In Ukraine, a Pro-Israel President Faces Off against a Jewish Comedian

In Ukraine, a Pro-Israel President Faces Off against a Jewish Comedian

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April 2, 2019

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Yesterday, Ukraine held the first round of its presidential election; once the results are finalized, the two candidates with the most votes will then compete in a runoff election. The apparent frontrunner is Jewish, while his opponent in the next election, the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, prides himself on good relations with Israel and with Ukraine’s Jewish community, which is one of the largest in Europe. Vladislav Davison writes:

At the end of January, Poroshenko took a break from an increasingly frenetic election campaign to pay a visit to Jerusalem in order to sign a long-awaited free-trade accord, seven years in the making, which is expected to raise annual trade between the two nations above the symbolic billion-dollar threshold. The speech that followed the deal’s signing reiterated a now popular Ukrainian trope: surrounded by powerful enemies, after centuries without any concrete experience of self-government, Ukrainians should emulate the Israeli experiment. . . .

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, [Poroshenko’s opponent], is a forty-one-year-old Jewish comedian whose primary [qualification] for the job is his experience playing a school teacher [on a popular television show] who becomes president of Ukraine due to a surreal turn of fate. . . . Ukraine’s young activists have taken to clustering around Zelenskiy, who has run a sophisticated media-driven campaign heavy on stand-up comedy. . . .

Whatever his flaws, and irrespective of his chances at re-election, Poroshenko will likely be remembered by the history books as the president who was most attentive to the work of honoring Holocaust memory since Ukraine gained its independence. . . . The 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, held in 2016, was an international event conducted by Poroshenko and his administration with immense tact and generosity. Poroshenko has also been personally comfortable with Jewish aides, including both of his chiefs of staff and the country’s current prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman.

The surrealism of the current election campaign aside, the Jewish community of Ukraine lives an undeniably normal life. It is a community with thriving institutions living in what, according to numerous polls, is likely the least anti-Semitic nation in the post-Soviet world.

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