Ukrainian Parliament Elects Jewish Speaker

In its first meeting, Ukrainian’s newly elected Parliament chose Volodymyr Groysman as its new speaker. He is the first Jew to occupy a position of this stature in the nation’s government.

“The significance of this is that it reconfirms that the Jewish community is respected and safe today in Ukraine,” said Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine. “That a Jew can be a member of Parliament demonstrates that Jews are part of the regular life of the country.”

The election makes Groysman the chairman of the 450-member legislative body known as the Verkhovna Rada. It is the third most powerful position in the Ukrainian government after the offices of prime minister and president. He was the only candidate put forward as speaker in the first session of the new parliament, elected in late October.

Groysman was born in Vinnytsia, a city in Western Ukraine, in 1978. Several media reports questioned his Jewish ancestry, but Rabbi Bleich told Hamodia that “both his mother and father are Jewish.”

At age 26, Groysman was elected mayor of Vinnytsia, the youngest person to have occupied the post. While serving as mayor, he formed a close bond with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was then the region’s parliamentary representative. Groysman is a member of Poroshenko’s ruling party, and is seen as a close ally. He has served in the national government since February as minister of regional development, construction and housing and communal services.

“I have a very good relationship with him …  he was a very good mayor,” said Rabbi Bleich, commenting on Groysman’s record on Jewish issues. “He is a proud Jew with respect for the community.”

Groysman is not the only Jewish politician to rise to prominence since the overthrow of pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovych last February. Most notably among these is Igor Kolomoisky, who was appointed governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region.

Despite recent tolerance efforts, Ukraine does have a long history of anti-Semitism. The country was the site of pogroms that killed thousands of Jews in 1919, and collaboration during the Nazi period was rampant. Since the beginning of hostilities, a little under a year ago, Russia has played on this fact as a means of undermining claims of democracy and openness from the new regime. While most reports of anti-Semitic violence proved false, the ultra-Nationalist Savoda and Right Sektor parties did play prominent roles in the February revolution.

“Whatever Ukraine’s problems are, anti-Semitism is not one of them, now,” said Rabbi Bleich, dismissing such claims. “In what they call the new Ukraine, it doesn’t make a difference if you are Jewish or not; everybody is working on building a new society.”