Some Ukraine Jews Are Unhappy a Jew Was Elected President
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                  Some Ukraine Jews Are Unhappy a Jew Was Elected President

                  The Menorah Center in Dnipro. Ihor Kolomoisky, a self-exiled billionaire, is a major investor. Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

                  Some Ukraine Jews Are Unhappy a Jew Was Elected President


                  When Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish comedian recently elected the president of Ukraine, announced that he was running, the chief rabbi for the eastern Ukrainian region where Mr. Zelensky grew up was shocked by the hostile reaction.

                  But the opposition, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki said, did not come from the Orthodox Church, a bastion of anti-Semitism in the past, or from a Ukrainian nationalist movement that collaborated with the Nazis during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. They could not seem to care less that Mr. Zelensky was a Jew, the rabbi recalled.

                  Instead, the hostility came from Mr. Zelensky’s fellow Jews, both secular and religious, for whom painful memories of czarist-era pogroms and the Holocaust are still very much alive.

                  “They said, ‘He should not run because we will have pogroms here again in two years if things go wrong,’” said Rabbi Kaminezki, the chief rabbi in Dnipro, the capital of Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region.

                  Despite its scarred history, Ukraine today is no hotbed of anti-Semitism. It already has a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, and if he stays on after Mr. Zelensky is sworn in, Ukraine will be the only country outside of Israel where the heads of state and government are Jewish.

                  Religion barely came up during the campaign.

                  The reason, said Igor Shchupak, a Holocaust historian in Dnipro, is that past persecution of Jews was carried out mostly when Ukraine’s territory was under the control of foreign states, principally Russia and Germany, that made anti-Semitism official policy.

                  “We have anti-Semites today, but we have no anti-Semitism as a state policy,” he said.

                  A survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 5 percent of Ukrainians surveyed would not accept Jews as fellow citizens, compared with 18 percent of Poles, 22 percent of Romanians and 23 percent of Lithuanians. Ukraine now has the world’s third- or fourth-largest Jewish community, but estimates of its size vary wildly, ranging from 120,000 to 400,000 people, depending on who is counting.

                  “The times of pogroms are over,” Rabbi Kaminezki said. “This is not on anybody’s agenda here.”

                  The rabbi has known Mr. Zelensky for years and has joined him at birthday parties in Switzerland for a self-exiled Ukrainian billionaire, Ihor Kolomoisky, who is Jewish. He said he had been appalled that his own community, in its initial alarm over the Zelensky candidacy, was in effect siding with a small group of supporters of the incumbent president, Petro O. Poroshenko, and far-right nationalists who were trying in vain to make an issue of the comedian’s non-Christian roots.

                  Aside from a few posts on social media, which included a comment on Facebook by an adviser to Mr. Poroshenko that “the president of Ukraine must be Ukrainian and Christian,” Mr. Zelensky’s background played “zero role” in the election campaign, said Mr. Shchupak.

                  But there was extensive discussion during the campaign of Mr. Zelensky’s connections to Mr. Kolomoisky, and claims by Mr. Poroshenko and his supporters that the comedian is simply a puppet in a sinister web of influence controlled by the oligarch. Mr. Kolomoisky’s Ukrainian television company, 1+1, has been a big buyer of Mr. Zelensky’s comedy shows.

                  While shadowed by accusations of corruption, Mr. Kolomoisky is widely respected in Dnipro because of the role he played in saving the city from conquest by Russian-armed separatists who grabbed swaths of Ukrainian territory farther east. He is particularly popular with local Jews, having invested tens of millions of dollars to build what is billed as the world’s largest Jewish community center, a gigantic complex in the center of the city.

                  Dnipro, known as Ekaterinoslav from the late 18th to early 20th century, was once one of the world’s most important centers of Jewish life and culture, with Jews making up around 35 percent of the population. The city had nearly 50 synagogues.

                  Now it has eight, up from just one in the Soviet era, and Jews account for around 5 percent of the population in a city with nearly a million residents.

