Zelensky: Putin is ‘like the second king of antisemitism after Hitler’

Ukrainian president is asked during BBC interview about Russian leader last week calling him a ‘disgrace to the Jewish people’

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak applauds as Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky appears on the screen at the opening session on the first day of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London, June 21, 2023. (Henry Nicholls/Pool Photo via AP)
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak applauds as Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky appears on the screen at the opening session on the first day of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in London, June 21, 2023. (Henry Nicholls/Pool Photo via AP)

Ukrainian leader Vlodymir Zelensky reacted Wednesday to Russian leader Vladimir Putin calling him a “disgrace to the Jewish people,” saying that the Russian leader is the “second king of antisemitism after Hitler.”

Zelensky, in an interview with the BBC, was asked about Putin’s comments last week.

Zelensky, who is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust, appeared taken aback and then said he wasn’t quite sure how to answer the question.

“It’s like he doesn’t fully understand his words. Apologies — but it’s like he is the second king of antisemitism after Hitler,” Zelensky said.

“This is a president speaking. A civilized world cannot speak that way. But it was important for me to hear the reaction of the world and I am grateful for the support,” he said.

Putin on Friday claimed Zelensky is seen as a “disgrace” to his faith by other members of the religion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony in Moscow on June 12, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov / Sputnik / AFP)

“I have a lot of Jewish friends,” Putin told an annual economic forum in Saint Petersburg. “They say that Zelensky is not Jewish, that he is a disgrace to the Jewish people.”

“This is not a joke and not an attempt at irony, because today neo-Nazis, Hitler’s disciples, have been put on a pedestal as heroes of Ukraine,” Putin added, according to the TASS Russian News Agency.

Putin later noted that Zelensky was “a man with Jewish blood” before adding that “he covers for these freaks, these neo-Nazis, with his actions.”

“Why do you put Nazis on a pedestal?” Putin asked rhetorically regarding Zelensky.

Since launching his war on Ukraine in February of last year, Putin has repeatedly sought to paint it as an effort to “denazify” the country, a claim rejected by the majority of the international community as baseless propaganda.

Moscow also claims Ukraine’s treatment of Russian speakers in the Western-backed country is comparable to the actions of Nazi Germany. These allegations have been contested by the Ukrainian government and the country’s Jewish community.

Putin’s remarks appeared to go even further than ones made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this year in which he conceded that Zelensky is Jewish but claimed that even Hitler had “Jewish blood.”

Those comments sparked widespread outcry, including from the US and Israel.

While Zelensky does not profess to be religious, he identifies as Jewish and told The Times of Israel in 2020 that he was raised in “an ordinary Soviet Jewish family.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during commemorative events marking the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre of Kyiv Jews perpetrated by German occupying forces in 1941 in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Zelensky has said that his great-grandfather and three of his grandfather’s brothers died as a result of the Nazi invasion of Ukrainian territory. His grandfather and his grandfather’s brothers took up arms against the Nazis in the Red Army; his grandfather was the only one to survive. He did not specify whether they died in combat or in the extended massacre of more than 1 million Ukrainian Jews that the Nazis carried out, often with local collaboration.

His grandmother, he has said, survived because she left Kryvyi Rih for Kazakhstan; almost all of the Jews who remained were murdered. A Holocaust memorial not far from his parents’ home in Kryvyi Rih was defaced in January 2020.

Zelensky has said he has relatives who moved to Israel in the 1990s, during the wave of Jewish emigration from the newly dissolved Soviet Union. He also visited as an actor and comedian, and performed in venues throughout the country. As Ukrainian president, he has visited just once, for a Holocaust commemoration shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

JTA contributed to this report

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