‘In the year 1648, the wicked Ukrainian hetman, Bogdan Chmelnicki, and his followers… spread havoc in Tomaszow, Bilgoraj, Krasnik, Turbin, Frampol—and in Goray, too….They slaughtered on every hand, flayed men alive, murdered small children, violated women and afterward ripped open their bellies and sewed cats inside. Many fled to Lublin, many underwent baptism or were sold into slavery. Goray, which once had been known for its scholars and men of accomplishment, was completely deserted.”
Every reader of this opening paragraph of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray in the Warsaw Yiddish periodical Globus in January 1933 would have recognized these shocking scenes in the same way that today’s readers can instantly identify images of the Holocaust. The events in Ukraine three centuries earlier that Singer was describing in his novel—tens of thousands of Jews killed, dozens of towns destroyed—were as deeply imprinted on the consciousness of East European Jews as the Shoah would prove to be on a later generation.
These were neither the first nor the last such massacres of Jews on Ukrainian land. Every time Ukrainians fought for their independence—against the Poles, czars, Bolsheviks, or Germans—they violated the Jewish communities that lay defenseless in their path, and so the greatest heroes of Ukrainian independence have also figured as arch-villains of Jewish destruction. In the Civil War of 1919–21, Symon Petliura led the armed forces of a short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic against the Bolshevik-dictated Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. After his defeat, Petliura escaped to establish a government in exile in Paris, and there he was assassinated in 1924 by a fellow Ukrainian expatriate, the Jew Sholom Schwarzbard, who openly confessed to the crime. Schwarzbard defended his deed on the grounds that he was avenging the thousands of Jewish victims of almost 500 pogroms “who were massacred by Petliura’s forces,” and the evidence persuaded the French jury to acquit him.
Now that Ukraine is once again fighting for its freedom, we are not merely entitled but obliged to ask how it could be that the leader of the struggle to save Ukraine from the Russian maw in 2022 is a Jew who became his country’s president and commander in chief in 2019.
Is Volodymyr Zelensky so extraordinary that he defies the laws of history—or have these two peoples evolved so dramatically that lion and lamb are now co-breeding a new generation? What brought about this welcome change? One way or another, sooner or later, Ukraine will win this war, and then what sort of country will it be?
Our search for answers begins with the pattern itself—defenseless Jews caught over and over in the path of Ukrainians fighting others for their freedom. In none of these instances did Ukrainians set out to conquer or eliminate the Jews. And, unlike the Nazis, they did not insist on racial purity or consider Jews polluters of their race. Unlike Bolsheviks, Ukrainians are themselves intent on preserving their religion-infused national identity. Indeed, while there is no denying the toxic anti-Jewish teaching of some in the Orthodox Church or the xenophobic nationalism in parts of the countryside, for almost a thousand years the region benefited from the complementary strengths of an agricultural-equestrian society alongside the mercantile-intellectual community of Jews.
The two peoples, each with its religion, language, ethnic identity, and the political traditions of a cultural minority, had in common an innate need for independence that struck deeper than their differences. The decisive disparity between them arose in times of stress when Ukrainians acted as the warriors that Jews had ceased to be.
Change the pattern and two peoples, each “yearning to be free,” found themselves on the same side of the barricades. In the 1950s, dissident national minorities throughout the Soviet Union, including Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, and Ukrainians, began the struggle to liberate themselves from Communist dictatorship. The State of Israel had been declared in 1948, and in tandem with those other subject nations, a movement to free Soviet Jewry demanded the right of Jews to emigrate to their national homeland. Natan Sharansky, of Donetsk in Ukraine, the most prominent of the refusenik Jews insisting on the right to emigrate, describes how much he had in common with Ukrainians who had been imprisoned, like him, for demanding their national freedom. As the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, Sharansky spearheaded the emigration of almost 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel. Jews and Ukrainians were fighting in a common cause.
