Reactions to the Ukrainian president reveal deep-seated antisemitic tropes
any years ago, I helped curate a museum exhibit titled, Ours to Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War. During the project I first heard about the so-called “Jewish Infantry.” “You know about Jewish Infantry?” my boss (who was Jewish) quipped to me. “I don’t,” I said. “It’s the Quartermaster Corps,” he replied with a wry smile.
We both understood the joke, of course. The stereotype was that Jews in the American military did the logistics, the supplies, the accounting and the bookkeeping. The combat and the fighting? That was the other guys. It was an antisemitic trope disguised as a harmless punch line, a stereotype that permeated American and European imaginations for more than a century. It was one of the reasons we mounted Ours to Fight For, to counter such myths and to show how Jewish Americans fought and died alongside others, experiencing the same brutalities and horrors as their fellow soldiers. In subsequent years, the museum also mounted an exhibit on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, illuminating the ways Jews fought back against unspeakable evils.
I’ve thought about this amid the violence in Ukraine this week. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a media hero and social media icon, a photogenic and charismatic leader who has used his film and television savvy to advance his nation’s cause. He and his team have fashioned an iconic image of resistance that has resonated around the world. Ukrainian social media have released images of Zelenskyy in military attire and strategic videos where he speaks defiantly to Vladimir Putin. His quip that, “I don’t need a ride. I need ammunition” has become famous. But atop his heroics has come amazement from some corners of the Internet that he is Jewish. As if that was a surprise; as if a Jew would be expected to run, not fight.
It’s subtle, I admit. And perhaps I am overly-sensitive as the grandson of Holocaust survivors and someone who spent years working on exhibits that confronted such myths. But such is the nature of casual anti-Semitism: it lays just below the surface, so faint as if to be a dull background noise. For some, it is barely audible; for others, it is loud and clear.
Zelenskyy himself is a marvel, a costume-wearing, salsa dancing, movie star turned president. In my book I talk about the concept of “media logic,” chronicled by scholars such as Andrew Chadwick and others. Media logic dictates that the opposite of what we expect is what merits our attention; what deviates from the norm is what makes for a compelling news story and publicly-valued information. We’re all familiar with the concept: dog bites man is not news, but man bites dog is news. In my book I talk about how this applies to historical content online, “the newsworthy past” as I call it, and how the news cycle privileges the histories that surprise us and deviate from what we expect. A rom-com actor turned war hero also embodies media logic. His story is the opposite of what we expect, a compelling media figure amid carnage and calamity. And what is most unlikely about him, according to some? He’s Jewish! And he wants to fight!
But, of course, Jewish fighters are the norm, not the exception. Jews have had to be fierce fighters because we are so often fighting for our lives and the very right to exist. When the Roman Emperor Hadrian invaded Judea in the second century, Jews mounted an armed rebellion. Known today as the Bar Kokba (or Bar Kosiba) rebellion, coins from the period are engraved with the phrases “Freedom of Israel” and “For the Freedom of Jerusalem.” (The Christian scholar Eusebius once described the leader of the rebellion—a Zelenskyy-esque figure—as “murderous and a bandit.”) That revolt failed and an estimated half-a-million Jews were slaughtered as punishment. To add insult to injury, the Romans changed the name of the province from Judea to Syria Palaestina, stripping the Jewish people of their homeland.
In more modern contexts, the fights for, and defenses of, homelands are everywhere throughout the Jewish past. During World War I, Jews in Europe served as combatants in all the continental armies—including the German army—with estimates as high as 2 million soldiers. During World War II, 550,000 Jews fought in the American army and approximately 500,000 fought in the Red Army. And, of course, in the post-war era Israel has had one of the strongest militaries in the world, including a mandatory draft for women. Since 2000, Israeli women have served as fighter pilots, combat soldiers, naval officers and in military intelligence.
The point is not to brag about the lethality of Jewish force, or to lionize war, bloodshed or violence. Indeed, the actions of Jewish fighters have been weaponized by nationalist groups for their own agendas. Most notably might be Joseph Trumpeldor, the Russian-Jewish settler turned soldier who was killed in 1920 in a battle with Arab attackers in British-controlled Palestine. In the 1930s and 1940s, Trumpeldor became an icon of Jewish resistance and self-defense. In subsequent decades, his legacy has been appropriated into more nefarious, nationalistic ideologies.
Rather, the point is to recognize that the narrative of the Jew who does not fight, or who is weak, passive and uncourageous, is an antisemitic trope, one that has been internalized by American and European citizens to include media producers, social media commentators and the broader public. The myth dates at least as back as far as World War I, when antisemites in Europe, even within the Germany army, purposefully argued that Jews had served less and had lost less than their non-Jewish counterparts. Such tropes have been compounded by depictions of Jews—particularly European Jews—as passive victims of slaughter. Jewish history is told as a string of body counts from ancient Rome to contemporary Europe. Jewish history becomes essentialized as a long sweep of mass death at the hands of invaders, conquerors and madmen. Elided is how we fight. It is a mental exercise to see Jewish existence as a continuum of resistance, as opposed to a continuum of oppression.
A Jewish thinker who pondered these questions was the famous artist Arthur Szyk. A Polish-Jewish artist and activist who escaped to the United States in 1940, Szyk was keenly aware of the trope of the Jew-as-passive-victim. He sought change the public image of Jewry with his illustrations. According to the late author and art historian Joseph P. Ansell, Szyk “longed for something of a reinvention of the Jewish personality.” Szyk wanted to depict Jews fighting back and defending themselves, “behaving as he thought all Jews should, fighting the best way he could on behalf of his people,” to quote Ansell. That led Szyk to Trumpeldor, who Szyk painted heroically in 1936, and later used during World War II to argue for the necessity of a Jewish state. One of the organizations Szyk worked with was the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, established in 1941, as well as the Bergson Groups. Their slogan was “Action, Not Pity.”
That slogan echoes with Zelenskyy’s words today: Action, Not Pity; Ammunition, Not a Ride. That such phrases come from Jews fighting for their right to exist should not surprise us. Ukraine’s army is outgunned and outmatched by Russian forces, yet with his communications and courage, Zelenskyy and his cabinet have managed to hold the line militarily as well as rally support internationally. His actions have been inspirational, and as an observer half-a-world-away, I pray for he and his fellow Ukrainians to survive and for this ill-conceived, demonic incursion to end. To do so requires all of us to act—leaders in the United States, Europe and around the world, and democracy-loving citizens in all nations. It is a time for action, not pity; a time to run towards the fight, not away from it. Just like so many generations of Jews have done before us.
Have a good week.