Tag Archives: President

Jews of the Week: Volodymyr Groysman and Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukraine’s President and Prime Minister

Volodymyr Zelensky

Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky (b. 1978) was born in Ukraine to Jewish parents. As a child, he spent four years living in Mongolia where his father worked. While studying at school, he joined his local comedy troupe, and eventually made it to Ukraine’s national comedy team. They won the KVN comedy championship in 1997 (a pretty big deal in the former Soviet Union) and Zelensky, despite having a law degree, decided to pursue a full-time career in comedy. He created a new troupe, Kvartal 95, which continued to perform across Russia and Ukraine, and eventually got their own TV show in 2003. Five years later, Zelensky made it to the big screen, starring in his first feature film. In 2015, Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 produced a new series, Servant of the People, with Zelensky in the lead role playing a young high school teacher who surprisingly becomes Ukraine’s president. The show was hugely popular, and was renewed for two more seasons, and a film. Last year, Zelensky registered “Servant of the People” as a political party in Ukraine, and actually ran in its real-life elections earlier this year. As he toured the country during his campaign, he also continued to perform with Kvartal 95. Incredibly, Zelensky won the election in a landslide (winning 73% of the vote), and will be inaugurated this week as Ukraine’s 6th president. It is hoped that he will strengthen Ukraine’s economy, fight corruption, bring calm to the civil wars in the country’s east, and work towards greater independence from Russia. While it is too early to tell what kind of president he will be, many are already predicting that unfortunately (as has happened too often in history) if Zelensky will turn out to be a successful president he will be hailed as a great Ukrainian, and if he fails, they will call him a traitorous Jew.

Volodymyr Groysman

While Zelensky will be Ukraine’s first Jewish president, he is preceded by Ukraine’s first Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Borysovych Groysman (b. 1978). Groysman was born in the town of Vinnytsia, and worked in his father’s business growing up. While still studying law, he ran for city council in 2002 and won a seat. Shortly after graduating, he joined the Our Ukraine party, and the following year was elected mayor of Vinnytsia. Being just 28 years old, that made him the youngest mayor in Ukraine’s history. He was praised for his tremendous work and won re-election with 78% of the vote in 2010. Four years later, Groysman was appointed as Ukraine’s Minister of Regional Development, and several months after that, made chairman of the parliament. His popularity continued to rise quickly, and when the prime minister resigned in 2016 over corruption allegations, parliament elected Groysman as his replacement. Aged 38 years, he became Ukraine’s youngest-ever prime minister, and its first Jewish prime minister. He has worked diligently to combat corruption, and also supports greater integration with the West. Ukraine is now the only country in the world outside of Israel to have both a Jewish prime minister and a Jewish president.

Words of the Week

A person’s main vitality lies in his intellect. One who is not using his intellect to its full potential is considered asleep. Many people who seem to be alive are in fact sleeping their lives away.
– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Likutey Moharan I, 60:6)

