In the Ukrainian Jewish community, rumors abound over the religion of actor-turned-presidential candidate, Volodymyr Zelensky. In a stranger than fiction turn of events, Zelensky — who starred in a comedy about a schoolteacher who accidentally was elected president — is now leading the polls in the real-life race in the elections scheduled for March 31.
Mihael Tkach, the chairman of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, told The Times of Israel that Zelenksy’s mother is Jewish and that the candidate identifies as such, although he is not observant and is married to a non-Jewish woman.
Unlike with Hollywood MOT celebrities, the stakes for Ukrainian Jewry are somewhat higher when it comes to Zelensky’s provenance: Tkach said he hopes that if the actor is elected, Ukraine’s government will stop “hero-worshiping some historical figures who participated in the execution of Jews during the Holocaust.”
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However, Boleslav Kapulkin, the spokesman for Chabad Lubavitch in Odessa, said that he is under the impression that Zelensky converted to Christianity.
“I don’t know for sure if he converted, but I heard that he mentioned that he is the godfather of his friends’ children, or that they are the godparents of his children, something like that,” Kapulkin said.
Indeed, five years ago, numerous Ukrainian news outlets reported that Zelensky christened his son Kirill in one of the oldest churches in the Ukrainian capital. As gifts, the baby received a Christian Bible and a cross on a chain. The reports never mentioned that Zelensky was Jewish, but one article noted that “his parents did not attend the christening ceremony.”
On the third hand, there are also photos on the internet of Zelensky attending a Holocaust memorial ceremony in a synagogue in 2010 and visiting a synagogue in his hometown of Kryvyi Rih in 2011.
Regardless of whether he converted to Christianity or not, Vyacheslav Likhachev, the spokesman for the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, claimed that Zelensky’s electoral campaign is being financed by Jewish-Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.
Kolomoisky is one of the wealthiest people in Ukraine, owns the television channel that broadcast Zelensky’s shows, and interestingly, has a conflict with the current president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko. (Zelensky has repeatedly denied that Kolomoisky is funding his campaign.)
‘Ethnicity doesn’t matter in Ukraine’
For his part, Zelensky declined to discuss his heritage with The Times of Israel. The candidate did not answer emails requesting a comment on his Jewishness, and his press office likewise refused to comment on his ethnicity or religion.
“I am not ready to answer any questions about his background. I am not his biographer,” Zelensky’s campaign advisor Dmitriy Razumkov said in a telephone conversation with The Times of Israel.
Razumkov added that the ethnicity of the candidate does not matter in Ukraine.
“Ukraine is a fairly tolerant nation where everyone is treated equally,” he said. “If you compare us to Russia, we don’t have ethnic persecution. Ukrainians are very tolerant and multinational.”
When asked about streets in Ukraine recently named after Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, Razumkov said that the naming of streets falls under the jurisdiction of local governments.
“In western parts of Ukraine, he is considered a national hero. These decisions are made by local authorities. The president has nothing to do with it,” Razumkov said.
“Let’s leave history to the historians, let them decide who was right. There are always different perspectives on history. Now we have more important issues,” said Razumkov.
When asked about how the relationship between Ukraine and Israel might be affected if Zelensky is elected to the country’s highest post, Razumkov said that he expects the relationship to remain the same.
“Israel supports Ukraine in many ways, and I think Zelensky’s position would be the same toward all countries that support us in our struggle for independence,” Razumkov said.
“Israel is in a state of war with its neighbors. We have a lot to learn from Israel, including how to build a strong military. I don’t see any problems that could worsen our relationship with Israel,” he said.
This is not the first time that a Jewish candidate is running for president in Ukraine. During the last elections in 2014, the president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress Vadim Rabinovich ran for the country’s highest office, and even established his own political party, which he named “For Life,” in homage to the Jewish toast, l’chaim.
This time around, Rabinovich decided not to participate in the race, saying that a Jew should not serve as president of Ukraine.
That is a huge departure from 2014, when Rabinovich told The Times of Israel that the fact that a Jew can stand as a candidate means that neither ethnicity nor religion are factors in electing Ukraine’s government. “The moment I submitted my candidacy for president, Ukraine became a real European country,” said Rabinovich, who called himself the “Obama of Ukraine.”
In the fall, Rabinovich rolled back these statements.
“We have conflicts within the Orthodox Church, and the president must act as a moderator in this sphere as well,” Rabinovich said. “I thought about it for a long time during the night, and it seems to me that I, as someone who practices Judaism, don’t have the moral right to be the moderator in the questions of the Christian Orthodox faith, which is one of the responsibilities of the president.”
In 2001, Rabinovich founded the 120-member European Jewish Parliament with alleged Zelensky-backer Kolomoisky, the former temporary governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region. The pair also launched businesses, including the former Jewish television network JN1.
There is no debate that the current prime minister of Ukraine, Volodymyr Groysman, is of Jewish descent. The office of prime minister, which is by appointment rather than election, is largely seen as ceremonial.
However, many people in Ukraine consider it inappropriate — and almost rude — to discuss the ethnicity or religion of a candidate.
“I think it is my duty to point out that Ukraine is a free country. According to our laws, any citizen can run for president. Ethnicity is not considered, so there is no sense in raising this subject,” United Jewish Community of Ukraine head Tkach wrote The Times of Israel in an email.
“Luckily we no longer have the ‘fifth line’ in our passports [which listed a person’s ethnicity during Soviet rule], and regardless of someone’s ethnicity or religion, whether a person is a Romanian, a Crimean Tatar, a Hungarian, or a Jew – he or she is above all a citizen of Ukraine,” Tkach wrote.
Russian and Ukrainian news stories generally don’t mention Zelensky’s religion.
Will a ‘Jewish’ president be good for the Jews?
The question remains whether the country will see a decline in anti-Semitism if a Jewish president is elected.
It all depends on how well he does, said Chabad Lubavitch spokesman Kapulkin.
“I think it will be the classic scenario,” Kapulkin explained. “If the situation in Ukraine improves, they will call Zelensky a Ukrainian, but if the situation worsens, they will call him a Jew.”
Kapulkin also said that Zelensky’s election might actually have a negative impact on Ukraine’s relationship with Israel.
“He might try to prove that he is above all a Ukrainian, and a Jew only second – and that to that end, he might start being less friendly toward Israel,” Kapulkin said. “Some Jews do that when they attain high positions, to convince everyone of their loyalty. But I think this is unlikely to happen.”