In the course of a Rosh Hashanah sermon this year, one of our cantors characterized American support for Ukraine as a just, moral, and necessary cause. In a ham-fisted attempt to make the point more relevant to the Jewish gathering, he called the president of Ukraine a “Jewish hero.” This was also Gal Beckerman’s term of choice earlier this year in The Atlantic.
Volodymyr Zelensky is a lot of things — including, to be sure, a “hero” to many. But to anyone who takes Jewish identity, Jewish tradition, and, especially, Jewish survival at least somewhat seriously, he certainly should not be considered a “Jewish hero.”
Zelensky was born to Jewish parents. Like that of most Jews from behind the Iron Curtain, his upbringing was markedly secular. As Beckerman rightly points out, “Jewish identity didn’t exist in the Soviet Union, because it couldn’t.” That said, there were Soviet Jews who found their way to some form of Jewish identity after the breakup of the communist empire. Indeed, more than a million immigrated to Israel in a wave that started in earnest at the beginning of the 1990s.
But Zelensky did no such thing. “Zelensky and his family,” Beckerman concedes, “were part of the few hundred thousand Jews who stayed, content to assimilate in a post-Soviet world.” Zelensky has never even shied away from making light of this reality. For instance, in a 2019 interview with the French newspaper Le Point, Zelensky quipped, “The fact that I am Jewish barely makes 20 in my long list of faults.”
Zelensky married a non-Jewish woman who was baptized, and he and his wife baptized their two children in the Greek Orthodox tradition, according to press reports. Boleslav Kapulkin, the spokesman for Chabad Lubavitch in Odessa, Ukraine, was even under the impression that Zelensky himself had converted to Christianity. Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, went further. He attested that Zelensky is “a Ukrainian with Jewish ancestry; he’s not a member of the Jewish community, he’s not religious, doesn’t keep Jewish traditions and never speaks of himself as a Jew.”
There’s a long-running and complex debate over what constitutes Jewish identity. But there’s no question that Zelensky’s life choices have been inimical to the survival of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith.
Since the end of the Holocaust, Jews have spoken of a 614th additional commandment to the Torah: Thou shalt not grant Hitler posthumous victories. Despite what the secular left and large swaths of liberal Jewry claim, interfaith marriage is an exponentially greater threat to the Jewish people than white supremacy. In 2019, then-Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz described the intermarriage rate among Jewish Americans as being “like a second Holocaust.”
Zelensky, like anyone else, is of course entitled to decide whom to marry, what faith to practice, and how to raise his children. But he should not be immune to criticism for being a hypocrite in exploiting his otherwise non-existent Jewishness.
Hostility to Israel
Recently, Zelensky has started to make a habit of referring to his Jewishness in conjunction with pleas for international backing of Ukraine. He blasted Henry Kissinger for calling for a diplomatic solution to the Russia-Ukraine War, likening the plea of the former secretary of state and national security adviser to Neville Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler in Munich in 1938. He also slammed, of all nations, lo and behold, Israel for refusing to arm Ukraine. (Israel hasn’t armed Russia either.) Now there is reporting that Zelensky is pushing the White House to pressure Israel.
Worse still, Ukraine, under Zelensky, has been rather hostile to Israel at the United Nations, the international forum where the Jewish state has been under sustained assault for decades. According to UN Watch, in a total of 122 resolutions involving Israel, Ukraine has voted against Israel in 95 and abstained in 27. That means it did not vote in favor of Israel once. Yet Zelensky continues to make demands of the Jewish state, which must deal with a Russian presence in neighboring Syria, where Israel conducts counterterrorism operations against Islamic extremists.
Why the Left’s Enthusiasm?
So what are we to make of the enthusiasm for Zelensky the “Jewish hero,” and, moreover, the fact that it’s predominantly on the left? The answer is simple. Zelensky represents not Judaism as it has been known for thousands of years, but the left’s own brand of Judaism. The progressive brand of religion demotes the “outmoded” pillars of authentic faith — custom, tradition, ritual, faith, community, and family.
To be sure, it’s virtually impossible to imagine the left lavishing the same amount of praise upon a Zelensky donning a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes) and praying three times daily. It similarly would not laud him were he to attend mass and confession regularly.
The left has long wanted Judeo-Christian civilization erased from the face of the planet. From that perspective, it’s easy to see why so many liberals and progressives cheer on an individual wholly detached from anything resembling revealed religion. Sure, Zelensky is a hero to many. If anything, he’s a hero who’s a Jew — not a “Jewish hero.” That’s a distinction worth making.