The speeches of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington this week – to an oversubscribed AIPAC Policy Conference and in Congress, in the face of the Office of the President of the USA – highlight the greatest Jewish paradox of our time: that the Jewish People is both more powerful than ever before, yet still very vulnerable.
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Never in our history was it better to be Jewish. Israel is strong, secure and developed. The vast majority of Diaspora Jews live in prosperous and free nations within protected, respected and influential communities, with U.S. Jewry being the most powerful Diaspora Jewry in history. A record number of Jews immerse in the world of Torah, and the Jewish People has reached a hitherto-unbelievable ability to make a quantitative contribution to the global human condition. Yet, the power and influence of the Jewish People may be peaking.
One nexus of challenges is located in Israel. Zionism aspired that return to, and self-determination in, Zion would solve the problem of anti-Semitism and the vulnerability of Jews. Such mass-repatriation indeed occurred during the past century. Nonetheless, many Israeli leaders hold that Israel is subject to emerging existential threats to its physical existence, by nuclear Arab and Muslim states, or to its political existence, by the continued control of the Palestinian population and by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. Concurrently, Israeli society suffers from deep inequalities and other injustices, and its political system muddles through corruption, superficiality and mediocrity – distant from the age-old expectation of being a model society.
Another nexus of challenges lies in the Diaspora. The resilience and relative economic wellbeing of Jews was founded upon their universal literacy, unique global interconnectedness within a worldwide network of communities, and a unified global legal system. In recent and coming decades, it is not only that humanity and other nations are catching up, but also that many Jews are disengaging from this societal DNA. Furthermore, assimilation and intermarriage are widespread, societal divides among Jews are deep, and a new wave of global anti-Semitism, often propagated by Muslims assisted by radical left-wing-liberal and right-wing groups is challenging individual Jews, Diaspora Jewries and Israel. Hence, Zionism and Israel have not eradicated anti-Semitism, but rather fuel it.
The United States – Israel’s primary strategic ally and home to about 80 percent of Diaspora Jewry – is the nexus between those two hosts of challenges, with its profound impact on the future of the Jews. The weakness of U.S. governance and its deep and multi-generational societal crisis of a looming debt and massive deficits are dark clouds on the horizon of the Jewish People. Meanwhile, the rising powers of the world, primarily India and China, have meager Jewish presence and a much shallower association with Jews or the State of Israel. Furthermore, not only is massive assimilation eroding the demographic base of American Jewry, but Israel is no longer a focus of interest, loyalty and attention for many American Jews. The confluence of these trends is deeply worrying: an Israel, which is perceived to be uninspiring and mired in ethical, political and security issues, is increasingly becoming a partisan issue among non-Jews in America, a turn-off for many Jews and a divisive issue for many Jewish communities.
Longevity is the big difference between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. Near all Jews are confident that the Jewish People will endure, evolve and adapt to these challenges, as it has in the past. So much so that most Jews believe that the Jewish People will outlive any existing nation, knowing that one day Jewish astronauts will be "lighting Shabbat candles on Mars." Such certainty does not apply to Israel’s existence. Our history holds that Jews failed to sustain sovereignty three times. Furthermore, four of Israel’s recent prime ministers expressed existential concerns about its future, dramatic achievements notwithstanding.
Therefore, it is Zionism and the State of Israel that must rise up. Israel’s dramatic successes place it in a position to fundamentally affect Jewish history. At the dawn of the 21st century, amid rare global turmoil and instability, Israel proudly boasts remarkable successes across all areas of modern life, including economics, technology, military and society, as well as of a flourishing Jewish and Hebrew culture and a thriving world of Torah. It now races to become the largest and fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, as more than half of Jewish babies are born as Israelis, and houses the most diverse Jewry ever to live in one polity. Its rise or decline will dramatically impact Judaism, Jewish society and history.
The drama of this week is truly historical. Iran’s maturing nuclear ambitions, a declining and fatigued United States, a divided American Jewry, a shadowed U.S.-Israel relationship and muddling Israeli political system make for a toxic mixture. Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Netanyahu will need to walk a fine line: to call out the deal with Iran for what it is without alienating the U.S. government; challenge the American administration without further polarizing American Jews; lead on behalf of the Jewish People and not be compromised by politics.
His photo in Congress, with the vice-president missing in protest, will iconically capture a peak of Jewish power. The bigger story will capture its vulnerability, concern and dependency. The Great Jewish Paradox of our time is being played out in front of our eyes this week in Washington, D.C.
Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of the Reut Institute, and author of the recently published Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability and the Challenge and Opportunity Facing Israel.