By Steven G. Kellman
After Barry Goldwater, whose father was Jewish but whose mother raised him Christian, won the Republican nomination for president in 1964, journalist Harry Golden quipped: “”I always knew that the first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian.” Goldwater never became president of the United States, nor has any other Jew, yet. But, if any country outside of Israel, where every leader – from David Ben Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu – has of course been Jewish, would be governed by a Jew, it would seem likely to be a free society such as France (Léon Blum) or Britain (Benjamin Disraeli). It would surely not be Ukraine, long an abattoir of anti-Semitism.
For many Ashkenazi Jews, Ukraine is the ancestral homeland, the birthplace of Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Nachman Bialik, and Isaac Stern, where Yiddish was once, along with Ukrainian and Russian, the state language. Less than a century ago, one of every three Ukrainians was Jewish. However, the Holocaust eliminated more than a million Jews, and today the Jewish population of Ukraine, which was once 2,700,000, has dwindled to barely 50,000.
Nevertheless, one of that scant number, Volodymyr Zelensky, is now the president of Ukraine, and Volodymyr Groysman, another Jew, is the nation’s prime minister. Zelensky, a comedian, was elected, with the support of Jewish oligarch Ihor Kolomoyski, in a landslide even though – or because – his only political experience was playing a president on TV. Because Zelensky’s ties to the Jewish community are slight, it would not do to exaggerate the Jewishness of the Ukrainian election. It was, after all, Israel and not her native Ukraine, that made Golda Meir its leader. It was only after Natan Sharansky, born in Donetsk, left his country of birth that he became the powerful chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Zelinsky does not advertise his ethnic background, but if his presidency in Ukraine fails, it will surely be blamed on “the Jews.”
Though Jews once constituted more than 12 percent of the population of Austria, emigration and genocide shrank the community to .5 percent. Yet Bruno Kreisky, a Jew, served as chancellor of Austria from 1970-83, during which time he appointed former Nazis to his government, questioned the legitimacy of Zionism, and cultivated ties with the PLO even while it was killing Israelis. The Jewish chancellor of Austria was not especially good for the Jews.
Jews constitute such a minute percentage of the world’s population that it is remarkable when one becomes a national leader. Though there are fewer Jews (6,867) in New Zealand than on certain blocks in New York, the country has produced three Jewish prime ministers: Julius Vogel (1873-75), Francis Bell (1925), and John Key (2008-16). In 1967, Max Devalle served as acting president of Panama, a country in which only .25 percent of the population is Jewish. His nephew, Eric Arturo Delvalle, served as the president of Panama from 1985-88, until overthrown by the infamous Manuel Noriega. After Eric Arturo Delvalle died in exile in Cleveland, his body was flown back to Panama City for a state funeral at the city’s Kol Shearith Synagogue.
The dominant demographic groups of Guyana, the former British colony nestled between Venezuela and Suriname, are Indian, African, and indigenous. As Janet Jagan told an interviewer: “There’s no Jewish community in Guyana.” Despite that lack of human infrastructure, Jagan managed to become the country’s first and only Jewish president, serving from 1997-99. Born Janet Rosenberg, she grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Chicago. While working as a student nurse at Cook County Hospital, she met and married Cheddi Jagan, a Guyanese studying dentistry at Northwestern University. Dedicated Marxists, the two moved to Guyana and helped lead its independence movement. Opposition from the British government and the CIA resulted in jail time for the Jagans, but Cheddi was elected president in 1993. After his death in 1997, Janet was elected president of Guyana in her own right. There was nothing especially Jewish about Janet Jagan’s presidency, except for its improbability. It was almost as unlikely as the fact that a Jew, Juan Lindo, would serve separate terms as president of two countries – El Salvador, from 1841-42, and Honduras, from 1847-52.
Was there ever a Jewish Indian chief? In fact, yes. Solomon Bibo was three times elected governor – the equivalent of tribal chief – of the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico in the late 19th century. The son of a cantor, he immigrated from Prussia and eventually traveled to the Southwest, making his living through the trading posts he established. Bibo married an Acoma woman, Juana Valle, who converted to Judaism.
Study of the Tanakh teaches us that once we were kings. It also teaches us that that did not work out too well.
Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at UTSA.