Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a global political and cultural icon in the weeks since the start of the Russian invasion of his country. He is viewed sympathetically given the challenge that Ukraine faces in repelling the Russian military, and also heroically for his own refusal to abandon Kyiv, opting instead to stay and literally rally his troops. This has all provided Zelensky with an unmatched combination of a bully pulpit and moral authority that he is doing his utmost best to wield effectively.
Within the Israeli and American Jewish context, there is an added element, which is that Zelensky is Jewish. It has resulted in his lionization among Jews worldwide, who view him with a greater sense of pride than any other group save Ukrainians. Zelensky clearly understands that being Jewish gives him an advantage in certain places that he would not otherwise have, despite his Jewishness not being a particularly visible part of his previous public life, and he has thus made emotional appeals to Israel and to American Jews that play up his Jewishness. These appeals have had different themes depending on the specific audience, but they all stem from the core idea that Jewish peoplehood creates Jewish solidarity, and that Jews—whether they are leaders of the Jewish state or leaders in the Diaspora—have an obligation stemming from the often-tragic experiences of Jewish history to lend a hand to Ukraine.
Zelensky first seized on this idea following Russian strikes on a Kyiv television tower that sits adjacent to the Babyn Yar memorial. Later reports confirmed that the memorial itself was not damaged, but responding to initial reporting that Babyn Yar itself had been struck, Zelensky posted a video accompanied by a transcript in Hebrew in which he accused Russia of killing Holocaust victims a second time by targeting their place of eternal rest. He brought up Russian strikes on Uman—the birthplace of the Hasidic figure Rav Nahman of Breslov—as well, noting that it is a pilgrimage site for thousands of Jews annually, and that both of these incidents should serve as rallying cries for Jews to oppose Russian aggression, which he explicitly linked to Nazism.
Zelensky invoked the Nazis again in a call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Monday, explicitly comparing Ukraine’s situation under Russian assault to that of Jews during the Holocaust under German assault. He extended the analogy further, saying that the question of whether Ukraine will survive as a nation is the same as the question of antisemitism, and that what is happening in Ukrainian cities is identical to what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. All of this was marshaled in a plea for tangible assistance, whether in the form of weapons, diplomatic support, or the imposition of a no-fly zone.
Zelensky’s linking of Ukraine’s struggle to the Jewish struggle against the Nazis and his mention of Russian strikes on targets that will resonate in the Jewish consciousness are meant to raise feelings of Jewish solidarity, but the ultimate target is not the wide Jewish audience to whom he appears to be speaking. While Zelensky no doubt wants American Jews to urge the U.S. to step up its military support for Ukraine, his appeals to Jewish peoplehood are more for Israeli ears. While Israel has stepped up its humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, both in providing supplies and in establishing a field hospital, Zelensky wants the Israeli government to take in more Ukrainian refugees—irrespective of whether they are Jewish—and most pressingly to provide Ukraine with military aid. In stressing Jewish solidarity and historical comparisons to the Holocaust, Zelensky is trying to build public pressure on the Jewish state to weigh in on Ukraine’s side in a clearer and more meaningful way.
The problem with this tactic is that Zelensky is up against an inherent tension not of his own making between the demands of solidarity and the demands of sovereignty. In stressing Jewish solidarity between himself and world Jewry and trying to create a fusion between Ukraine’s plight and the plight of Jews under persecution during the Holocaust, Zelensky is urging Jews to view themselves as a single expansive unit. He wants Jews to identify not only with other Jews, but to apply their own particular history in a more universal way and draw on that historical experience to help others who face what he posits is a similar challenge. He wants Jews—including Israeli leaders—to see what is happening in Ukraine as a Jewish problem that activates the Jewish admonitions to help the stranger and to seek justice. Solidarity is strongest when confronting a threat, and Zelensky is not only trying to take advantage of Jewish solidarity directly, but also to create a larger solidarity group by stressing Jewish history and identity in order to compel Israelis and other Jews to help Ukraine.
But there is built-in friction between any notion of supra-national peoplehood and the nationalistic demands of statehood, and this is where Zelensky is falling short through no fault of his own. Israel has concerns that apply only to it and its citizens and that exclude non-Israeli Jews; when you widen the circle to include Ukrainians writ large, it makes it more difficult for an appeal to Jewish identity and solidarity to work in moving a sovereign government, even if it is a Jewish one. Jews will be sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause if they are convinced that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is disproportionately damaging to Ukrainian Jews and Jewish sites, and all the more so if they see parallels between Russia’s invasion and Germany’s onslaught during WWII. But for Israelis, who unlike American Jews have to contend not only with questions of peoplehood and solidarity but also questions of maintaining a sovereign Jewish state, these concerns can only go so far. They don’t override the problem of having to maintain good relations with Russia in order to operate against Iran in Syria, or the concerns—which are misplaced in my view—about non-Jewish Ukrainians flooding into Israel. Solidarity is fine and good in theory, but it is constrained by the interests encompassed by sovereignty, which is why Ukraine may be another issue that ends up dividing American Jews and their Israeli counterparts.
If Zelensky wants to convince Israel to become more unambiguously involved in support of Ukraine, he will have to shift tactics and focus more on tangible Israeli interests. That may involve playing up the diplomatic risks for Israel if it is viewed by the U.S. and the Europeans as hedging its bets too much on an issue that unites the West, and it may involve convincing Israelis that the risks of confrontation with Russia in Syria are lower than conventional wisdom suggests. While the direct appeals to Jewish identity, solidarity, and history are emotionally stirring and heartfelt, they face an uphill climb against the forces of state sovereignty that are pushing in the other direction.