Comic Elected President Of Ukraine: No Joke
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Comic Elected President Of Ukraine: No Joke

With no political experience, Jewish comic Volodymyr Zelensky, shown here Sunday after exit polls predicted his landslide victory, has become Ukraine’s next president.
GETTY IMAGES
With no political experience, Jewish comic Volodymyr Zelensky, shown here Sunday after exit polls predicted his landslide victory, has become Ukraine’s next president. GETTY IMAGES

You can’t make this stuff up.

Last week Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jewish comedian and actor, was elected president of Ukraine, a nation whose history is dark with anti-Semitism and which, like so much of Europe, has been wrestling with a revival of violent nationalism.

And that’s not all: Ukraine’s sitting prime minister is Volodymyr Groysman, making Ukraine the only country in the world besides Israel whose president and prime minister are both Jewish, according to a JTA report.

Do you need any more evidence of the confusing, topsy-turvy state of the world in 2019?

Zelensky, who portrayed a schoolteacher-turned-president on a satirical television show, owed his victory to surging frustration over corruption among the nation’s political elite. The incoming president has never held public office and offered only the vaguest platform, but his unique status as both political outsider and familiar face propelled him to an astonishing 73 percent of the vote. According to press reports, his Jewish identity — which he neither emphasized nor downplayed — was never a campaign issue.

Ukraine has been criticized for honoring World War II-era Nazi collaborators, and violent ultra-nationalist groups have been on the rise. But some monitoring groups report that anti-Semitic acts have been declining.

And now a Jewish president. Which leads to the inevitable question: Is it good for the Jews? Does Zelensky’s election in a nation steeped in anti-Semitism signal a new era of tolerance and an antidote to the rising global tide of extreme nationalism? It’s way too early to tell, but the scale of his victory is clearly a hopeful sign that he will take aim at the nation’s culture of corruption and refocus on the poverty that has fed the revival of ugly extremism. That’s potentially good news for the Ukrainian Jews who remain after the huge wave of aliyah in the 1990s and who may be in the first stages of a cultural revival.

There is speculation that the already-considerable economic and defense ties between Ukraine and Israel could increase, which would be welcome news. And there is the explosive question of relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which backs separatist forces in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Vaulting from sitcom comedy to national leadership, Zelensky faces formidable challenges in a seething political climate. Failure to deliver on his promise of sweeping change in Ukraine’s political culture could pour new fuel on the fires of extremism.

But we can’t help but be hopeful — and that’s no joke.

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