Exit polls on Saturday declared Volodymyr Zelensky to be the victor with 73 percent of the vote in Ukraine’s presidential elections making the country the first outside of Israel to elect a Jew to its highest post.

Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to his political career, Zelensky was a comedian and filmmaker. He played the role of President of Ukraine in the 2015–2019 television series Servant of the People. The political party Servant of the People was created in March 2018 by people from the television production company Kvartal 95, which created the television series of the same name.

His election could lead to closer ties to the U.S. as Zelensky advocates for Ukraine becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He also would like his country to join the European Union but in a very un-Soviet manner, he wants this to be the result of a public referendum. Two days before the second round Zelensky stated that he wanted to build “a strong, powerful, free Ukraine, which is not the younger sister of Russia, which is not a corrupt partner of Europe, but our independent Ukraine.”

Volodymyr Groysman, who has been Ukraine’s prime minister since 2016, is also Jewish.

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The election underscores the country’s long history of antisemitism which became even more widespread in the twentieth century. A third of the Jews of Europe previously lived in Ukraine between 1791 and 1917. This large concentration of Jews in this region historically made them an easy target for anti-Jewish actions and pogroms. Many Jewish historians argue that the destruction of the Jewish population of Ukraine during the Holocaust, reduced from 870,000 to 17,000, could not have been accomplished without the aid of the local population, because the Germans lacked the manpower to reach all of the communities that were annihilated, especially in the remote villages. After WWII, antisemitism persisted and as recently as the 1990s, there were a number of right-wing nationalist and antisemitic groups in Ukraine.

Last year, over 50 members of the Congress signed a letter condemning Ukrainian legislation which “glorifies Nazi collaborators.”

The letter stated that “It’s particularly troubling that much of the Nazi glorification in Ukraine is government-supported.” It noted ceremonies, gestures, and legislation venerating leaders of the UPA and OUN militias, who fought alongside Nazi Germany during World War II and whose troops participated in atrocities against Jews and other victims.

Source: Israel in the News