Jew of the Week: Eli Avivi

Eli Avivi (1930-2018) was born in Iran and made aliyah to the Holy Land with his family when he was just two years old. As a teenager, he joined Plugat HaYam, or Palyam, founded in 1945 as the navy arm of Palmach, the “special forces” of the pre-IDF Haganah. The primary task of Palyam was to escort and defend Jewish refugee ships coming from Europe, as well as ships containing arms for the young Jewish state. Avivi was one of seventy sailors that facilitated the arrival of 70,000 Jews to Israel over the course of 66 missions. He was also among the four hundred Palyam marines that fought in Israel’s War of Independence. Still drawn to the sea after the battles were over, Avivi became a fisherman. This took him on sailing trips around the world, and at one point he spent a year living in Greenland with the natives. Returning to Israel to visit his family in 1952, Avivi happened upon an abandoned fishing village near the Lebanese border, formerly inhabited by Arabs that had fled during the war. The young sailor settled there, making a living by selling fish to a nearby kibbutz. He eventually got married, and he and his wife continued a quiet, peaceful life mostly removed from civilization. In 1963, the Israeli government decided to turn the entire area into a national park, and sent the couple eviction notices. They battled the government until 1971, when their land was fenced in and their huts bulldozed, causing Avivi to declare independence from the State of Israel! The couple was promptly arrested. Their peaceful protests soon brought international attention, leading to an agreement with the government that resulted in the formation of the micro-state of “Akhzivland”. (The name comes from the archaeological ruins of the Biblical town of Achziv that the village was built upon.) Avivi’s success was partly owed to the support he had from David Ben-Gurion, as well as Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency, whom he occasionally assisted. Avivi made himself president (democratically elected by his own vote), built borders around his territory, created a flag and national anthem, wrote a constitution, and even issued passports. Although it was not recognized by any other country, Akhzivland attracted many visitors, including many celebrities. Paul Newman was known to visit, and Sophia Loren “absolutely loved it”. Young people were particularly drawn to the absolute freedom permitted in Akhzivland. In 1972, Avivi threw a music festival inspired by Woodstock, attracting so many people that there were traffic jams for 100 kilometres around. (Future music festivals were forbidden.) Avivi continued to rule his micronation until last month, when he succumbed to pneumonia. Once called the “defiant hippy king”, he was unofficially the Middle East’s longest-serving head of state, of the Middle East’s “most peaceful country”. He has left behind a national museum full of thousands of artifacts that he discovered in the archaeological ruins and on his many sea dives. His wife Rina hopes to make an agreement with Israel to create a permanent Eli Avivi/Akhzivland memorial at the site.

Words of the Week

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.
– Albert Einstein, in a 1950 letter to Robert S. Marcus

Clockwise from top left: Sophia Loren visits Akhzivland in 1966; the official borders of the microstate; Avivi by his “border crossing”; artifacts from the national museum. (Images courtesy of BBC)

Jew of the Week: Ezer Weizman

Ezer Weizman (1924-2005), the nephew of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, was born in Tel Aviv and raised in Haifa. In his youth, he joined the Haifa Aviation Club and was flying planes by age 16. At 18, in the midst of World War II, he enlisted in the British Royal Air Force and served in Africa and India. After the war, Weizman lived in London and studied aeronautics. It was there that he joined the Zionist paramilitary group, Irgun. Weizman returned to Israel to fight in the Independence War. He was one of Israel’s very first fighter pilots, co-founded its air force, and participated in the first air force mission. He continued working for the army after the war, and in 1958 became the commander of the Israeli Air Force. He modernized the IAF, personally trained its pilots, and transformed it into the powerful and feared juggernaut that it is today. In 1967, Weizman was the IDF’s chief of military operations, and helped persuade the Israeli government to launch a preemptive strike against its aggressors. He directed the surprise attack on Arab air forces on the first day of the Six-Day War, totally destroying their air power and thus securing Israel’s lightning victory. (It has been said that the Six-Day War was won by the Israeli air force in the first six hours!) In 1969, Weizman – now a major general and deputy chief of staff – retired from the military and joined the Gahal political party (the precursor of Likud). He served as a Minister of Transportation and later as Defense Minister. He oversaw the development of Israel’s Lavi fighter jet, and the critical 1978 campaign in Lebanon (Operation Litani). Meanwhile, Weizman also became an important peace negotiator. He spoke Arabic fluently, and grew close to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who went so far as to call Weizman his “younger brother”. Not surprisingly, Weizman played a key role in Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. He later founded his own party, Yachad, and sat on the Knesset between 1984 and 1992, serving as Minister for Arab Affairs and Minister of Science and Technology. A year after leaving the Knesset, Weizman was elected Israel’s seventh president. By this point, he had built a reputation as a dove, and worked hard to promote peace. He was credited with making the office of president more relevant in Israeli society, and was praised for his warmth and concern for all of Israel’s citizens, including Arabs and Druze. After being reelected to a second term, Weizman resigned as president in 2000, and passed away five years later. He has been voted the 9th greatest Israeli of all time.

Words of the Week

There are free men with the spirit of a slave, and slaves whose spirit is full of freedom. He who is true to his inner self is a free man, while he whose entire life is merely a stage for what is good and beautiful in the eyes of others, is a slave.
Rabbi Avraham Itzhak Kook