We learn from the Purim story that leadership can be thrust upon an individual in unanticipated ways. In Ukraine, we see that theme playing out in real-time.
When Ukrainians elected former comedian and entertainer Volodymyr Zelensky as their president in 2019, we joined in welcoming him, even as we recognized his lack of government or leadership experience. There was also an element of pride in our embrace — Zelensky is Jewish, even if that was not a defining aspect of his life before his entry into politics. And we wondered how Zelensky, who played the president of Ukraine for laughs on TV, would redeem himself now that he was elected president for real.
Following Vladimir Putin’s Russia invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, it didn’t take long to see that Zelensky is a serious player, focused on leading and defending his people. Thus, when the Biden administration offered to help Zelensky escape Kyiv to save himself from anticipated targeted assassination, he is reported to have famously responded: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
What Zelensky also didn’t need was help figuring out how to use his bully pulpit. He knew exactly what to do. And on that stage, his performance has been extraordinary and inspiring. Zelensky artfully worked to calm a terrorized nation by exuding calm, seriousness, hope, resolve and defiance. With the unshaved face of an everyman and the worn camouflage T-shirt of a fighter, the comedian cum politician was transformed. The communicator found his ultimate role.
Early on, Zelensky told European leaders that he was Russia’s No. 1 target — and that they might not see him again alive. In short order, he personalized a country of 44 million people into one vulnerable man. And in the process, he put Putin on notice that the whole world was watching his every move.
Zelensky also spoke to and for his nation — with emotional yet forceful reassurance — helping to rally confidence and determination in the face of overwhelming force and odds. And if Zelensky’s Jewishness was a prop before the war, it has become the key to a whole new audience as he pursued increased support in Israel and in the Diaspora with the recurring theme that “Nazism is born in silence.”
The world has taken note. As observed by Franklin Foer in The Atlantic: “It is hard to think of another recent instance in which one human being has defied the collective expectations for his behavior and provided such an inspiring moment of service to the people, clarifying the terms of the conflict through his example.”
Zelensky has demonstrated impressive skill as a public personality and leader. He shows confidence in his people and declares his place with them. He doesn’t hide, yet he doesn’t pretend that he is either safe or secure. He projects the persona, not of an elite, but of a common man. And he has become the voice and the face of a victimized people. Zelensky is Ukraine. Zelensky is Jewish. He seems to be drawing courage, strength and purpose from both.