2021 Annual Assessment

The Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People

PROJECT HEAD: Shmuel Rosner

Dan Feferman, Shlomo Fischer, Shuki Friedman, Avi Gil, Inbal Hakman, Michael Herzog, Gitit Levy-Paz, Dov Maimon, Steven Popper, Uzi Rebhun, John Ruskay, Noah Slepkov, Adar Schieber, Yedidia Stern, Shalom Salomon Wald

Barry Geltman

2021 Annual Assessment

The pandemic forced both Jews and non-Jews to quickly adapt to a new and variable reality of unknown duration, sometimes on short notice.3

Practices such as mask-wearing, working from home, social distancing, everyday life lived within the narrower family unit, digital meetings, and more, became routine. The pandemic’s influence was evident in the professional, interpersonal, cultural and leisure spheres, and more. It was also evident in all areas of Jewish life: in dwindling in-person interaction between Jews, in the halting of travel to Israel, in joint learning, prayer, holidays celebrated without extended family or community circle, and the like. Israel, like other countries, witnessed a temporary economic slowdown, and restrictions on everyday activities were imposed to varying degrees. The education system was disrupted; schools did not operate continuously or regularly for more than a year.

Judaism is a culture that is essentially group based. In the Diaspora, where Jews are a (usually small) minority, the communal aspect of Jewish life is critically important in the social and demographic contexts. Regarding the former, the pandemic damaged social relations by impeding the ability to maintain a shared communal life. It forced people into social distancing and quarantine – in contrast to Jewish life which is based on closeness and convergence. The change wrought by the pandemic was sudden and dramatic. As with other faiths and their places of worship, synagogues in the US and other countries ceased their operations in brick-and-mortar buildings and switched to digitally enabled remote prayer. Many prayer quorums, especially in Orthodox communities, moved to backyards and parking lots. Jewish students did not come to Israel. Community centers halted their physical operations and moved most of their activity to online formats. Israeli shlichim (emissaries) could not function normally in Diaspora communities. Jewish educational institutions had difficulty maintaining normal schedules.
Jews were, however, observed to engage in considerable geographic movement, sparked by extraordinary considerations. Latin American Jews found ways to enter the US to get vaccinated. Exact numbers are hard to obtain, but it appears that many thousands made their way north from pandemic-decimated and vaccine-poor countries to places where one could be inoculated. A similar phenomenon could be seen in several other communities. It was reported, for instance, that many Sephardic Jews in the Turkish community went to Spain and Portugal to be vaccinated.4 And, of course, quite a few Jews with Israeli passports who live far from Israel traveled there for the vaccine, and then returned abroad.

At the time of this writing, August 2021, it was too early to predict when and how the COVID-19 pandemic would end. Israel was one of the first countries in the world to vaccinate most of its citizens and to resume near-normal life, thanks to a fruitful dialogue between the Israeli government and Albert Bourla, the Jewish CEO of Pfizer (who was invited to light a torch at Israel’s Independence Day ceremony). But Israel is still proceeding cautiously in recognition of the need to continue living with the pandemic, which is intensifying due to new, vaccine-resistant variants or declining vaccine efficacy. In other countries the vaccination process has been slower. The US, home to the largest Jewish community, is moving ahead relatively quickly with vaccination, but not as rapidly as Israel. This is the situation everywhere in the world. One way or another it is clear that a return to normal life, not only within each individual country but at the global level, means closing gaps between countries so that professionals, shlichim, and tourists can move about freely.

The question of whether the pandemic is largely behind us is hard to answer. Forecasts range from considerable optimism (improved vaccine efficacy will counter the disease’s impact and neutralize it) to cautious pessimism (we will have to live with the coronavirus for many years to come). Even the debate now underway in various forums regarding the future of society and culture post-pandemic is long on speculation and controversy, but short on certainty.5

The big pandemics of the past sometimes had far-reaching implications for human conduct, but it must be said that the coronavirus pandemic, for all its severity, does not compare to the Black Death of the 14th century, or to the Spanish Flu of the early 20th century, in terms of victim numbers or damage. However, even during the present pandemic and in its immediate wake, we could discern the outlines of change in activity patterns relevant to a focused discussion of the situation of the Jewish people in a number of areas.

