Zelensky Is a Jewish Hero. Some Jews Fear the Acclaim Received’t Final.


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

Most American Jews, like most Individuals, view the warfare in Ukraine as a horrific human disaster that calls for political assist, philanthropic {dollars}, and fervent prayers. We’re advised to attend rallies, help refugees, and lift funds; some are collaborating in humanitarian missions to the neighboring international locations which can be reeling from waves of determined Ukrainians fleeing to security, as lots of our kin have been pressured to flee from the Nazis many years in the past.

There’s additionally an surprising surge of satisfaction. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the worldwide hero of the second, is a Jew, and for now, his identification is just not a legal responsibility and sometimes an asset.

Throughout the normally fractious American Jewish spectrum, from the Orthodox to probably the most liberal, Zelensky has been embraced with a sort of familial hug as a charismatic image of resolve and braveness. As Rob Eshman wrote in The Ahead, this isn’t merely one-directional hero worship, however a deeper mutual admiration.

“Not solely did we embrace Zelenskyy, he embraced us again. On two events for the reason that invasion started, he has spoken on to American Jews, asking them to talk out as Jews on behalf of Ukraine,” Eshman wrote.

On this, Jews are largely aligned with different Individuals, a majority of whom approve of the Biden administration’s method of working with European allies and tightening financial sanctions in opposition to Russia (even when Republicans nonetheless don’t approve of President Biden himself). Zelensky’s deal with to the U.S. Congress on March 16 drew a sustained standing ovation. And polling reveals that U.S. hatred of Zelensky’s nemesis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is at an all-time excessive.

However this seemingly simple image of unanimity and assist throughout the non secular panorama is laced with anxiousness. For whereas it seems as if American Jews are firmly on the aspect of the nice guys on this brutal battle, the worldwide actuality is fuzzier. And the eagerness to rally and lift funds cloaks a gut-wrenching fear: that the second gained’t final. Zelensky could possibly be knocked off his pedestal in a flash, his world goodwill dissipated if he makes a misstep, or the warfare drags on at nice value, or he’s deposed or worse, murdered.

There’s a great cause for this anxiousness. Traditionally, Ukraine has been a graveyard for Jews, a minority focused by all sides of its politics. The wave of tolerance and pluralism that enabled Zelensky to turn out to be president in 2019, after an election marketing campaign throughout which his faith was by no means instrumentalized by his opponents, is a comparatively latest phenomenon.

The 2014 Maidan rebellion, when the pro-Russian Ukrainian authorities was overthrown, ushered on this interval of Western-leaning liberalism, wherein a vibrant nationalism appeared to override ethnic and spiritual divisions. The concern is that it is going to be short-lived.

“When issues go improper, it could not shock me if one or one other group begins responsible the Jews,” Jeffrey Veidlinger, professor of historical past and Judaic research on the College of Michigan, informed me in an interview.

Complicating the non secular panorama is the position of Israel, which is treading a slim center floor—as the federal government joins the West to welcome refugees and condemn Russia, it additionally hesitates to sanction Jewish oligarchs and tries to pursue a job as mediator with Putin to finish the battle.

Within the first weeks of the warfare, greater than a dozen non-public planes from Moscow reportedly  landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport; some Russian billionaires even have Israeli passports, and their huge wealth and actual property holdings have granted them social and political energy within the nation. The avoidance of absolutely sanctioning the various oligarchs who declare Jewish heritage has significantly rankled some American officers. Victoria Nuland, the U.S. underneath secretary of state for political affairs, informed an Israeli tv information channel that “you don’t need to turn out to be the final haven for soiled cash that’s fueling Putin’s wars.”

In a caustic deal with to Israeli leaders on Sunday evoking the Holocaust, Zelensky himself criticized the Jewish state for failing to arm his nation. Because the journalist and historian Gershom Gorenberg warned in The Washington Submit, Israel will finally must resolve the place it stands. “In our darkish new world, half-neutrality is not possible,” he wrote.

Jewish identification in these sophisticated conditions is, in and of itself, advanced. Many years of Soviet rule pressured an odd contradiction: Jewish life was suppressed on the identical time that Jews have been focused for persecution, and plenty of discovered security in pondering of themselves as Soviet reasonably than Ukrainian. As Stanford College historical past professor Steven Zipperstein informed me, “A part of this story is a reminder of how identification is just not made out of 1 factor.”

Certainly, like so many extra well-known American Jews—together with Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, and Jon Stewart—I can hint my ancestry again to Ukraine, in my case Kolomyia, a metropolis that was variously dominated by Moldavia and Poland, and now could be in western Ukraine. Whereas for hundreds of years Jews lived in thriving communities in these contested areas, there have been additionally lengthy durations of maximum and violent antisemitism, which is why my household emigrated to America in phases, earlier than and after World Battle I.

In his latest ebook, Within 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 battle that enveloped Ukraine throughout the revolutionary period following the First World Battle meant that whichever aspect you have been on, there was all the time a Jew responsible.” Because of this, about 100,000 Jews have been killed in additional than 1,000 pogroms that happened in 500 areas. And this was earlier than an estimated 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews have been murdered within the Holocaust, amongst them Zelensky’s members of the family.

Solely in the previous couple of years, and significantly since Zelensky’s surprising election as president, has Ukraine begun to reckon with its bloody previous. After I visited what was often known as Babi Yar outdoors Kyiv within the early Nineteen Eighties, the location of one of many worst massacres throughout World Battle II was nonetheless underneath Soviet rule and was left forlorn and uncared for. The truth that 34,000 Jews have been murdered there was not even talked about. Final 12 months, Zelensky presided over the commemoration of a deliberate new $100 million memorial for what’s now identified in native parlance as Babyn Yar. (Within the early days of this newest warfare, Russian army bombed a close-by radio tower, killing 5 folks and damaging the prevailing memorial.)

The latest flourishing of Jewish non secular and cultural life in Ukraine has come to an abrupt halt with the warfare, as 1000’s of Jews flee dying and destruction, leaving those that stay a smaller minority, even when their co-religionist is president. “Issues have modified dramatically in Ukraine within the final 5 years,” stated Veidlinger. “It’s exhausting to know the way a lot the outdated patterns will be revived even when somebody tried to revive them.”

And so the anxiousness continues. Veidlinger stated he wouldn’t be stunned if Putin began to make use of coded antisemitic tropes to characterize Zelensky—as a instrument of “western cosmopolitans,” or George Soros, or Israel—and attempt to discredit the Ukrainian chief within the eyes of his residents.

As Veidlinger wrote in a latest discussion board for the College of Pennsylvania: “The presence of Jews right this moment on all sides of the present battle is a testomony to the convenience with which Jews, after many years of repression within the Soviet Union, have been in a position to reach the fashionable states of Russia and Ukraine. However as rockets fall on Babyn Yar and synagogues flip into bomb shelters, it’s price remembering how Jews have fared when wars have ravaged the area previously.”

Jane Eisner is director of educational affairs on the Columbia Faculty of Journalism.


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