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When Ukrainian President Zelensky Said, “Listen, I Am Here,” He Made the Ultimate Jewish Statement

Thousands of years after our biblical patriarch Abraham’s poignant cry to God of “Hineni” (“Here I am”), the ultimate expression of responsibility, a Jewish president in the midst of war uttered a similar message: “Listen. I am here.”
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February 26, 2022
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky visited the front positions of the army in the Donetsk region. Ukraine, Donetsk. 17.02.2022 (Photographer RM / Shutterstock.com)

If a major strand of the Jewish story is the ability to survive against all odds, Ukraine Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky is certainly following in his ancestors’ footsteps.

For one thing, he’s keenly aware of the personal danger of sticking around while Russian troops are invading his country.

“This might be the last time you see me alive,” he told European Union leaders on a call last week. On Friday, as Russian troops attacked his capital city of Kyiv, he said in a video message: “The enemy has identified me as the number one target.”

After resisting a two-day Russian onslaught, his outmanned troops almost miraculously were still in control of the city, but it was a city battered by war.

“There were sandbags in the streets, burned-out cars, and lines at sites distributing guns,” The Washington Post reported. “The metro had stopped running, its stations now used solely as underground bunkers. A curfew, beginning at 5 p.m., was imposed as the city braced for further waves of attacks.”

As I write this, Zelensky has still refused to leave, even though the U.S. has offered to evacuate him. The morning after Russian missiles rained down on Kyiv, he addressed the nation in a selfie video that received 3 million views on Instagram.

“Good morning to all Ukrainians!” he said, standing outside an Art Nouveau landmark. “Lately there has been a lot of fake information online that I am calling on our army to lay down their arms and to evacuate. Listen. I am here.”

Thousands of years after our biblical patriarch Abraham’s poignant cry to God of “Hineni” (“Here I am”), the ultimate expression of responsibility, a Jewish president in the midst of war uttered a similar message: “Listen. I am here.”

In the face of such courage, it’s hard to think of more essential words to embody the miracle of Jewish survival. Would the Jewish calendar have reached the year 5782 had Jews not been able to say, at critical moments, “Listen, we are here”?

The creation of the State of Israel, on the heels of the horrific murder of 6 million Jews, may well be the ultimate example of Jews telling the world, “Listen. We are here. We’re not running. We’re not hiding.”

The creation of the State of Israel, on the heels of the horrific murder of 6 million Jews, may well be the ultimate example of Jews telling the world, “Listen. We are here. We’re not running. We’re not hiding.”

What makes Zelensky’s defiance even more fascinating is that it comes not with pathos but with personality. Before being elected president, he was a popular entertainer and comedian. Who could have predicted that this Jewish comic would one day be thrust on the world stage during the biggest military crisis on the European continent since World War II?

As the global center of attention, Zelensky hasn’t tried to put on any Churchillian airs with grave intonations such as, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets … we shall never surrender.” No, Zelensky has just been himself.

He is being who he is. With antisemitism on the rise, is there a stronger message to deliver to Jews around the world than to be who you are?

Since time immemorial, Jews have had countless reasons to feel insecure and hide from who they were. Through centuries of pogroms, persecution and a blatant level of discrimination that continues to this day, the self-preservation instinct was often to run and hide, and many did. But if the Jewish story continues into the year 5782, it is because of the Jews who did not run and hide.

Volodymyr Zelensky is the latest and most prominent example. He said in an interview in 2020 that he grew up in “an ordinary Soviet Jewish family.” Maybe that’s why he hasn’t drawn too much attention to his Jewishness over the years—he sees himself as just an ordinary Jew.

As we pray for his wellbeing, we can marvel at how this “ordinary” Jew has shown his courageous face to the world and echoed the ultimate expression of Jewish survival.

As we pray for his wellbeing, we can marvel at how this “ordinary” Jew has shown his courageous face to the world and echoed the ultimate expression of Jewish survival against all odds.

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