Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewishness

March 3 2022

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was born in the Soviet Union, where “Jews were perceived as the eternal outsiders, possible fifth columnists, the ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ of Stalin’s imagination,” as Gal Beckerman writes. Beckerman traces Zelensky’s unlikely path to the top leadership role in Ukraine, and what it reveals about Ukrainian-Jewish life.

When asked about what his . . . Jewishness has meant to him, Zelensky has been blasé. In an interview in 2020, he said he came from “an ordinary Soviet Jewish family,” adding that “most Jewish families in the Soviet Union were not religious.” What this hides, though, is the reality that Jewish identity didn’t exist in the Soviet Union, because it couldn’t. To be a Jew from the time of Stalin onward was to have a stamp in your internal passport that marked you as such (just as a Ukrainian or Latvian national identity was also indicated). There was very little opportunity for Jewish community, religious practice, or even bare-bones cultural expression.

Until the late 1980s, gathering for something as innocuous as a Passover seder was practically a subversive act, and teaching Hebrew was simply not allowed.

By the time Zelensky came of age, three or four generations of Soviet Jews had experienced their Jewish identity as a hollow thing, nothing but a black mark on a passport and a sense of peoplehood born of exclusion and a second-class status. . . . When the Soviet Union began buckling to pressure to let Jews emigrate in the 1970s, many took the opportunity to do so. . . . By the early 1990s, just after the Soviet collapse, the permitted trickle became a deluge, and about 1.5 million headed to the United States and Israel.

Zelensky and his family were part of the few hundred thousand Jews who stayed, content to assimilate in a post-Soviet world, in which Zelensky found success, first as an actor and then as a politician. . . . In the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, not far from where Zelensky grew up, there are now ten synagogues and a gargantuan community center called Menorah, opened in 2012, that reportedly serves 40,000 people a day—even though there are only 60,000 Jews in Dnipro. By 2019, a Pew Research Center poll found Ukraine the most accepting of Jews among all Central and East European countries.

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Read more at Atlantic

More about: Jewish World, Volodomyr Zelensky, War in Ukraine

The End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and the Rise of the Arab-Israeli Coalition

Nov. 30 2022

After analyzing the struggle between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors since 1949, Dan Schueftan explains the current geopolitical alignment and what it means for Jerusalem:

Using an outdated vocabulary of Middle Eastern affairs, recent relations between Israel and most Arab states are often discussed in terms of peace and normalization. What is happening recently is far more significant than the willingness to live together and overshadow old grievances and animosities. It is about strategic interdependence with a senior Israeli partner. The historic all-Arab coalition against Israel has been replaced by a de-facto Arab-Israeli coalition against the radical forces that threaten them both. Iran is the immediate and outstanding among those radicals, but Erdogan’s Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, Syria—and, in a different way, its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood—are not very far behind.

For Israel, the result of these new alignments is a transformational change in its regional standing, as well as a major upgrade of its position on the global stage. In the Middle East, Israel can, for the first time, act as a full-fledged regional power. . . . On the international scene, global powers and other states no longer have to weigh the advantages of cooperation with Israel against its prohibitive costs in “the Arab World. . . . By far the most significant effect of this transformation is on the American strategic calculus of its relations with Israel.

In some important ways, then, the “New Middle East” has arrived. Not, of course, in the surreal Shimon Peres vision of regional democracy, peace, and prosperity, but in terms of a balance of power and hard strategic realities that can guardrail a somewhat less unstable and dangerous region, where the radicals are isolated and the others cooperate to keep them at bay.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Abraham Accords, Israel-Arab relations, Middle East, Shimon Peres, U.S.-Israel relationship