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Babyn Yar memorial wasn’t hit, but Zelensky finds tool to rally Jews worldwide

Ukraine highlights Zelensky’s Jewish roots and appeals to emotions of Jews as it seeks to counteract Putin’s claim to be waging a ‘denazification’ campaign

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky commemorates Holocaust victims at the at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, Ukraine in April 2021. (Courtesy of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center via JTA)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky commemorates Holocaust victims at the at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, Ukraine in April 2021. (Courtesy of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center via JTA)

JTA — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s direct and emotional appeal to the world’s Jews on Wednesday marked something of a departure for him.

Before and during Russia’s war on his country, Zelensky had spoken plainly to civilians on both sides of the conflict, but he hadn’t directly addressed those outside the country. And for his entire career, he has not been outspoken about his Jewish identity.

So when he and his aides repeatedly drew attention to what they said was happening to sites of Jewish significance this week, some saw a strategic decision at a perilous time for Ukraine.

“He’s using the Jewish angle – and it’s absolutely kosher,” Roman Bronfman, a Ukraine-born former Israeli lawmaker and the author of a book on the immigration of Russian-speaking Jews to Israel, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Zelensky has never hidden his Jewish identity, but he has never called attention to it, either. At a ceremony last year in Babyn Yar, the site near Kyiv of a massacre of Jews during the Holocaust, Zelensky did not mention the fact that some of his relatives were murdered there, delivering a speech that could have come from any of his non-Jewish predecessors.

During his presidential campaign, Zelensky, a comedian turned politician, dismissed the subject of his Jewish identity with typical self-deprecating humor.

In a 2019 interview with Bernard-Henri Levy, a French-Jewish philosopher, Zelensky declined to explore his Jewish identity at any length, responding to a question about it by saying: “The fact that I am Jewish barely makes 20 in my long list of faults.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a ceremony at the monument to Jewish victims of Nazi massacres, at Babyn Yar in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, on September 29, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

And yet his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times Wednesday whose second sentence emphasized that Ukraine is “a country that has a Jewish president.” That op-ed was published shortly after Zelensky’s videotaped appeal, which his office translated into English and Hebrew and distributed via multiple social media channels.

“On the first day of the war, Uman was brutally bombed where hundreds of thousands of Jews come every year to pray,” he said in the appeal, referring to the Hasidic pilgrimage site in central Ukraine. “Then Babyn Yar, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were executed

“And now,” he continued, “addressing all the Jews of the world: Don’t you see why this is happening? That is why it is very important that millions of Jews around the world do not remain silent right now. Nazism is born in silence.”

Zelensky’s comments were not totally precise. Ukraine is indeed under heavy and unprovoked attack by Russian forces, and civilian sites are increasingly being targeted. But the bomb that fell in Uman, a city of 80,000 with about 200 year-round Jewish residents, landed miles from the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, which draws tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims each year.

Illustrative: People are seen in the city of Uman, in central Ukraine, on January 26, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

And despite reports, the rocket that damaged the Kyiv TV tower did not in fact harm the Babyn Yar memorial, located in an adjacent area, according to a veteran Israeli journalist, Ron Ben Yishai, who toured the site Wednesday and saw no signs of damage.

“Thank God it’s not damaged,” Natan Sharansky, who chairs the memorial site’s advisory board, told the Forward about the synagogue and memorial site at Babyn Yar.

In both cases, Zelensky cited numbers of Jews involved that are much higher than accepted estimates.

In the fog of war, errors are easy to make. (Television cameras captured the moment that an aide told Zelensky that Babyn Yar was under assault.) Misinformation can also be a powerful tool for leaders seeking to shape popular opinion — something that Russian President Vladimir Putin leverages regularly when trying to appeal to Jewish sentiment. Yermak’s New York Times piece was a rebuttal of the Russian president’s baseless claim that he is waging a “denazification” campaign in Ukraine.

Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JTA that emphasizing Jewish issues and ideas serves Zelensky well given the Kremlin’s narrative.

“When you put forth such an egregious and baseless accusation, unfortunately, because of Russian propaganda there are people who believe it, you need to counter that,” Borshchevskaya said. “I don’t think there’s anything insincere about his efforts, but the world needs to know that you have a dictator in the Kremlin accusing a Jewish person of being a Nazi.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Andrei Gorshkov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Bronfman said focusing on the details of Zelensky’s comments may distract from more important issues.

Babyn Yar was not directly hit, Bronfman said. “But isn’t it bad enough that it’s in danger of being hit because of Russian bombs? Zelensky and his people are using this quite rightly to spur world Jewry to speak out,” he said.

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