OPINION: Volodomyr Zelensky makes me proud to be Jewish

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OPINION: Volodomyr Zelensky makes me proud to be Jewish

At the darkest hour, the Ukraine president perfectly embodies the Jewish spirit of resistance, courage, and hope when all odds are against you, writes Hen Mazzig

Hen Mazzig

Hen Mazzig is a former lieutenant in the Coordination of Government Activities in the Terrorities. He shares his story with campuses and Jewish communities around the world.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during his address to the nation at the end of the first day of Russia's attacks on Thursday. (Credit Image: © Ukrainian President's Office/ZUMA Press Wire Service)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during his address to the nation at the end of the first day of Russia's attacks on Thursday. (Credit Image: © Ukrainian President's Office/ZUMA Press Wire Service)

In 2019 during his inaugural speech, Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelensky told Ukraine officials: “I do not want my picture in your offices: the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang a photo of your children instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”

Zelensky, a Jewish Ukrainian leader, is one of two Jewish head of states in the world. For the years after he came to office, few brought up his Jewish heritage or speculated why exactly that it matters. When war came to his nation, however, so many Jews, including myself, felt an intimacy with him. As I saw him refuse to be rescued and instead risk his own lives and those of his children to protect his country from invasion, I felt a pride swell in my chest – a pride in being Jewish, just like him.

Simply put: Volodomyr Zelensky makes me proud to be Jewish.

As Russian tanks crossed into his border, Zelensky isn’t practicing Jewish prayers or rituals, yet he is more Jewish than ever. At the darkest hour, he perfectly embodies the Jewish spirit of resistance, courage, and hope when all odds are against you.

The central narrative of Judaism is resisting assimilation and annihilation as imperial forces try to crush us. There are many examples of Jews throughout history tasked with this mission, but the most obvious one is of the Maccabees. These historic Jewish rebels fought against a strong empire led by the Vladimir Putin of their era – Antiochus IV, king of the Greek Seleucid Empire. Putin and Antiochus both are brutal tyrants who desecrated the Jewish heritage of those they sook to conquer and colonize. Antiochus’ cruelty took the shape of slaughtering a pig in the Jewish temple and erasing the Jewishness of our holiest space. Putin also seeks to defile Jewish heritage, by co-opting the murder of Jews in the Holocaust to excuse his personal war crimes. The Russian dictator has claimed that his invasion of Ukraine is to “de-Nazify” the nation, propaganda that intentionally erases Zelensky’s Jewishness, and the fact his grandfather is the only one out of four brothers who was not murdered by the Nazis.

Yet, Zelensky, much like the Maccabees, did not kneel in front of Putin as he wished to repress his people and steal his country. He fought back – a very Jewish thing to do.

What thousands of years of oppression taught many Jews is that we cannot lay down while a bully punches us down. My grandparents learned it living under the Arab Empire for centuries as an oppressed minority, so they escaped to the Jewish state, where they live as free people, not needing to discount themselves for any empire. Zelensky’s grandfather learned it as he valiantly fought the Nazis in WWII, much like thousands of Jews who served in allied armies, fought in partisan resistance groups, and even staged a rebellion on the grounds of Auschwitz.

Much like Zelensky, Jews everywhere have refused to surrender even when they were outmanned and outgunned – because to be Jewish means to survive with your head held high, as every odd is against you.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Ukrainian Rabbis (Credit: Eduard Dolinsky – @edolinsky)

The Jewish people have learned long ago that we must stand up for ourselves, because no one else will. World powers, even the greatest armies on this planet, have done very little to support the Ukrainian people in the face of unprovoked invasion. But Zelensky did not wait on allies, he immediately stepped up as the leader his nation needed.

It is not a Jewish tradition to seek war, but if you wage battle with us, our leaders will not back down from the fight. Resilence is a Jewish heirloom. Ukranian President Zelensky inherited it from Judah Macabee, Queen Esther, Natan Sharansky, Roza Robota, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Hannah Szenes, Uri Ben Barch, Harvey Milk, Eli Cohen, and generations of Jews who stood tall in the face of injustice.

President Zelensky will be remembered long after this war for his valor. But we will also remember that he represents the Jewish values we must cherish most: courage, dignity, fulfilling your responsibilities and most importantly, standing by your people to the end. He makes me proud to be Jewish, and he should remind everyone that being Jewish is something to be proud of.

  • Hen Mazzig is a writer, speaker and a Senior Fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute (TLVi.org). Follow him: @henmazzig

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