With online posts in Hebrew and calls for Jews to “shout out” in response to the Russian invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky invoked his faith to rally support for his beleaguered country.
The 44-year-old comedian-turned-president told The Times of Israel in 2020 that he had an “ordinary Jewish upbringing,” explaining that “most Jewish families in the Soviet Union were not religious.”
He also described religion as a personal matter and even took his presidential oath on the Bible.
But since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, Zelensky has made explicit references to Judaism in prompting social media posts seeking to rally support for Ukraine.
On Wednesday, a day after a Russian attack on Kiev’s television mast next to Babi Yar — the site of a World War II Nazi massacre in which more than 30,000 of the city’s Jews were shot — Zelensky said reacted with indignation.
“I now call on all Jews around the world – don’t you see what is happening here? That is why it is important that millions of Jews around the world do not remain silent in the face of such sights. Because the Nazism was born in silence,” he wrote in Hebrew on the Telegram messaging service.
The next day, Zelensky, who has visited Israel several times and said he has family there, again reached out to Jews.
He told a press conference he was grateful for “a beautiful photo of people wrapped in the Ukrainian flag at the Western Wall” – in East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel, considered the holiest site where Jews can pray.
Zelensky added, however, that he did not feel “that the Israeli government has wrapped itself in the Ukrainian flag”.
Zelensky’s comments emerged as a clear attempt to broaden support for the Ukrainian cause among Jews and particularly in Israel, where Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has avoided strong condemnation from Russia, seeking to preserve security ties delicate with Moscow.
But his public reference to his Judaism amid an unprecedented crisis is not just a tactic to rally Jewish goodwill, say experts and a prominent Soviet-era dissident who knows the Ukrainian president personally.
“Zelensky’s Jewishness is important to him,” said Nathan Sharansky, who spent years in a Soviet gulag charged with treason for seeking permission to move to Israel.
“It’s not a Jew hiding his Jewishness and it’s not a Jew looking for another identity,” Sharansky told AFP.
Sharansky, who spoke to Zelensky’s chief of staff in recent days, was born in Ukraine and helped spark the Glasnost reforms that presaged the fall of the Soviet Union.
After a high-profile release from Soviet custody, he moved to Israel in 1986, where he held various high-level public positions and is now a leading global figure in efforts to combat anti-Semitism.
He noted that Zelensky is part of a long tradition of Jews in Eastern European history who faced death threats for resisting autocracy, but said the Ukrainian president’s Judaism could turn out to have wider implications, including countering rising anti-Semitism.
“This unique role that Zelensky is playing in uniting the Ukrainian nation, without hiding his Jewish identity, I think he can definitely help overcome many prejudices,” he said.
David and Goliath
Lisa Maurice, a lecturer in the department of classical studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, told AFP she had seen signs of Jewish influence in Zelensky’s public posture, including their social media posts.
“We really have this David and Goliath tradition. We’re always the small against the big,” she said, clarifying that her comments apply to Jewish historical accounts, not the current Israeli military.
“All of our heroes, even military heroes, don’t fight because they want to fight, not because they’re aggressive, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a very strong tradition in Judaism,” she said.
The Jewish Telegraph Agency, the century-old newswire covering Jewish affairs, said “Zelensky’s leadership resonates…with Jews everywhere” – citing several Jewish writers celebrating his resistance to an invading army.
“As a Jew it is impossible not to be proud of the courage, dignity and defiance displayed by Zelensky at this time,” tweeted Molly Crabapple, a prominent writer who has contributed to The New Yorker magazine and The New York Times.