Volodymyr Zelensky, the heroic President of Ukraine, is often held up as an example of strong Jewish leadership, a rarity, especially in a part of the world where antisemitism is historically rife.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Zelensky has not been shy about his heritage, even referencing it in a plea to the Israeli government for financial and military support in the early stage of the invasion.
He's also been used by antisemitic conspiracy theorists to suggest a Jewish globalist plot to support Ukraine.
But what is his Jewish background and just how Jewish is Volodymyr Zelensky?
When Volodymyr Zelensky won his election in 2019, it meant that for the first time in Ukraine’s history, the country had a president and a prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, who were both Jewish and open about their Jewish background. For a time, Ukraine was the only country outside of Israel where the heads of state and government were Jewish. Yet neither promoted nor relied on ethnicity in their politics.
In fact, Tsyba, a childhood friend and now MP in Zelenksy’s Servant of the People party, says Zelensky rarely mentioned his Jewish background and it was not something people talked about. “It never mattered … There were a lot of Jewish people around yet there was no particular interest in who was who.”
Days before taking office in 2019, Zelensky put flowers on the grave of his Jewish grandfather, who fought the Nazis in World War II.
“[Simon] went through the whole war and remains forever in my memory one of those heroes who defended Ukraine from the Nazis. Thanks for the fact that the inhuman ideology of Nazism is forever a thing of the past. Thanks to those who fought against Nazism — and won.”
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky put flowers on the grave of his Jewish grandfather, who fought the Nazis in World War II. (Facebook/Volodymyr Zelensky)
He revealed on CNN that his great-grandparents were killed by the Nazis in a blaze that consumed their entire village.
However, his grandmother escaped Hitler in an evacuation of Jews to Kazakhstan. He said: "My grandmother was living in Kryvi Rih, in a part of south Ukraine which was occupied by the fascists. They killed all the Jews who remained. She had left in an evacuation of Jews to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Many people fled to there. She studied there. She’s a teacher. After World War II, she came back. That’s where I was born."
Zelensky grew up in the Russian-speaking city of Kryvyi Rih, in the eastern part of Ukraine. Like most Soviet Jews, his parents were highly educated but limited in where their careers could go. His father was a professor of mathematics and his mother studied engineering.
Zelensky said he grew up in an “ordinary Soviet Jewish family,” which was to say, not very religious, since “religion didn’t exist in the Soviet state as such.”
In January 2020, during the commemoration in Israel of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Zelensky told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a story about a family of four brothers.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (Facebook)
“Three of them, their parents and their families became victims of the Holocaust. All of them were shot by German occupiers who invaded Ukraine,” he said. “The fourth brother survived. … Two years after the war, he had a son, and in 31 years, he had a grandson. In 40 more years, that grandson became president, and he is standing before you today, Mr. Prime Minister.”
As a child, Zelensky had little connection to Kryvyi Rih’s Jewish community. Instead, his Jewish ties have mostly been to the community of Dnipro, the largest city in the region. Shmuel Kaminetsky, the chief rabbi of Dnipro, met Zelensky in 2010 after inviting the comedian to perform at a Purim celebration. Since then, they have met on various occasions, including at the new president’s meeting with the Jewish community in 2019.
Yana Dobroserdova, an entrepreneur with Jewish roots, says she didn’t even know that Zelensky was Jewish. “We are so intermixed; everyone has either a brother or friend with a Jewish background.”
Running for President
Zelensky did not hide his background during his Presidential election campaign, but he did not play it up either. “The fact that I am a Jew is about the 20th question among my characteristics,” he said.
Vyacheslav Lykhachev, head of the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group, believes that Zelensky, if anything, benefited politically from being Jewish – he was seen as a “smart Jewish boy”. But his Jewishness was not the most important factor. “What matters in Ukraine is the region you are from,” Lykhachev explains.
Rabbi Kaminezki, the chief rabbi for the eastern Ukrainian region where Zelensky grew up, remembers feeling appalled that his own community believed Zelensky should not run as they thought "we will have pogroms here again in two years if things go wrong."
However, historian Mr Shchupak thought Zelensky’s background played “zero role” in the election campaign - aside from a few posts on social media, which included a comment on Facebook by an adviser to Ukrainian President Poroshenko that “the president of Ukraine must be Ukrainian and Christian”.
“Everybody in Ukraine knows that Zelensky is a Jew,” Mr. Shchupak said. “He is a typical product of a secular intellectual Jewish family. How can this happen in a country that Russia says is run by fascists?”
How important is Zelensky's Jewishness to him?
Zelensky's "Jewishness is important for him," said Nathan Sharansky, who spent years in a Soviet Gulag accused of treason for seeking permission to move to Israel.
"He is not a Jew who is making secret of his Jewishness and he is not a Jew who is looking for some other identity," Sharansky told AFP.
Lisa Maurice, a senior lecturer in the classical studies department at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, told AFP she saw signs of Jewish influence in Zelensky's public posture, including his social media posts.
"All our heroes, even the military heroes, fight not because they want to fight, not because they are aggressive, but because it is the right thing to do. That is a really strong tradition in Judaism," she said.