An even more consequential break in the older pattern of Ukrainian-Jewish relations came with Israel’s victories over the Soviet-backed Arab armies in 1967 and 1973. Multiple armies of the Arab League had attacked Israel at the moment of its founding, and that unilateral war grew even more imbalanced the following decade when the Soviet Union threw its military and political support to Arab leaders in an effort to extend Russia’s power in the region. Already in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin had called the Muslim Brotherhood’s pogroms against the Jews of Palestine the beginnings of an Arab Communist revolution—thus casting Zionism, the return of Jews to their homeland, as an imperialist colonizing evil. The Arab and Soviet blocs reacted to their military defeats by ratcheting up this anti-Zionism through propaganda that more than made up for their losses. Anti-Zionism, like anti-Semitism a century earlier, created an ever-widening anti-liberal coalition of aggression, with the difference that this time it came mainly from the Marxist left that put class above nation rather than from the nationalist right that yearned for ethnic hegemony and national purity. In a stunning realignment, the Anglo-American left embraced the idea of Israel’s illegitimacy while the countries trying to free themselves from Soviet rule cheered on Israel for helping to crack the Communist empire. Ukraine was now decisively on Israel’s side.
Since Volodymyr Zelensky’s career as a comedian plays an important part in his political career, it is important to note how Ukrainian and Jewish politics merged in their humor. Folk traditions of Russians/Ukrainians and Jews, long since intertwined in food, song, and story, merged in their joking.
“What is the difference between Kolkhoz, the collective farm, and Kol Nidrei, the Yom Kippur prayer?”
“Kol Nidrei means you don’t eat for a day; Kolkhoz means you don’t eat for a year.”
“What is ‘friendship among Soviet nationalities?’”
“Armenians join with Russians, Russians join with Ukrainians, and Ukrainians join with Uzbeks to beat up the Jews.”
Israel’s performance in the Six-Day War enriched this humor:
An instructor at the Russian War College describes how the Soviet Union might win a war against China. Asked by a student how their military could possibly defeat China’s overwhelmingly greater armed might, the teacher offers the example of Israel, which could field no more than 2 or 3 million yet defeated a hundred million Arabs. “Yes,” the student objects, “but where can we find 3 million Jews?”
The world’s pet victim had emerged as a model of warrior grit. Israel inspired liberals in the Soviet sphere, where to be liberal meant to be anti-Soviet, with hope that a free democratic nation could prevail against forces many times its size. The Russian-Ukrainian Jews who chose to move to Israel then forged a solid cultural bridge between the two peoples much like the one that Anglo-American immigrants to Israel maintain with the English-speaking world. Ukrainians were still struggling for their freedom as they always had, but now with an independent Jewish country on the same side.
Zelensky thus embodies a precious synthesis—with the caveat that should conditions change, political pressures could yet again drive them apart. About those differences: Nothing is easier for a Jew than to devote himself to the cause of another people either in tandem with or instead of his own. During their two millennia in other peoples’ lands, Jews specialized in proving themselves useful, if not indispensable, to the nations around them. In contrast, for Ukrainians to elect a known Jew as their political leader signified a real departure from the kind of nationalism that had once attracted some of them to Nazism. Zelensky’s Jewishness merely confirms how Jews often behave when they are welcomed into another people, but his election to the presidency signifies that Ukraine may have developed an American-style form of citizenship where individuals are equal, irrespective of religion or race.
Volodymyr Zelensky is an extraordinary leader, and the present attempt to place him in a political-cultural context takes nothing from his achievements. His bar mitzvah year, 1991—or what would have been his bar mitzvah year had his Jewish parents still been Jewishly observant—coincided with Ukraine’s attainment of its independence. The fall of the Soviet Union that year brought a heady freedom to countries formerly under Soviet control, benefitting Zelensky’s generation in particular. Having been raised and educated in Russian, they had access to Russia’s culture and literary tradition as well as their own. At the same time, whereas their parents had had to conceal their Jewish or Ukrainian religious and national affiliations, they could now freely function in Ukrainian, or in the case of the Jews, learn Hebrew or move to Israel. In the newly liberated countries of the former Soviet Union, freedom expressed itself as much in national identity as through individual choice.