One conclusion commonly reached by those engaged in speculation about the future is that the pandemic has accelerated earlier developments. In a general context, and probably also with regard to the Jewish world specifically, the most striking acceleration is that of the shift to digital/remote operations – in commerce, work and study, cultural activity, and more.

In this context, it should be noted that the pandemic is generating movement and countermovement. There is movement away from community (physical distancing), and there is movement toward community – sparked by the need for support in times of crisis and loneliness. Studies conducted in many different countries have shown that the pandemic is strengthening the family unit and family relationships, especially among the young.6

There is almost no dispute that in some areas of human activity, such as commerce and work, which before the pandemic were moving toward remote activity, there will be no going back precisely to the way things were before. Areas connected directly to the Jewish arena include joint learning, conferences and themed events, and the work of organizations and companies with a decentralized presence (like a large proportion of Jewish institutions). The question of remote activity in the religious sphere remains open.7

In quite a few countries and societies, we can discern a tendency toward strengthened faith among people for whom religious activity is important, as well as a desire for more frequent participation in religious gatherings once the pandemic ends.8

A major change Jewish communities may face, should the return to in-person gatherings prove only partial, and if Jews are shown to prefer digital activity, is a decline in their value as providers of culture, content, and other “identity products.” The shift to digital content will make it possible to find all of these in the online marketplace, without having to rely on a community in the immediate vicinity. On the other hand, communities will have value, perhaps even added value, as providers of emotional safety nets for their members. Many mental health experts feel that the pandemic could potentially have long-term consequences for emotional resilience, especially among young people whose transition to independent adult life it obstructs.9

Jewish institutional membership numbers do not appear, so far, to have declined significantly during the pandemic. This applies to synagogues and to social and community organizations (it should be noted that in the US only a third of Jews say they belong to a synagogue, with a fifth participating in prayer services more than once a month). However, in many cases the meaning of institutional membership, and the investment required of members, has changed. In fact, it seems that a main reason why there has been no significant erosion in membership is the decision taken by many institutions to completely waive, or significantly reduce, requirements for member financial participation in the institutions’ upkeep.10

The significance of such a decision during such a period is twofold: members weren’t required to pay, but neither were they able to come. Thus, the memberships continued but became weaker in terms of practical commitment.

Another aspect of the trend toward more extensive digital activity is the growing emphasis on the importance of the business sector involved in cyber security development. This growing importance (along with the rise in cyber warfare and cybercrime) has led to a sharp jump in investment in Israeli cyber security firms (Israel is considered a global power in the field). As such, the continued trend toward digitization may help Israel recover relatively quickly from the pandemic-related economic slowdown and fortify its status as an economic powerhouse and knowledge hub.11 This fortification also gives Israel an image boost and diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis the many countries interested in Israeli knowledge and tech (sometimes there are image problems as well, as in the NSO affair and the transfer of spyware to Saudi Arabia).12

As for the geopolitical arena (the main review of which can be found on page 35), most experts hold that the pandemic will weaken globalization processes, and countries will attempt to rely less on trade and cultural relations with other countries. However, the pandemic is inevitably also driving recognition of the need for global cooperation when there is a crisis that transcends national borders. According to Ivan Krastev,13 the pandemic has both exposed the failures of globalization and served as an agent of globalization. Past JPPI reports have discussed at length how globalization benefits Israel and the Jewish people by underscoring their comparative advantages and addressing their unique needs. We won’t repeat those discussions here, but will mention a few possible implications of the retreat from globalization (especially should it prove rapid, as many experts anticipate), and its impact on the Jewish communities: a continued rise in antisemitism; a decline in tourism with its potential for face-to-face encounters; an erosion of Israeli willingness, and economic ability, to absorb Jewish immigration; greater Israeli-Jewish cohesion and a distancing from global Jewish peoplehood (the prevailing assessment is that post-pandemic conditions will strengthen territorial nationalism more than it will ethnic nationalism); and more.