Ukraine’s Newly Elected President Is Jewish. So Is Its Prime Minister. Not All Jews There Are Pleased.

Interesting dynamics:

When Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish comedian recently elected the president of Ukraine, announced that he was running, the chief rabbi for the eastern Ukrainian region where Mr. Zelensky grew up was shocked by the hostile reaction.

But the opposition, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki said, did not come from the Orthodox Church, a bastion of anti-Semitism in the past, or from a Ukrainian nationalist movement that collaborated with the Nazis during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. They could not seem to care less that Mr. Zelensky was a Jew, the rabbi recalled.

Instead, the hostility came from Mr. Zelensky’s fellow Jews, both secular and religious, for whom painful memories of czarist-era pogroms and the Holocaust are still very much alive.

“They said, ‘He should not run because we will have pogroms here again in two years if things go wrong,’” said Rabbi Kaminezki, the chief rabbi in Dnipro, the capital of Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region.

Despite its scarred history, Ukraine today is no hotbed of anti-Semitism. It already has a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, and if he stays on after Mr. Zelensky is sworn in, Ukraine will be the only country outside of Israel where the heads of state and government are Jewish.

Religion barely came up during the campaign.

The reason, said Igor Shchupak, a Holocaust historian in Dnipro, is that past persecution of Jews was carried out mostly when Ukraine’s territory was under the control of foreign states, principally Russia and Germany, that made anti-Semitism official policy.

“We have anti-Semites today, but we have no anti-Semitism as a state policy,” he said.

A survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 5 percent of Ukrainians surveyed would not accept Jews as fellow citizens, compared with 18 percent of Poles, 22 percent of Romanians and 23 percent of Lithuanians. Ukraine now has the world’s third- or fourth-largest Jewish community, but estimates of its size vary wildly, ranging from 120,000 to 400,000 people, depending on who is counting.

“The times of pogroms are over,” Rabbi Kaminezki said. “This is not on anybody’s agenda here.”

The rabbi has known Mr. Zelensky for years and has joined him at birthday parties in Switzerland for a self-exiled Ukrainian billionaire, Ihor Kolomoisky, who is Jewish. He said he had been appalled that his own community, in its initial alarm over the Zelensky candidacy, was in effect siding with a small group of supporters of the incumbent president, Petro O. Poroshenko, and far-right nationalists who were trying in vain to make an issue of the comedian’s non-Christian roots.

Aside from a few posts on social media, which included a comment on Facebook by an adviser to Mr. Poroshenko that “the president of Ukraine must be Ukrainian and Christian,” Mr. Zelensky’s background played “zero role” in the election campaign, said Mr. Shchupak.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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