                  The city’s Jewish population, despite continuing emigration to Israel and Europe, is growing again, said Mr. Shchupak. And people who once hid their faith are now embracing Judaism — a clear sign that old stigmas have faded.

                  Still, the new Jewish community center, like Mr. Zelensky’s run for the presidency, initially stirred unease among local Jews fearful of attracting too much attention. “They thought that if it is too big it will just cause anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Kaminezki said.

                  Mr. Zelensky made no effort during the election campaign to hide his background, though he did not play it up either. “The fact that I am a Jew is about the 20th question among my characteristics,” he said.

                  When a populist nationalist politician questioned Mr. Zelensky’s patriotism — he has sometimes mocked Ukrainian culture in his comedy routines — the comedian threatened to sic his Jewish mother on his accuser.

                  Until the collapse of the tsarist Russian empire in World War I, Dnipro and other towns in the region — like Kryvyi Rih, where Mr. Zelensky grew up — were part of what was known as the Pale of Settlement, an area of the empire where Jews were allowed to live and work, in contrast to many other parts of Russia’s territory.

                  The pale was scarred by frequent explosions of anti-Semitic violence by local Christians, many of them Cossacks, who had a reputation for being particularly brutal.

                  Communist rule after the 1917 revolution brought an end to anti-Semitism as state policy, but Jews, like many other Soviet citizens, still suffered terribly. Among those arrested by Stalin’s secret police in Dnipro was the father of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Ukrainian-born leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, who died in New York in 1994.

                  Mr. Shchupak, the historian, said anti-Semitism, while not officially promoted by the Soviet authorities, was so rife that his own parents “were ashamed they were Jews.” He found out only when classmates in school saw records that gave his “nationality” as Jewish.

                  Archbishop Yevlohiy, a conservative priest who preaches in Dnipro, said, “We would of course have been happier if the president had been Orthodox.” But he is far more upset by fellow Orthodox believers who want to break the church’s traditional ties to Moscow and support a new church based in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

                  Jews, the archbishop said, think of themselves as “God’s chosen people, and think they should be in charge.” But they pose far less danger than “schismatics,” he said, who are “breaking the unity of the Slavic world.”

                  Worshipers outside his church in the center of Dnipro said they did not care about Mr. Zelensky’s religious background. They were far more concerned about whether he will lower the price of natural gas and do something to help ordinary people’s economic prospects.

                  State-controlled media outlets in Russia have hammered away relentlessly on the theme that Ukraine is in the grip of neo-Nazis steeped in anti-Semitism. At the same time, Russian state television itself has embraced anti-Semitism, asserting that Mr. Poroshenko, a churchgoing Orthodox Christian, is secretly a Jew called Weizman who is deviously trying to undermine Slavic fraternity.

                  Mr. Shchupak said he was struck by how many of his foreign friends had been infected by Russian propaganda, which has presented Ukraine as a hotbed of fascism since the 2014 ouster of the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych.

                  “Everybody in Ukraine knows that Zelensky is a Jew,” Mr. Shchupak said. “He is a typical product of a secular intellectual Jewish family. How can this happen in a country that Russia says is run by fascists?”

                  Nevertheless, Rabbi Kaminezki said a big part of his job was getting local Jews to overcome what he called their “very high anxiety level” in a community still traumatized by pogroms and the Holocaust. “The Jews left Egypt, but Egypt has not left the Jews,” he said.

                  Rabbi Kaminezki said he had told his fretful congregation in Dnipro’s main synagogue that they should welcome, not reject, a Jew running for the presidency.

                  The rabbi, a member of the Chabad movement that has spearheaded efforts to revive Jewish faith across the former Soviet Union, said he had advised Dnipro’s Jews to shed what he called the “oy-vey complex” — the tendency to fear the worst and shy away from their Jewishness.

                  “If you are not proud of yourself and your community, you will be not be accepted,” he said he told them.

                  By Andrew Higgins

                  The New York Times