2020 Annual Assessment

The pandemic’s short- and medium-term effects on the Jewish people relate to the following aspects:
Change in the Global Agenda. The impact of this change is apparent in the shift of major focal points of attention to new and urgent arenas. For example, the world is less free to deal with the Iran nuclear issue – while Iran itself is also less free to allocate resources to the struggle against Israel. In the medium and long term, the corona pandemic is also likely to impact the domestic political arena in many countries, as well as the global balance of power. Countries that deal with the crisis effectively will recover quickly and strengthen compared to other countries likely to weaken as a result of the consequences of their flawed response. For the long term, we must include in the impact ecosystem the possibility that the crisis will strengthen nationalist and isolationist trends and damage globalization processes and international cooperation.

The Power of the State of Israel

Israel has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis in terms of its political and economic stability, the robustness of its health, and its public cohesion. It should be noted that Israel embarked on its response to the crisis while enmeshed in a political crisis that lasted more than a year. This latter crisis did not stop the process of decision making within either the political-governmental or the professional-bureaucratic echelons, but it does require the incoming government to make especially painful decisions. The resolution of the political crisis and the establishment of an emergency unity government with a parliamentary majority will confer greater legitimacy to these difficult determinations. Israel is still in a deep economic crisis; the road to recovery will be long, not least because recovery entails parallel progress in dealing with the coronavirus and its global economic impacts.

The Strength of Jewish Communities

The crisis has disrupted Jewish communities both economically and in terms of their ability to hold regular activities. In some communities, mainly Haredi, the virus wreaked a heavy toll on human life. According to preliminary estimates, the proportion of Jews – those infected and those who have died – is much higher than their population share in their countries of residence (except Israel). The accompanying economic crisis has reduced community resources and diminished the strength of organizations (synagogues, clubs, chavurot, etc.), and has forced communities to redirect resources according to new priorities. This reduction, whose extent is difficult to estimate at this early stage, has come at a time of almost complete cessation of traditional gatherings and communal activities. Only the online Jewish arena has continued to operate and has even expanded rapidly. This requires communities to re-gear along these line with creativity and innovation.

Changes in Activity Patterns

In addition, a marked change is evident in the traditional activities of Jewish engagement as expressions of identity and community belonging. This change affects communal religious gatherings (synagogues) as well as those for cultural purposes (study, social activities). In certain communities, mainly among the Orthodox, this has brought significant hardships, whether in getting their members accustomed to observing harsh regulations or in finding reasonable solutions to unfamiliar problems (including Halachic issues). These hardships have accelerated initiatives to expand digital Jewish engagement and have sparked internal debate processes over the need to adapt to a new reality (the debate over Zoom Passover Seders was a clear example of this).

Relations Between Jewish Communities

Diaspora – Israel relations, as well as the ties of mutual responsibility common to all the world’s Jews, also face a new challenge. At first, this manifested on the technical level: prohibitions on travel and meetings; a halt of tourism; the cancellation of plans to visit or study in Israel; the recall of Israeli shlichim (emissaries) serving in the Diaspora, the cancellation of the March of the Living in Poland. Many of these activities have moved to the virtual arena, whose experiential power is different from that of the physical. Also affecting these relations is a refocusing of attention on one’s immediate surroundings, with pressing concern for the family’s health and employment situation. That is, Jews (like the rest of the world) are consciously busy handling immediate and urgent problems and are less available for their ties with distant communities. At the same time, many Jews who have been sitting at home found that having nothing (professional) to do freed up time for them to communicate with other Jews, to study and read, and for exposure to Jewish content and culture.

Attitudes toward Jews

Historical experience teaches that political crises often lead to the spread of anti-Jewish propaganda. The COVID-19 crisis has also unleashed outbursts of anti-Semitic propaganda among certain groups, although at this stage it is too early to state that the crisis has caused serious damage to the Jews’ image and security. Continuing the trend observed even before the pandemic, reports of anti-Semitic incidents are increasing not only in Europe but also in the United States.1 The ADL’s annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, released in May 2020, found that in 2019, American Jews were subjected to more anti-Semitic incidents than in any year of the last four decades.2 ADL leaders said that this essentially reflects the “normalization of antisemitism” in the United States. This was the situation even before the health and subsequent economic crisis, which is liable – as social crises do – to lead to a strengthening of radical groups, including those that harass Jews.