Akiva Tor

Pandemic and the unity of the Jewish people: The fifth cup of resilience 

As Israel and the Diaspora ask how each can help the other at this time, the powerful sense that we are in this together brings me hope
Illustrative. A seder table, including a fifth wine glass, traditionally for Elijah. (iStock)
Illustrative. A seder table, including a fifth wine glass, traditionally for Elijah. (iStock)

After emergency procurement and bringing home Israelis stranded abroad, one of the primary missions of the Israel Foreign Ministry in the current global health crisis is to help maintain the unity of the Jewish people in a period of distancing and blocked borders.

It’s a stark fact that Israel has been compelled for the first time in its history to close its borders to Jews who are not Israeli citizens or in the process of making aliyah. This harsh step, antithetical to the Israeli ethos, was necessary due to the acute contagiousness of the virus. We acted to mitigate this by keeping every one of Israel’s missions abroad, manned, open and functioning. Our ambassadors and consuls-general know that their job at this time is to be present for the Jewish communities, to be a pillar of support and a professional and moral resource for Jewish leadership, and to express by their personal engagement the solidarity and mutual responsibility which connects Israel and Jews everywhere.

In Jerusalem, we carried out an urgent dialogue with the leadership of the major Jewish organizations and communities to learn directly of their challenges and means of coping with the crisis. In each encounter with Jewish Diaspora leadership we quickly came to one identical point. We asked — what can Israel do for you? They asked — what can our communities do for Israel? There is a very strong sense that each of us are coping on our own to the best of our ability, and that we are in this together.

The coronavirus has struck Jewish communities with greater severity than the general public. In some communities, like the UK and France, this is a brutal numerical fact counted in fatalities and the seriously ill. But there may be even deeper blow in the virus’ long term effect on mechanisms of social solidarity. Jewish life is dependent on its institutions of worship, education, mutual aid, and culture. Many Jewish communities are concerned that the global economic downturn may depress philanthropy and that vital Jewish institutions, like summer camps, newspapers, unendowed organizations, and essential structures of small communities, may fall prey in times of tight liquidity. Israel too is headed for a period of deep economic stress, but there is no doubt that Israel will need to work together with the entire Jewish organizational capacities to assure that Jewish communal life abroad will not suffer grievous permanent harm.

We will also need to keep a vigilant eye on corona-related anti-Semitism. A host of conspiracy theories is already present on social media. As yet it is mostly marginal and confined to extremist platforms and chat groups, but given prolonged economic downturn, scapegoating and a return to worn habits of hate speech seem almost inevitable. We have already asked the main IT platforms to act proactively to block this kind of antisemitic cyberhate, but we will need to be watchful.

At the Passover seder this year — in our smaller gatherings, our nuclear families, our isolated parents and senior friends, Jews in Israel and in their communities throughout the world — we need to place a fifth cup devoted to our unity as a people and to our strength and will to confront the communal challenges ahead.

About the Author
Head of the Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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