JPPI’s Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People offers a yearly snapshot of how Israel and the Jewish world are doing. Geopolitics, communal bonds, demography, identity and identification, and resources are the measures that are used to compare each year to its predecessor and prospectively to what may be coming. Analytically, this approach has provided a good means for evaluating how well Israel and different Jewish communities are doing—indeed, are they thriving, declining or remaining largely static—and how might their direction be influenced.
This year’s report, while clear on the realities of 2019, is understandably affected by COVID-19 and all the uncertainties associated with it. This historic pandemic will have far-reaching impacts, still not discernable, in the way we work, communicate, travel, worship, and support Jewish and communal institutions, and in our view of the role of government and globalization. After the pandemic subsidies the “new normal” will not look entirely like the world before it. The report very usefully identifies many of the unknowns about how the coronavirus is going to shape the future from the international consequences to the differing possibilities for the Jewish world. Because it respects no borders and no one can be safe until there is an effective vaccine, will we see COVID-19 foster greater international cooperation—and strengthen international institutions? Or will it feed populist/nationalist tendencies building walls figuratively and literally on trade, immigration, and travel? Leaders like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban have used the pandemic to cement authoritarian rule while weakening independence of the media and judiciary.
At this point, the answer is not clear, but one thing that history tells us is that if the populist, extreme nationalist impulse tends to predominate, it is always accompanied by an increase in the rejection of “the other”—and Jews have always been the quintessential other. Globalization, which greatly benefits Israel as a major exporter of high tech products, has clearly suffered a direct blow. In the early stages of responding to the pandemic, countries began taking a more protectionist, national view to assure they would have sufficient medical resources that can be produced at home, rather than being shared. There has been some easing of this hording instinct in the last few months. Nonetheless, the risk of a great economic downturn which is almost certainly going to characterize the reality in many countries in the coming year is not only likely to foster a populist response but also compound the trend of growing anti-Semitism. The Assessment’s discussion on the large number of Jews in Europe who already feel the need to hide their Jewish identity sends a chilling message about the state of anti-Semitism even before the full effect of COVID-19 is felt economically.
As for the geopolitical discussion, the US-Chinese competition, what some are already calling a new Cold War, will certainly affect Israel. Caught in the middle, Israel is likely to be subject to real pressures from the Trump administration on Chinese investment in Israeli infrastructure—ports, rail lines and communications infrastructure—and Israeli trade in the high tech sector. The concerns about Chinese influence are also bipartisan in the US. The costs to Israel will be real, but the need for Israel to work out understandings with the US will be essential. And it is not clear how much a change in the US administration would alter the American views of what Israel does with the Chinese, especially in terms of technology development.
US global leadership, upon which Israel depends, and which had already eroded under the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy, has been strikingly absent during the pandemic. Unlike other presidents, Republican and Democrat, who helped lead the G20 during the financial crisis in 2008-09 and at other times, and who marshalled support for the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and the IMF during other health crises, the administration has not done so. On the contrary, it has suspended payments to the WHO and refused to respond to the IMF’s request for additional funding to help developing and emerging nations face the COVID-19 crisis with inadequate health infrastructures. Israel has worked hard to build relationships with many of these countries and there is now an opportunity for Israel’s government to provide medical assistance to them—something that would help address the immediate needs of the people in these states and obviously boost Israel’s standing with them.
The pandemic has not changed Iran’s aggressive posture toward the region. It has neither slowed its actions in Syria and Iraq nor constrained its precision guidance project designed to threaten Israel with far more accurate missiles. With Hezbollah alone having more than 130,000 missiles lacking terminal guidance, this is a strategic threat. Notwithstanding the real economic hardship from sanctions and the searing effect of the pandemic in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) is being given more power at the expense of Iran’s relatively more pragmatic government and even the clerics. The IRGC’s responsibilities reflect the militarization of the Iranian government, and despite its setbacks—the killing of Qassem Soleimani and the downing of the Ukrainian airliner—the IRGC favors a more confrontational posture toward the outside world both to divert attention from domestic failings and to justify stricter internal controls. Put simply, IRGC is likely to see its stakes as being even greater in Syria and Lebanon now and be determined to do more, at least on the precision guidance project.
In reality, however, Iran is not doing well in the region. Domestically, its economy remains largely in free fall due not only to onerous US sanctions, but also to the mismanagement and corruption of the regime. Externally, Iran is increasingly blamed for the dysfunction, terrible governance and economic decline of those countries where it wields great influence through proxies. Only those who depend on Iran for material support—Hezbollah in Lebanon, the different Shia militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and Bashar al Assad in Syria—look to Iran as a model. For everyone else, its model is a failure—and the threats it poses in the region certainly have contributed to Israel developing at least covert relations with Sunni Arab leaderships. And now, with the breakthrough between Israel and the UAE, at least with the Emirates , the relations will no longer be under the table or largely invisible. But it is not just shared threat perceptions and common security concerns that drove this breakthrough, it was also the recognition that the two most dynamic and technologically driven economies in the region could gain even more through cooperating in areas of health, water, agriculture and cyber.
