There are not many political leaders who find themselves elevated to icon status, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky became one of them this year.
First he was regarded as a curiosity – if someone outside Ukraine thought about him at all – because of having played the president of Ukraine in a sitcom before playing the role in real life. But Russia’s invasion of his country in February thrust him into the spotlight and tested him in a way that few leaders in today’s world have been tested.
With an artist’s keen eye for the importance of optics, Zelensky began exclusively wearing olive green T-shirts. He embarked on a world tour via Zoom to admonish Western governments for insufficiently helping him beat back Russia, customizing the speech to fit each capital’s history and concerns.
His toughness and courage have become legendary and earned him comparisons to Winston Churchill. There’s little evidence that he actually said “I need ammunition, not a ride” when US President Joe Biden offered to evacuate him from Kyiv, but it seemed like something he would say, and that was enough for the quote to go viral.
The embattled leader has changed the world order in a way not seen since the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s, getting almost the entire western world aligned against Russia and its powerful president, Vladimir Putin. Sweden and Finland have applied to become members of NATO; unprecedented American and European Union sanctions have been imposed on Russia, its top officials and industries; and US weapons, until now not meant for export to Ukraine, have been sent to Kyiv.
A lot of this is to the credit of Zelensky, who - through a sophisticated use of the media and diplomacy - got the world to take action in a way not seen for decades.
“The nations of the free world, inspired by the example of President Zelensky, are more united, more determined, and more purposeful than at any point in recent memory.”US President Joe Biden
“The nations of the free world, inspired by the example of President Zelensky, are more united, more determined, and more purposeful than at any point in recent memory,” US President Joe Biden wrote in Time Magazine in May. “With the support of the US and our allies and partners, he has left his mark on history and proved to the world that Ukraine will long endure and its people will ultimately realize the democratic future they have long desired.”
Ukraine's President Zelensky's Jewishness
Zelensky’s Jewishness has made for an interesting subplot to the bigger picture. He was born to Jewish parents, and his grandfather’s father and three brothers were murdered in the Holocaust. As a teenager, he was offered a scholarship to study in Israel, which his father forced him to turn down. He later married a non-Jewish woman, and his children were baptized, according to press reports.
The fact that Zelensky was Jewish played no role in his 2019 election campaign, and the candidate himself downplayed it, saying “the fact that I am a Jew is about the 20th question among my characteristics.”
Zelensky's Jewishness in the Russia-Ukraine War
But with his country not only under attack, but under attack while Russian propagandists claimed that they were “de-Nazifying” Ukraine, Zelensky was ready to bring that characteristic to the fore. He and other Ukrainian leaders and representatives asked how his country could possibly be a Nazi state if it is led by a Jewish president.
Zelensky’s speech to the Knesset leaned hard on the theme of World War II and the Holocaust.
“They called it ‘the Final Solution to the Jewish issue.’ You remember that, and I am sure you will never forget,” he said. “Hear how these words are said again [in Moscow]: ‘Final solution,’ but in relation to us, to the ‘Ukrainian issue.’”
The matter of Zelensky’s being Jewish has come up in his own pressure and that of others for Israel to take more action against Russia and in favor of Ukraine: “You can definitely help us protect... the lives of Ukrainian Jews,” he told the Knesset, asking why Israel hasn’t sent Kyiv weapons or imposed sanctions on Russia. “It is up to you, dear brothers and sisters... and you will have to live with this answer.”
For all of Zelensky’s influence on the world today, his Jewish background did not sway Israel to take what its leaders saw as too great a risk in light of the Russian army’s presence in Syria and the tenuous situation of Jews in Russia.
Yet, as he continues to lead Ukraine in the fight against Russia, in a war that has shaken the world’s energy and food markets and awoken Europe from a relatively comfortable and peaceful existence, Zelensky is one of the most influential people in the world today, period – not just the world’s most influential Jew.