The view from Jerusalem on Ukraine’s Jewish president
08.07.2019, Communities of Eurasia
I am drinking a latte at a café overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, eavesdropping on two animated conversations occurring concurrently in English and in French.
“I didn’t have a choice to come here,” says a white-bearded gentleman, dressed in a white shirt, black vest and black hat. “But now that I am here, I am the luckiest person I know.”
His companion, sitting in a plush chair across from him, listens intently.
“I came here eight years ago, I worked for a rabbi, I retired three weeks ago. And here I am,” the white-bearded man says. “It’s dangerous to be a Jew in America these days. And France isn’t good either.”
“Did you know Ukraine just elected a new president? He’s Jewish.”
Continuing to eavesdrop, I finally overcome my diffidence, rise from a comfortable corner and ask if I may join their conversation. The men nod, as their wives continue conversing in French.
I am here for a visit from Ukraine, I say. What do they know about Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new president? They seem to be erudite men, so the question is not misplaced. What do they think his election means for Ukraine? How in their views will it affect the Ukrainian-Jewish relationship?
The conversation becomes spirited.
Zelensky’s election is positive, they say. (The 41-year-old Zelensky was inaugurated on May 20, 2019, having won 73 percent of the votes cast in the second round of a contested race against former President Petro Poroshenko.) It is too early to forecast what it means for the Ukrainian-Jewish or Ukrainian-Israeli relationships, but they expect both will improve. More importantly, with their vote Ukrainians showed they are starting a new chapter in their history. Compared to other places in Europe today, Ukraine looks like it is becoming a good place for Jews.
We continue to chat. The white-bearded gentleman is a transplant from Florida, whose wife, originally from France, insisted eight years ago they move to Israel. The other man has a long association with this land. Indeed, he fought under Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military leader and politician, whose parents were from Zhashkiv, a city of 14,000 people in Cherkasy Oblast located 150 kilometers south of Kyiv.
The daylight wanes. I thank the men for the conversation and leave.
Walking to my hotel in the Old City, I reflect upon the varied opinions I have encountered about ident Zelenskyy’s election on this trip. In a country where I would have — perhaps stereotypically — expected wide-ranging support given the new president’s Jewish heritage, I found many conflicting views, sometimes more sharply defined than in Ukraine. Some individuals, like the men I spoke to, welcomed his election. Others took a wait and see approach. Still others said he was inexperienced, naïve, and if he failed in reforming Ukraine, they feared that ultimately Jews would be blamed.
Vadim Kordit, a native of Zelensky’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih, a city of 635,000 people located 435 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, has lived in Israel for over two decades. We met when he picked me up at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. It quickly became evident he was well-versed in Ukrainian politics, spoke excellent Ukrainian, and had strong opinions. He also joked about Russia’s obsession with Ukraine.
“Watching Russian television here, you would think they did not have affairs of their own,” he said of the Russian television channels, widely available in Israel.
“Everything is about Ukraine.”
Like many Jews originally from Ukraine now living in Israel, Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Revolution, which ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in 2019, reignited Kordit’s interest in the land of his birth. He started speaking Ukrainian, although there were few people with whom he could converse.
“I would not have voted for him,” Kordit said of Zelensky.
He was dismayed Ukrainians would vote for someone without any political experience. He worried about the influence of oligarchs and said former Ukrainian President Poroshenko did not receive the recognition he deserved. He entered office in a difficult historical period. Did his achievements – building a strong military, the ability of Ukrainians to travel freely in Europe visa-free – mean nothing?
A similar sentiment was expressed at lunch a day later by an Orthodox Jewish couple.
“Poroshenko accomplished a lot,” the man said in Russian as he pulled out a cell phone and began to scroll.
“You think?” the woman asked, her hands folded until a waiter brought a hot drink.
“Yes,” the man said, pocketing the phone.
“What about the new president?”
“We will see,” the man responded.
The waiter brought the bill and the couple swiftly left.
On this trip, I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing again one of Israel’s leading poets, Yonathan Berg.
A descendant of Jews from Odesa, Berg in 2017 participated in the Meridian Czernowitz International Poetry Festival in Chernivtsi and the International Jerusalem Book Fair. The last time I saw him, he was single. Now he was married with an infant child, and the publication of a new book of poetry in English expected soon.
What about President Zelenskyy’s election, I asked, walking with him toward his hotel, both of us eager to be rid of the hot Jerusalem sun.
Ukrainians replace their presidents frequently, Berg said.
“They’re not patient, they want results. They are willing to change their leadership. There is something playful in the decision to elect an actor.”
The decision was positive and precarious, he said.
A certain pleasure stems from a Jew being Ukrainian president.
“The election of a Jew as president shows us there is no such thing as anti-Semitism in Ukraine.”
And yet, there was a history Ukrainians still need to confront, he said.
During the Second World War, over 1.5 million Jews were murdered on the territory of modern-day Ukraine in concentration camps and what is known as the Holocaust by Bullets. The early twentieth century witnessed pogroms in those Ukrainian lands that were part of the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire. The atrocities happened frequently with the help of the local population.
Victor Radutsky is the long-time translator and friend of two great Israeli writers who had deep roots in Ukraine — Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld. Both passed away last year.
Zelensky’s victory can be applauded, he said on a warm Jerusalem night. But a trepidation over his abilities and the alleged lack of ownership by many Ukrainians of painful moments in history will not go away.
“Many people here will not easily forget Ukraine’s past,” he said.
A new Ukrainian president, even though Jewish, won’t easily alleviate that sentiment.
By Natalia A. Feduschak
Natalia A. Feduschak is the director of communications of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, an organization that seeks to strengthen solidarity between Ukrainians and Jews. The views expressed are her own.