He plays down his ethnic roots, stressing national and political identities instead.

By WSJ, Natalie Gryvnyak, June 20, 2019 6:34 pm ET
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in Paris, June 17. Photo: ludovic marin/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Kiev, Ukraine
After Volodymyr Zelensky won the Ukrainian presidency in a landslide this April, his country became the only country besides Israel with a Jewish president and prime minister. It’s remarkable given that only a tiny minority of Ukraine is Jewish, and the international press dwelled on it. Yet Mr. Zelensky’s Judaism was a nonfactor during the campaign.
A few weeks before the election, Mr. Zelensky told a writer on these pages that "the fact that I’m Jewish ranks about 20th on the long list of my features." As a comedian who sometimes mocked politicians who were overtly religious in public, he has no interest in making faith part of his political and national identity. He stayed true to this attitude when stressing national unity in his May 20 inaugural address. He identified as a Ukrainian responsible for all Ukrainians—even those in the country’s diaspora. He didn’t mention religion.
Mr. Zelensky was born to a family of intellectuals 41 years ago in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih. The future president was never religious. Vadik Pereverzev, a childhood friend, tells me that "we knew he was a Jew by ethnicity, but it wasn’t shown in holidays, communication, or following Sabbath. His family was absolutely the same as others." He remained family-oriented as an adult, but "what Volodymyr took from his family as tradition is an enormous work ethic"—not a religious identity. When he attended a Jewish event, Mr. Pereverzev says, it was likely for work.
"Religion for me is the most intimate question," he said in a December interview. "I am not ready to share it with anyone." The president has said he has visited many houses of worship and believes in God. Mr. Zelensky’s wife is not Jewish, and his children were reportedly baptized in the Orthodox tradition to which about two-thirds of Ukrainians adhere.
"Zelensky is Ukrainian," said United Jewish Community of Ukraine chairman Mikhail Tkach. "He was taught in a family where they knew they were Jews by origin. He understands what Sabbath is. The question of whether he prays . . . is not the most important one." Mr. Tkach has met Mr. Zelensky and thinks of him as a secular, nonobservant Jew. "As soon as you become the president of a predominant Orthodox country, you must respect the laws of this country. You must respect the traditions of this country. This is our Jewish law. Therefore, I have no doubt that Volodymyr will respect Orthodoxy, in general Christianity, and any other religion in Ukraine."
The 2014 Maidan Revolution helped strengthen Ukrainian identity, which united society. "In Ukraine during the Maidan, the phenomenon of a merger of Jewish activists with the Ukrainian political nation occurred," said Anna Vyshniakova, who advises the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on xenophobia and anti-Semitism. "Jews took part in the events of Maidan and fought shoulder to shoulder in the east." This united Ukrainians around political rather than ethnic identity. Five years after the revolution, Mr. Zelensky’s Jewish background seldom came up in the campaign. It was usually only mentioned tangentially—for example, he has been rumored to be close with Ukrainian-Israeli oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.
After his election, some in the Jewish community worried that if the new president was a failure, the country’s Jews would become scapegoats. Despite a difficult history, today Ukraine may be one of the least anti-Semitic countries in Central or Eastern Europe. A 2018 Pew survey found that only 5% of Ukranians "say they would not accept Jews as fellow citizen." That’s only about a third of the proportion in Russia and the lowest in the region.
Mr. Zelensky is now primarily focused on forging a new political identity. He played the role of an everyman turned Ukrainian president on the television show "Servant of the People," and he is trying to separate himself from his character on the program. This is more difficult because he ran a campaign mostly free of on-the-record convictions.
"Modern Ukraine is a tolerant and inclusive nation that has left issues of religion and ethnicity far behind," says political analyst Konstantin Batozkiy. The election proved that politicians with ultranationalist or explicitly ethnic agendas don’t have broad support. Instead voters care about enhancing the rule of law, turning around the economy, and protecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. If Mr. Zelensky can deliver on these issues—and show that he is a Ukrainian patriot most concerned with building Ukrainian unity—questions about his origins and faith will go away.
Ms. Gryvnyak is a writer in Kiev.
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