Zelensky’s parents were not among those who wished to emigrate. Both had worked hard to establish themselves in academic positions that had been reserved for Soviet citizens in good standing. Their Jewishness was inherited rather than practiced, and Volodymyr was much like the American Jewish children of extremely acculturated, nonaffiliated Jewish parents, who grow up without any instruction in their religion or national history. His strongest connection with the Jewish past was summarized by the headline “A Jewish Ukrainian family had 4 brothers. 3 were murdered by the Nazis. Only 1 survived,” introducing Volodymyr as grandson of that solitary survivor. In him the Jew’s responsibility to fight Nazi evil is compounded by the Ukrainian’s legacy of survival under Soviet oppression. No one can doubt the courage and moral confidence inspired by this doubled sense of mission.
Of Zelensky’s life before being elected president, which included army service and law school, his work in professional comedy was critical in more than the obvious way of turning him into a celebrity. It came about in a country that was trying to define itself. Post-Soviet Ukraine had embraced democracy, but in the absence of an established political class or proven national institutions. The famous independence of Ukrainians that keeps them from serving a strongman like Vladimir Putin also allowed for catch-as-catch-can practices that won the country a reputation for massive “corruption.” In that social free-for-all, many ambitious youngsters went into media, and there—as in post–World War II America—many Jews chose comedy, where piebald identity can be an asset and short brainy guys are all the rage. Zelensky’s background in acting often has him compared to Ronald Reagan, but Ukraine’s direct democracy, minus a two-party system and electoral college, translated celebrity into electability much faster. Zelensky became president in a fraction of the time it took Reagan to transition from Hollywood to the White House.
Moreover, Volodymyr was less an actor than part of a comedy team that created a show with a far from trivial title: Servant of the People. His program was not the domestic comedy of Friends or Seinfeld; it was social satire designed to show how government should be run by showing how it shouldn’t. Slate’s Lili Loofbourow describes the unsettling experience of watching Zelensky’s character, the schoolteacher-turned-Ukrainian president Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, streaming on Netflix while a broadcast channel features the President Zelensky fighting for his life and the life of his country. She is further unsettled by similarities between some of the intrigues in the show and how Zelensky and his cronies got into power in 2019. This misses the larger point that these comedy writers were all along thinking about how politics really works. The comedy of Britain’s Yes Minister feels as traditional as the government it ridicules because the British have been self-governing and self-mocking for a very long time. Russia could never cultivate such television shows under Soviet rule or under the present kleptocracy. Modern Ukraine’s appetite for national self-parody is a marker of its democratic potential. Servant of the People was a government in formation.
The Jewish analogue for humor’s role in shaping a nation was right there in Ukraine at the turn of the 20th century, when Sholem Aleichem became the most popular Yiddish writer of modern times. Zelensky’s forebears read him in the original and their fellow Ukrainians in good Russian and Ukrainian translations, whereas Americans know him only indirectly as the creator of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Sholem Aleichem (born Rabinovitch) had chosen for his pen name the inclusive popular greeting “Hello there,” or “How do you do,” for a comedy to welcome all Jews alike. His main characters, like Zelensky’s schoolteacher, were apparently simple folk who exposed social malaise. Before television, Sholem Aleichem himself gave public readings, and in a time of exceptional political factionalism, he had Jews laughing together at their common foils.
Modern nations were forged by ideas, and comedy spiced them up. Theodor Herzl laid out his Zionist plan in The Jewish State, but Sholem Aleichem’s homier Why the Jews Need a Land sold 10 times more. When Tevye the Dairyman traversed the quasi-Jewish territory of Ukraine, his creator was readying Jews for their return to the land of milk and honey. Just so, Zelensky’s comedy helped to consolidate modern Ukraine.
And so his election, somewhat like the swearing in of Barack Obama as president of the United States, represented a redemptive evolution. Just as many Americans felt that by electing a black American, they had overcome the legacy of slavery and the stain of racism, Ukrainians who voted overwhelmingly for Zelensky were also making a statement about their country and its expansiveness. Nothing ridicules Vladimir Putin’s claim to be “denazifying” Ukraine as obviously as its avowedly Jewish president.
