites contend that Poroshenko himself is a hidden Jew.

For simplicity’s sake, let us use the 27% as a proxy. This number would place Ukraine in line with ADL’s antisemitism index for Western Europe. Whether antisemitism stems from Ukrainians, ethnic Western Europeans or North Africans in the West is irrelevant in this case; what matters is the numerical parity. Thus, it is possible for a Jew to be elected to a high political office while antisemitism is a non-trivial issue nationally.

At the same time, this election should clearly illustrate that Ukraine, like other nations, should not be painted with a broad brush and that for the vast majority of Ukrainian citizenry a candidate’s Jewishness is not a disqualifying factor from an elected office. It is entirely likely that some of those who voted for Zelensky may hold at least some antisemitic views; however, these views still allowed them to support a Jewish candidate who was perceived as the better choice.

Perhaps, Zelensky’s leading role as president of Ukraine in the TV series Servant of the People, primed the electorate; however, it is likely that any widely recognizable figure would have done well against Poroshenko who managed to turn various segments of the Ukrainian society against himself, and the vote for Zelensky was largely a referendum on Poroshenko himself.

How Zelensky is perceived during his presidential term will be paramount, as even slight improprieties of a candidate who was elected on an anti-corruption platform may give ammunition to the antisemites, and antisemitic views may readily spread to those who are not motivated by such views today. Additionally, having a Jewish president may further radicalize current antisemites even though they are an obvious minority.

Ukraine deserves credit for its democratic tendencies, as the citizens are eager to finally break with the culture of corruption that has stunted the nation’s growth. There are other equally challenging issues that await Zelensky, and some of them will surely put him and the nation’s faith in him to the test; however, today, he represents hope for millions of Ukrainians that the nation may revel in its independence and embrace its developmental potential.

About the Author
Michael Yadov is a Director at the American Forum for Israel. Mr. Yadov is a graduate and current teaching staff member at Fuel For Truth. Michael is an active contributor at Russian American Jewish Experience (RAJE) and has served on the Executive Board of Pace University Hillel.
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