Volodymyr Zelensky Is a Modern Jewish Hero Inspired by the Maccabees
His brave battle against Putin’s considerably superior invading army has inspired the entire world, echoing the Maccabees’ courageous stand.
And, according to the president’s friends and colleagues, as Volodymyr Zelensky rallies the people of Ukraine against the Russian attack, he is taking strength and courage from the ideals instilled in him by his Jewish background.
These qualities explain his move from comedian to the politician, as well as his adamant defense of inclusive, democratic norms and his current commitment to unify all Ukrainians against the invaders.
Ruslan Kavatsiuk, an aide who was deputy head of a project to create a memorial at Babyn Yar, said, “He has always done what he feels to be right.”
“When he announced his support for the memorial, he was met with a barrage of criticism. ‘I’m not doing this for my approval ratings, but because it’s the right thing to do,’ he just remarked. Of course, what he’s up to today is far more significant. He’s not just doing the right thing for Ukraine right now, but also for the rest of the globe.”
The memorial, which was inaugurated last year but was destroyed by a Russian missile on Tuesday, prompted Zelensky to send a rallying cry to “all the Jews of the globe,” urging them to “shout about civilian deaths.” Scream about the assassination of Ukrainians.”
Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi, Yaakov Bleich, was in America on Shabbat morning, attempting to orchestrate the rescue of Jews from communities under siege. “Suddenly, I got a call from an unusual number,” he told the JC. ‘The president would like to speak with you,’ said the voice on the other end. He was on the phone in less than two minutes.
“His voice was really powerful.”
‘Rabbi Bleich, this is Zelensky speaking,’ he said. I’d like you to pray for our warriors’ success. Even if we are outmanned, they cannot equal our resolve and desire to win.”
“Of course, I believe in God,” Zelensky added. But I only converse with him in those moments when I’m alone.”
Rabbi Bleich told the JC that whether Zelensky is religious or not is a “private” matter. “Not yet,” he said when asked if the president’s wife, architect-turned-writer Olena Kiyashko, is Jewish.
Regardless of religious activity, Judaism is an important part of Zelensky’s identity. He persuaded Ukraine to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism under his presidency. This step’s importance cannot be emphasized. This was a country where thousands of people joined the Nazi Waffen SS during WWII, and where neo-Nazis still exist, albeit with a small proportion of the vote.
There’s also Zelensky’s family history to consider. He told “a tale of four brothers” on a visit to Israel in 2020 for a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “Three of them, their parents, and their families were Holocaust victims,” he continued. All of them were killed by German invaders in Ukraine. The fourth brother made it out alive.
“He had a son two years after the war, and a grandson 31 years later.” That grandson became president 40 years later, and he is standing before you today.”
“Volodymyr being from a Holocaust survivor family has always meant a lot to me,” Mr. Kavatsiuk added.
It’s only been a few days since the conflict began, but Zelensky has already been compared to the leaders of the Maccabees, the Judaean warriors who destroyed the Seleucid Empire and re-dedicated the Temple in the second century BCE despite overwhelming odds.
Despite his status as a powerful symbol of Jewish pride, Zelensky enjoys the backing of practically all Ukrainians, despite evading Putin’s murder squads and constantly posting defiant video messages.
According to one poll, he had a 96 percent approval rating.
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“He recognizes that 40 million sets of eyes are on him and that if he falters, 40 million people would falter behind him,” Rabbi Bleich stated, praising Zelensky’s leadership.
“It’s giving him the energy to keep going day after day, virtually without sleep.”
“According to the Talmud, when a shepherd is furious with his flock, he places a blind sheep in front of them to lead them.” And, as a corollary, when the shepherd is pleased with it, he gives it a sheep that can sight to lead it. “That’s Zelensky,” says the narrator.