Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Time-Bound Jewish Masculinity
As the war on Ukraine wears on, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a household name. His recorded speeches, averring the case for the Ukrainian people and detailing the horrors of the Russian invasion, appear regularly in the media in Europe and North America. Much commentary has been proffered on Zelenskyy’s self-presentation, in speech and appearance: his donning of military fatigues that image him as a fighter, his stubble and beard that associates him with those living under siege, and his identification as an Eastern European Jew for whom genocide is ever-present.
Among these analyses, I was intrigued to see the headline of Waller R. Newell’s recent piece in Tablet Magazine, “Zelensky’s Manliness Revives a Western Ideal.” Professor Newell rightly points out that Zelenskyy is deliberately producing a very particular image of “manliness.” For this, he draws on Aristotelian ideals of manliness, which have influenced world leaders including Churchill and Lincoln.
But I was sorry to see that Professor Newell’s exploration of the Ukrainian leader’s presentation of masculinity did not address the troubling, important, and relevant histories of the relationship between anti-Semitism and representations of Jewish masculinity. Meanwhile, others have written extensively on Zelenskyy’s Jewish identity, for example in Gal Beckerman’s piece in The Atlantic, mostly noting that Zelenskyy did not focus on his Jewish identity in his career as a comedian or in his successful bid for the Ukrainian presidency*. But here too, what is lacking is an analysis of the relationship between Jewish identity and masculinity.
In Europe before and during WWII, stereotypes proliferated that denigrated Jewish men’s masculinity, aligning Jewish men with femininity, in order to disparage them and distance them from the (gentile) masculine ideal. While many scholars (here I’ll just note Sander Gilman as a key figure) have explored this topic, I point to Susan Faludi’s recent memoir about her father, In the Darkroom, who transitions late in life to become a woman. The book is an extraordinary and deft exploration of the ways that Jewish men (in this case, her Hungarian parent) in Eastern Europe have had to grapple with such representations and histories as they understood their own identities as Jews and as gendered subjects.
Here, the reference to Israeli militarism is particularly salient because it was precisely against the representation of this debased Jewish masculinity that the hyper-masculine Israeli male soldier’s identity was shaped. Israelis — and Israeli men in particular — would leave behind the weakness (as associated with femininity) of European Jewry, in favor of a muscular, powerful, modern masculinity that would ensure against any future attempts at genocide and destruction, in favor of an invincible State of Israel. (This image of strength also was felt in Israeli constructions of femininity, in different ways.) For this, they drew on the image of the WWII partisan resistance fighters, a history not far in time or space from the minds of Ukrainians.
This is the masculinity that Zelenskyy invokes, drawing out a Jewish male identity that he had not foregrounded before the Russian invasion. At the same time, many critics have noted that he has done this for instrumental reasons to gain the support of world Jewry. And ironically, the reception of his Zoom speech to the Israeli Knesset indicated that he went too far for that particular audience, in likening the plight of Ukrainians to that of Jews during the Holocaust.
Historians of gender know that gender should not be treated transhistorically. That is, the meanings associated with concepts such as “masculinity” and “femininity” change over time and must be contextualized within the particular societies and cultures in which they are situated. Volodymyr Zelenskyy is fashioning a Jewish male self-identity that deliberately invokes particular histories that are specific to what it means to be a Ukrainian Jewish male leader resisting Russian aggression in the twenty-first century. The nuances of his image and its relationship to Jewish history must not be overlooked, for to do so is to ignore the history of anti-Semitism, laced through with misogyny, that is informing this moment and this conflict.
* Beckerman and other writers read the relative unimportance of Zelenskyy’s Jewish identity to signify that anti-Semitism has largely disappeared from Ukrainian society. Though I am not adequately familiar with Ukrainian life to comment on that, I find it rather utopian, especially given Putin’s invocation of de-Nazifying Ukraine as a putative reason for the invasion.