There’s a paradox at the heart of COVID-19.
On the one hand, the response to the pandemic – both natural and necessary – is the psychological pull to the home base, as people throughout the world hunker down and worry about those closest to them.
On the other hand, COVID-19 proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that all humanity is interconnected and, if we ignore problems across the globe, it is at our own peril.
As the Executive Director of OLAM, a network of over 50 Jewish international development and humanitarian aid organizations working in developing countries, this paradox has been at the forefront of my mind.
The global Jewish community is reeling. In the US, UK, France, Morocco, and elsewhere, Jewish communities have suffered tremendous loss of life disproportionate to their fellow citizens. Leaders of the American Jewish community are concerned about the downsizing and even collapse of thousands of institutions of Jewish life – schools, summer camps, synagogues, JCCs, service agencies, etc. – as their revenue streams have come to an abrupt, virus-induced halt.
At the very same time, COVID-19 has the potential to devastate the world’s most vulnerable populations. At particular risk are the 70.8 million refugees and internally displaced people living in crowded camps and urban settings worldwide who lack access to soap, clean water, and the ability to practice social distancing. Last week, the United Nations warned that COVID-19 lockdowns and subsequent economic recessions will drive an additional 130 million people to starvation due to famines of “biblical proportions.”
COVID-19 proves that our fate as Jews is inextricably tied up with the rest of humanity. Yet, the urgency and scope of our own challenges make it difficult to see beyond our own suffering. Under these circumstances, some might ask: Is it possible – or even ethical – for Jews to care about and support vulnerable non-Jews living far away?
The answer to this question may lie in a relatively unknown chapter in the State of Israel’s early history.
Israel’s first decade was characterized by numerous geopolitical, economic, and social challenges: two wars and frequent border skirmishes; food shortages; soaring inflation; and the mass influx of 700,000 new immigrants – almost all Holocaust survivors or refugees from Arab lands – doubling the total population within three years. My mother, born in 1951 on a kibbutz in the center of the country, remembers the “austerity period” of state-imposed food rations of 1,600 calories per day.
Beset by such tremendous challenges, it would have been only natural for the fledgling state and its political leadership to be self-absorbed. Yet, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion chose a larger vision.
A mere 10 years after the state’s founding, Ben Gurion and his Foreign Minister Golda Meir established Israel’s official international development program – what later became known as MASHAV. Remarkably, this was two years before the US founded USAID and six years before the UK launched its own Ministry of Overseas Development.
Still a developing country itself, Israel became a world leader in training newly-independent states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in agriculture, medicine, public administration, and community development. By 1964, the Israeli ratio of international development experts to total population was twice that of the OECD average, second only to France.
Articulating his vision for an outward-looking Israel, Ben Gurion wrote: “For Israel, it is both a moral and a political issue and there is no doubt that Israel must look upon such aid as a historic mission, as necessary for Israel as it is beneficial to those we help.”
David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir understood the importance – political, economic, and moral – of reaching beyond Israel’s borders to help the rest of humanity. But, perhaps, they also understood the profound psychological benefit of instilling a larger sense of humanitarian purpose in a people otherwise occupied with rebuilding their lives in the shadow of the Holocaust, forced migration and expulsion, and multiple wars in their new home.
As Jews worldwide prepare to celebrate Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day) in lockdown later this week, let us take a page out of Ben Gurion and Meir’s leadership book. Helping others is not a renunciation of our commitment to internal priorities. It is an extension of it.