For those inclined to see history as depressingly cyclical, the war in Ukraine offers fairly strong evidence. It all feels lifted from a familiar script in which only the actors have been switched—at anti-Russian protests, a popular placard even has the 20th century’s most evil mustache Photoshopped onto Putin’s face. But there is one protagonist who is an unusual fit for his role: Volodymyr Zelensky.
The 44-year-old former comedian turned president has exhibited great patriotism and bravery, joining his fate with that of his countrymen on the streets of Kyiv, refusing to leave despite Western offers of an airlift. If he is now, as he put it, “the No. 1 target” for the Russians, it is because he is the No. 1 Ukrainian. And what is remarkable, truly mind-blowing in the long sweep of history, is that his Jewishness has not stood in the way of his being embraced as a symbol of the nation.
In the Soviet world that shaped Zelensky and his parents, Jews were perceived as the eternal outsiders, possible fifth columnists, the “rootless cosmopolitans” of Stalin’s imagination. This of course came on top of living in a place where a particularly virulent strain of anti-Semitism had always existed, a legacy of pogroms and Nazi collaboration. Just outside embattled Kyiv is Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were shot and thrown into a ravine over the course of two days in 1941. If Zelensky has now become synonymous with the blue-and-yellow flag of his country, it might signal an unexpected outcome of this conflict that has found Jews feeling finally, improbably, one with a land that has perpetually tried to spit them out. [Continue reading…]