Jews in the Diaspora are dying from the coronavirus at a much higher rate than Jews in Israel.
As Uriel Heilman wrote in JTA, “What’s clear is that the Jewish rate of death is exponentially higher in the Diaspora compared to Israel and that the virus is devastating the Jewish world.”
So what moral and material responsibility does Israel – which has always prided itself on its willingness to rescue endangered Jewish communities – now have to Jewish communities in the Diaspora?
And not just to poor Jewish communities, but to well-to-do ones – communities in places like America – where schools, synagogues and community institutions are getting hit extremely hard by the coronavirus.
A poll this week by the Ruderman Family Foundation showed that nearly half of Israeli Jews (49%) support to a great degree (19%) or some degree (30%) Israel giving financial assistance to synagogues and community centers in communities in the US and elsewhere around the world that were closed or collapsed financially because of the coronavirus. Another 22% said they support this to a small degree, and one-quarter of Israelis are opposed to sending any financial aid at all.
Granted, this is only one question in one survey at one unique moment in time, but if it is indeed an accurate reflection of the national sentiment then we could be at the cusp of a paradigm shift in how Israel views its relations with the Diaspora: Instead of being on the receiving end of donations, it would be on the giving side. And not only to communities in physical distress, such as in the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Ethiopia or elsewhere, but in communities in the Western developed world.
The willingness to extend a hand to Diaspora communities is even greater – according to this survey – when the question centers not on financial aid, but rather sending medical equipment, food, money or managerial help.
This shift is reflective of the changing demographics in the Jewish world.
When the state was established in 1948, there were only some 650,000 Jews in Israel, representing 6% of the world Jewish population. Israel badly needed the assistance of the world Jewish community to survive and prosper. The establishment of Israel and ensuring it remain secure, flourish and prosper has been the largest project of the Jewish people over the last 150 years. As a result, money was raised far and wide for this revolutionary enterprise.
Now, with the state strong, powerful and economically sound, the tables are starting to turn: and rather than the Diaspora needing to financially prop up Israel, Israel – which now houses 45% of the world’s 14.7 million Jews – may need to financially assist the Diaspora.
That, however, raises philosophical questions about the nature of Zionism. To what degree does Israel want to help Jewish communities survive and flourish abroad. Shouldn’t they come here? Some of the social media reaction to the Ruderman survey reflected that sentiment, and said that if it is difficult for Jews in the Diaspora as a result of the current plague, they could always move to Israel.
If the government at some point in time does decide to send money abroad to help Diaspora communities, it would not be the first time.
After the terrorist attack at the Ozer Hatorah school in Toulouse, France, in 2012 that killed four people, the Jewish Agency set up a fund to buy security equipment for Jewish communities abroad: closed-circuit cameras, reinforced doors, bulletproof windows, security fences and the like, a fund that the government contributed to and which sent millions of dollars everywhere, except to the US.
But Israel has also – at least once – sent money to the US Jewish community. In 2018, after Hurricane Harvey devastated Jewish institutions in Houston, then-Diaspora Affairs minister Naftali Bennett sent $1 million to the local Jewish federation. That was a precedent-setting decision, which Bennett said articulated Israel’s sense of responsibility to the Diaspora.
Jews show their unity in tough times, which provide “an opportunity to rally and help one another,” he said in a video message sent to the community, adding that the money was sent “because we are brothers, and we care.”
As noble a gesture as that was, the giving is not the same: money to Israel from the Diaspora comes from individual philanthropists, while money from Israel to the Diaspora generally comes from the government. It was not as if in 2018 Moshe Cohen in Afula dug down deep into his own pocket to send to his American Jewish brethren in Houston; it was the Israeli government doing it on his behalf. On the other side, over the years it has been Frank Cohen in Houston who has sent his own funds to Israel.
The financial needs of Jewish communities in the Diaspora are enormous, and Israel is obviously unable to foot the bill. But what the willingness expressed in the Ruderman survey by Israelis to extend financial aid to Jewish communities abroad shows is a sense of natural solidarity.
A worldwide pandemic brings to the mind of many Jews memories of the past when Jews were blamed for plagues. It is understandable, therefore, that one natural reflection triggered by the coronavirus is that Jews feel they are all in this together, and that there is a need to help co-religionists abroad.
But that natural sense of solidarity should not be taken for granted or as a given, especially at a time when some argue that Jewish solidarity has frayed badly as the Jewish communities in the two biggest communities in the world – Israel and the US – drift apart on various issues, from the Iran nuclear deal, to their opinions of US President Donald Trump, to the issue of annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria.
But if the Ruderman survey is any indication, despite the political differences, this solidarity – this sense of responsibility Jews feel one for the other – remains strong, at least among the Israeli Jewish community, since 2013 the largest Jewish community in the world.