Of course, something else drove the UAE; it understood that the only way to prevent unilateral Israeli annexation of the territories in the West Bank/Judea-Samaria allotted to it in the Trump peace plan—all 130 settlements and the Jordan Valley—was to give the Trump administration a reason to say no to annexation. The administration viewed its plan “holistically” and not simply as an annexation plan. And, by offering normalization in return for no annexation and easing of restrictions on arms sales to the UAE, it gave the administration a win and allowed it to say its policies were advancing peace in the region. Indeed, other states like Bahrain and Sudan may soon follow the UAE example.
While these two states and others may wait to see if there is any backlash or increased threats against the UAE for its decision to normalize, the reality is that the region is changing. There was no rush to condemn the UAE in either the Arab League or the Organization of the Islamic Conference—though the Palestinian Authority sought to produce condemnatory resolutions in both. Only Iran, which made threats against the Emirates, Turkey, Sunni and Shia Islamists, and the Palestinian Authority and Hamas—was critical. The Palestinians felt betrayed; their hope to prevent all normalization with Israel so long as occupation continues has just been dashed. They have known that others are building quiet, under the table relations with Israel, which at least allowed the Palestinians to maintain the claim that there was a ceiling on what Israel could gain in the region in terms of the benefits of peace so long as it failed to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. But the UAE signaled that others are simply not going to wait for the Palestinians; that changes from the common view of threats from Iran or al Qaeda or ISIS or from pandemics or from the need to create digitally-based economies must be dealt with and the region cannot be frozen. Israel is increasingly seen as a potentially helpful partner.
And as the catastrophic explosion in Beirut and the demonstrations there and in Iraq also signal, there is much less tolerance for the same old conspiracy theories or slogans for governing or for mobilizing support. This is also likely to be true for both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. To be sure, addressing problems cannot be avoided in many of the countries in the region. Of course, given the economic ravishes resulting from COVID-19, many of the countries in the Middle East, not just those that identify with Iran, may face challenges from their publics in the absence of good governance or delivery of services and any kind of safety nets. That may prove less true for the oil rich states that have more of a financial cushion, but even these states are experiencing economic difficulties with the decline in oil prices and they will not have the same resources to bail out others in need in the region and that, too, could trigger upheaval in the area.
The international community, too, will have fewer resources to help regional states deal with their economic and health needs given the general economic decline caused by COVID-19. One last point on the international community and the implications of the Israel-UAE breakthrough. It has generally been welcomed. Not all are willing to forsake the Palestinian cause, but one consequence of the breakthrough is that by taking unilateral Israeli annexation off the table, a major exacerbating problem with the American Jewish community and the Diaspora more generally, with the Democratic Party in the United States, and with the Europeans has been avoided. Similarly, the annexation would have provided the BDS movement an extraordinary boost. Now, if Arab states do, in fact, follow the UAE example, BDS will lose even more. They would be calling for boycotts— and de-legitimization of Israel—while Arab states are openly engaging with it. None of this means that the Palestinian cause will disappear or that progressives will diminish their support for it or that Israel will no longer face the risk of becoming a binational state if it does not find a way to address it. But it does mean that Palestinians are not going to be rescued by the international community either economically or politically and the Palestinian national movement is in need of some real soul searching.
On identity issues, the Assessment points out that the picture here is also mixed. Affiliation with synagogues has been declining but COVID-19 has produced expansive online Jewish learning and institutional programs. And, Reform and Conservative synagogues are holding Shabbat and prayer services digitally and getting large turnouts. Surely, some of that is tied to sheltering in place and looking for things to do, but those who begin to join these services may also find their spiritual needs being addressed and may well be more likely to affiliate. It is too soon to know but also too soon to write-off what may also be more positive outcomes. And yet the continuing trends on Jewish identification in the Diaspora with synagogues and other communal institutions, low birthrates, and high rates of intermarriage without conversion to Judaism by the non-Jewish spouse are troubling.
As for resources and philanthropy, the Jewish communities will be hit like all others. The assessment acknowledges that but also points out that they may be hit less hard even while patterns of giving may also change.
With so much that is unknown, it is important at this stage to identify the key issues, highlight questions that must be asked, assess differing scenarios and anticipate what will need to be addressed as priorities in the near and medium term. JPPI’s report does all that and offers one more very important thing: it offers perspective. And, perspective now is more important than ever at this remarkable time in our history.
Stuart Eizenstat and Dennis Ross