Person of the year: Volodymyr Zelensky

MIDDLE ISRAEL: The elapsed year was also dominated by one issue – the Ukraine War. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s will has shaped the outcome of this year’s main event.

 UKRAINE’S PRESIDENT Volodymyr Zelensky, dressed in a suit in pre-war days: ‘a leader whose display of courage, patriotism and selflessness defied an era of political cynicism, egotism and cowardice.’ (photo credit: Andy Buchanan/Pool/via Reuters)
UKRAINE’S PRESIDENT Volodymyr Zelensky, dressed in a suit in pre-war days: ‘a leader whose display of courage, patriotism and selflessness defied an era of political cynicism, egotism and cowardice.’
(photo credit: Andy Buchanan/Pool/via Reuters)

Our person of the year 5782 is not an Israeli. 

Unlike the previous year’s Yair Lapid, whose political engineering shaped 5781, the elapsing year produced no such Israeli choice. Yes, Naftali Bennett’s premiership was impressive, but it ended prematurely and it failed in its stated quest: to end the political impasse where the Jewish state had arrived. 

That is also why we cannot crown MK Idit Silman as our person of the year, even though she triggered the early election we now face. First of all, she was only one of several defectors who unseated Bennett, if even the most senior among them, and second, the counter-reformation their move was designed to herald will happen only after November’s poll, if at all. 

This is beside the fact that Silman’s act, with all due respect to its short-term effect, was by no means original or path-breaking, unlike, for instance, our person of the year 5767, Odelia Carmon (then known only as “Aleph”), whose testimony against former president Moshe Katsav became a landmark in the humbling of Israeli machismo and the empowerment of Israeli women

The elapsing year produced no such Israeli woman, nor any foreign woman, who might have been our person of the year. 

 Pallbearers carry the coffin of Britain's Queen Elizabeth as the hearse arrives at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain, September 11, 2022. (credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS) Pallbearers carry the coffin of Britain's Queen Elizabeth as the hearse arrives at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain, September 11, 2022. (credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)

Yes, Queen Elizabeth was a worthy candidate, having transfixed in her death billions worldwide and thus evoked new respect for Britain’s history and culture. Even so, the queen would be the first to admit that she in no way shaped the year, and that whatever she symbolized was more about the kingdom she headed and less about herself. 

True, persons of the year are often crowned not because they shaped events, but because they symbolized them, the way, for instance, our person of the year 5775 was Alan Kurdi. The toddler whose drowned body’s emergence on a Turkish beach encapsulated the Syrian refugee crisis, which was that year’s dominant issue.

This year was dominated by one issue: The Russia-Ukraine War

The elapsed year was also dominated by one issue – the Ukraine War. Not only did this conflict’s battles take place in Europe and involve two large nations, and not only did this war’s diplomacy involve all superpowers, its economic fallout also affected the entire human race by disrupting vital commodity shipments, and thus fanning global inflation. 

And like the Syrian crisis last decade, the Ukrainian conflict also offered an abundance of symbols, from exhausted warriors and dismembered casualties to steadfast citizens and dispossessed refugees. However, this drama also starred two dominant personalities, one of whom should be our person of the year.

ON THE face of it, the man who shaped the year’s central event is Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is the one who masterminded this war, the one who declared it, the one who has been waging it every day of the past six months, and the one who can end it with two fingers’ snap. 

But that is only one part of the story, the part of Putin’s will. Unfortunately for him, his will was challenged by a competing will, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s, and as of now it is Zelensky’s will that has shaped the outcome of the year’s main event

The 44-year-old career actor’s casting as a former KGB spook’s archrival could not be more grotesque, and his survival in this mismatch could not be more improbable. Yet Zelensky not only survived Russia’s attack, but for now actually has the upper hand, certainly morally, but also technically

Technically, Russia’s failure to unseat Zelensky and his government in the invasion’s first days was in itself a major victory for the Ukrainian leader. It was there that Putin’s plans began unraveling, in perfect contrast to his impact on the Syrian war, where he had no role in its outbreak and then decided its outcome, and thus became our person of the year 5778. 

Now, Russia’s military failures in the Ukrainian heartland, and its recent eviction from vast swaths in Ukraine’s east, were achieved not by Zelensky alone, but by thousands of troops and the population that backed them. Even so, they were clearly inspired by a leader whose display of courage, patriotism and selflessness defied an era of political cynicism, egotism and cowardice. 

ZELENSKY’S FIRST stroke of greatness was his decision, as the Russian bear approached, to fight. Others in his place would have taken asylum somewhere in the West, where Zelensky was welcome, and could have made millions of dollars delivering speeches and decorating conferences, brunches and cocktails. 

The Ukrainian leader chose instead not only to stay in his invaded country but to remain in his capital even as it was bombed. Then he spent his days visiting troops at the front and hosting foreign leaders, never traveling abroad. 

To complete these acts of leadership by example, the stocky Zelensky shed his politician’s suits and ties, and emerged in a soldierly khaki T-shirt, even for meetings with world leaders. We are all in this together, he effectively told his people, and the people followed him, knowing he meant every word. By contrast, the Goliath this David faces remained in his well-tailored suits, and never left the Kremlin’s velvety corridors to visit the war zone he has torched. 

“Laugh,” wrote Ukrainian-born Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, “laugh at the dreams that I, the dreamer, speak / laugh, because I believe in man / because I still believe in you / because my soul still freedom craves / I haven’t sold it for a golden calf.”

Penned 130 years ago between what now are the bombarded streets of Odesa, these words of hope and conviction are what the Ukrainian president’s leadership, and the year in which it emerged, have been all about. That is why Volodymyr Zelensky is our person of the year 5782

www.MiddleIsrael.net

The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.