Putin’s war against Ukraine is so irresponsible that until it happened even pessimists believed it would never be launched. The ravages fill us with horror. Knowing how much the free world’s lack of political will may have precipitated this crisis, we are almost ashamed of the hope the Ukrainian president radiates when he exhorts our governments to do more:
Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided. The destiny of our people, whether Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy. Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, our cities. It went on a brutal offensive against our values. Basic human values. Against our freedom, our right to live freely, choosing our own future. Against our desire for happiness, against our national dreams.
Michael Walzer, who literally wrote the book on “just and unjust wars,” is surely right that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal under international law. And it is unjust according to every version of just war theory.” In fighting tenaciously, Ukraine has greatly advanced the cause of liberty, reminding what free nations owe one another and how they ought to be paying greater attention to the protection of their own. President Zelensky has personally delivered that message to the United States, Great Britain, the European Union, the United Nations, recalling to each the unprovoked attacks it faced, Americans at Pearl Harbor, the British in the London blitz.
Zelensky also addressed the Israeli Knesset, bringing history full circle from where I began. Ukraine now seeks help from the Jewish people in fighting for its freedom, and Israel is a nation of Zelenskys. Would that this reversal could be celebrated as a tribute to these two small countries that soldier bravely at such great cost. Israel has sent Ukraine a fully staffed field hospital with other humanitarian aid and is absorbing tens of thousands of its refugees. When aggressors threaten smaller entities, as they always have and doubtless always will, other free people must help in their defense.
Nonetheless, Zelensky’s speech to the Jews of Israel also reminds us that distinctions matter, even under fire. He said:
I don’t need to convince you how intertwined our stories are. Stories of Ukrainians and Jews. In the past, and now, in this terrible time. We are in different countries and in completely different conditions. But the threat is the same: for both us and you—the total destruction of the people, state, culture. And even of the names: Ukraine, Israel. That is why I have the right to this parallel and to this comparison. Our history and your history. Our war for our survival and World War II. [my emphasis]
This effort to analogize the threat to Ukraine with the attempted genocide of the Jewish people is one of the few political missteps Zelensky has made. While his error in no way diminishes his right to call on the support of all freedom-loving people—or our duty to provide it—Israel is not Ukraine, and Ukraine is not Israel.
The Jewish state remains under attack from a larger, different, and more diverse set of enemies than Ukraine or any other country does. It has a tricky relationship with Russia, with whom it has had to be in constant quiet communication to prevent a larger conflict between the two countries from erupting in the skies over Syria. If Jewish connections with both Ukraine and Russia have encouraged Israel’s leaders to offer Israel’s help in mediation, they also remind us of the precarious role of Jews among the nations—and the ease with which yesterday’s neighbors can become willing executioners when it suits their purpose.
When Zelensky appealed to the Jewish conscience in his speech to the Knesset, his moral duty was to save his country. Period. He wanted as much as he could get from Israel and used whatever arguments were at hand to convince the Jewish state to come to his country’s aid. That makes sense. The first responsibility of a government is to its own citizens. Fighting for his life and the life of countrymen, the Jewish president may incidentally be upholding the universal cause of freedom, but at this moment, he is doing so solely by protecting Ukraine.
The same goes for Israel. Zelensky can make any appeal he likes and use whatever moral suasion he can to secure his aim, but Israel is also at risk—perpetually at risk—and its citizens are not just Jews with a special connection to the Jewish president of Ukraine. They are sovereign Israelis, and just as Zelensky is a citizen president with responsibilities to his fellow citizens, so too are sovereign Israelis responsible to their fellow citizens when it comes to their security. Israel has been the fighting front line of democracy from the day of its founding. Its citizens can, should, and will continue to supply whatever aid they can in Zelensky’s noble fight, with particular pride in his Jewish fellowship, without endangering themselves and their hard-won homeland.
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