(April 22, 2019 / JNS) In a landslide vote on Sunday, Ukraine elected its first Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, making the country the first outside of Israel that will have both a Jewish president and prime minister.
Zelensky, 41, a professional comedian with no political experience, defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko, 53, with 73 percent of the vote in the runoff election, according to national exit polls. He will be sworn in for a five-year term no later than June 3.
And he has a Jewish prime minister as well, Volodymyr Groysman—at least until the country’s parliamentary elections later this year.
In addition to having a conflict with Russia since Moscow’s annexing of Crimea in 2014, Zelensky will lead a country that has, despite being the most friendly Eastern European country towards Jews, been haunted by anti-Semitism with a number of Ukrainian Jews moving to Israel.
“It wouldn’t be correct to speak of Zelensky as a ‘Jewish showman’ or even a Jewish president,” Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, told Haaretz. “He’s 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.”
Mark Levin, executive vice chairman and CEO of National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, told JNS that Zelensky’s election was “a very significant event,” considering that “there was such great dissatisfaction with the current government that a political novice, let alone a Jewish political novice, received so much support.”
Despite the hatred towards Jews that has plagued the country, Levin said that the notion that Ukraine is inherently anti-Semitic was “put to rest when you have a newly elected president of Jewish heritage and a Jewish prime minister.”
“Given the oftentimes problematic, centuries-old Jewish history in Ukraine, the result of this election is noteworthy,” B’nai B’rith International CEO Daniel Mariaschin told JNS. “We hope that with his election, Ukraine will continue to strengthen its relations with both the United States and with Israel.”