As Time’s Person of the Year, Zelenskyy joins a short list of Jews, and a longer list of antisemites


PJ Grisar, The Forward

Gazing off with determination, or even a glimmer of hope on the cover, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, along with the “Spirit of Ukraine,” is the Time Person of the Year, joining an exclusive list of notable people and an even shorter list of Jews. Throughout its nearly 100-year history, this recognition has more frequently been reserved for antisemites — at least when awarded individually.

The first Man of the Year (later changed to Person of the Year) was aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh in 1927. Indeed, the entire enterprise may have been Time’s effort to save face for not granting him a cover after his transatlantic solo flight that year.

1931’s Man of the Year was Pierre Laval, who would go on to be the head of the collaborationist Vichy government in France. We even had our first Woman of the Year in Wallis Simpson, known for getting an English king to abdicate and for shaking hands with Hitler by his side. And then, of course, 1938 gave us Adolf Hitler, followed close behind by Joseph Stalin.

We should take a moment here to say that Time does not always pick their cover person for their virtues, a point that, in recent years, has prompted outrage, as was the case when Donald Trump was selected in 2016 (and, according to him, was nearly the first consecutive two-timer in 2017).

Zelenskyy is not alone in repping Jews, however. In 1960, Time honored “U.S. Scientists,” including physicist Donald A. Glaser, molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg and physicist Isidor Rabi (all Nobel laureates). 1972 split the ticket with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

Yuri Andropov, who was general secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, and of, shall we say, complicated Jewish heritage, was a co-Man of the Year in 1983 with Ronald Reagan. 1993 honored “The Peacemakers,” including Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, as well as Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk.

“You” were Person of the Year in 2006 and may well be Jewish, as were many of the Israelis who protested for social justice in 2011, and were honored in the archetypal cover person “The Protester.”

The first and only consecutive Jews were Ben Bernanke, then-chairman of the Federal Reserve, in 2009, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010.

While Franklin Delano Roosevelt received the title of Man of the Year three times, the biggest prize Time ever presented went to Albert Einstein who, in 1999, was named Person of the Century (FDR and Gandhi were runners up).

Sharing the cover with his country people, Zelenskyy appears as the picture of nobility, not imbued, as controversial picks for PoTY so often are, with shadow or menace. (His brown eyes, however, appear rather blue, perhaps the result of whatever reference photo was used.) In its stirring tableau, it calls to mind the 1956 Man of the Year, the Hungarian Freedom Fighter.

Improbably, after a year of fighting for his country’s life, Zelenskyy may be poised to enter the new year in better shape than his predecessor, Elon Musk, who has, since his election, received a less than flattering cover illustration.


This article was originally published on the Forward.