Zelensky and what it means to be Jewish in Ukraine

The press has noted widely that President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and that his grandfather fought the German Nazis during WWII.  Some have noted that Zelensky's father is a college professor and his mother is an engineer.  Perhaps it is known that Zelensky lost ancestral relatives at the hands of the Nazis in concentration camps.  So, with this backdrop, we must understand the strength of Zelensky's resistance to Russian dominance.

The Jewish population in Ukraine today is somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000.  Before the attack of the Germans, as Hitler disregarded his treaty with Stalin, the population of Jews in Ukraine was likely 2,700,000.  It is estimated that close to 1,000,000 Ukrainian Jews were exterminated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.  But the history of this large minority in Ukraine is troubling (due to repeated periods of anti-Semitism) and tied up with the traditional Russian empire, which segregated Jews in the Settlement of Pale. 

Ukraine is a nation that was often invaded by neighboring hordes, and the Jews were often mistreated as suited the leadership of the period.  Zelensky is now being compared to British prime minister Winston Churchill, who took over just prior to the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, France, allowing his nation to survive the early onslaught from Hitler's military.  Zelensky has charisma and bravery reminiscent of Churchill.  Hopefully, the outcome will be similar.

Zelensky is a lawyer by training, an entrepreneur who created a media empire that allowed him to perform as an actor, and a skilled political operative who had not been elected to any office before winning 75% of the vote in 2019 against an incumbent.  He is inspiring (unlike our leader).  He must be protected from the hit squads Putin sends to kill him.  If Kyiv falls, he must be evacuated to operate a government in the western territory.  It is the fight in the rebel that must be maintained.

Ukraine, like much of the traditional Russian empire, has hosted significant anti-Semitism.  However, this past is not the dominant situation today, as the president and prime minister are both Jewish.  The nation is proud of its leader.  The Ukrainians have tasted freedom since the breakup of the Soviet empire in 1990s and despite corruption do not want to return to totalitarian control.  Further, they have indicated through their resistance that they do not want to be Russian.  Zelensky speaks three languages fluently: Ukrainian, Russian, and English.  He, like his nation, wants to look west for their future rather than to the east and Russia.

Ukraine was first settled by Scythians in the 7th century B.C.  Later, the Greeks came to the land.  The Slavs came in the 5th century A.D.  The Vikings came in the 800s.  The Mongols came in the mid-13th century and held Crimea until the Turks dominated in the 1500s.  Then the Polish Cossacks came.  In the 1770s, Catherine the Great absorbed eastern Ukraine, and Austria absorbed western Ukraine.  With all these changes, the people were brutally attacked and mistreated.  These are a hardy and resilient people, used to warfare.  The Soviets after 1917 made Crimea independent, and then Khrushchev (who was Ukrainian) returned the land to Ukraine in the 1950s.

Russia needs the land for a water port that does not freeze.  Further, there are petroleum reserves off the coast. 

To some, it appears ironic that Putin called the Ukrainian leadership "Nazis."  To the Russian population, this is the epithet equivalent to "racist" in our country.  But, despite the KGB skills Putin possesses in rhetoric, his people may understand the lies, much as our citizens know the falsehoods Biden repeated in the State of Union speech.  It is ominous that the Russian army brought mobile crematoria to the front.  Putin is hardly hesitant to use this equipment to burn his soldiers and civilians (even Jews) should the numbers of dead become humongous.

Listen to the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian onslaught.  They know what will happen to them and their nation should they surrender.  This is the glue holding together their effort.  The West was late to provide military equipment.  Hopefully, it will get to the people before it is too late.  As a comfortable American Jew, I can hope for the best as I watch from the sidelines.  The powerful and overwhelming Russian military was defeated in Afghanistan, which helped bring down the Soviet empire.  Will history be repeated?  We hope Putin has overreached! 

Putin has miscalculated the reaction by the NATO nations, which finally recognize the expansionist desires of Russia.  Now Finland and Sweden recognize the protection of the Western nations and have requested NATO membership.  Even Switzerland has become involved in sending weaponry to Ukraine.

Joe Biden is late to the game — we can hope not too late for the Ukrainians' sake.  If the Ukrainians can hold off the total takeover of their nation, then an insurgency will threaten Putin's longevity.  Putin sought to dispirit the people by destroying civilian icons.  Instead, it has galvanized the resistance.  May Zelensky be the Ukrainian Washington (who led the militia that was able to withstand the English superpower) or Judah Maccabee, who led the resistance to the Syrian onslaught, which we now celebrate as Chanukah.  Prayers will help, but lethal materiel is required. 

Howard Warner is the past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Binghamton, a former president of Temple Israel, and a former president of the Sixth District Society of N.Y.  All views are personal and do not represent these organizations.

Image via Libreshot.

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