The Jewish People Policy Institute’s Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People undertakes, each year, to determine whether the past year’s developments have affected Israel and the Jewish world positively or negatively. The Assessment summary submitted to the Government of Israel is a vital resource for the country’s decision makers – a condensed, policy-oriented overview of trends and recommendations in five different dimensions of Jewish well-being: geopolitics, community bonds, resources, identity and identification, and demography.
A year ago, the Jewish people had to contend with its own specific challenges while participating in a worldwide effort to address the sudden and severe crisis precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic. This year, although that crisis still hovers in the background, the spotlight has shifted to another dramatic development – a war raging in Europe that threatens global stability and the current world order. Not coincidentally, this year’s Demography Index focuses on the Jews of Ukraine and Russia. There is a triple irony of history. There are 10,000 Holocaust survivors in Ukraine among the more than 100,000 Jews. They survived in their youth by hiding or fleeing from the Nazis, many to Russia. Now in their older age they must hide and flee again, this time more than 70 years later, and now from Russian aggression. And they are seeking refuge in Germany, which had been the epicenter of the Holocaust and to Poland, where the Nazis carried out their greatest genocide.
The war has forced the Jewish world to engage with a number of issues, some of them urgent. The State of Israel, the Jewish Agency, and Diaspora Jewish communities have mobilized to provide Humanitarian aid and to absorb immigrants and refugees. Organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Claims Conference have organized remarkable ambulance convoys to get homebound survivors to safety.
Israel has provided mobile hospitals and medical assistance to Ukrainians, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. However, Israel has also had to tread a fine line between its desire to help a beleaguered Ukraine and its need to maintain stable relations with Russia, whose military presence in Syria – especially its extensive air defenses – gives Russia leverage against Israel. Indeed, Russia could dramatically raise the costs to Israel of carrying out air operations to blunt the Iranian effort in and through Syria to transfer advanced weapons, including precision guidance for missiles, to Hezbollah. Presently, Russia generally permits Israel freedom of action in Syria but could change that posture and Israel must manage that reality.
The discussion of Russia, Syria, and Iran highlights Israel’s need to balance its interests and its moral responsibilities. In this year’s assessment, the broader balance of issues pertaining to the Jewish people’s interests and moral mission are interlaced with the discussion of trends and recommendations appearing in this report.
These new challenges have not, of course, eliminated old ones. Antisemitism in countries around the world, on both the left and the right, continues to erode Jewish security; young people say they are “lowering their profile” in order to avoid confrontation with radical antisemitic and anti-Israel elements. Jews in vulnerable areas in France are being relocated to safer residences by the French Jewish community, CRIF. American college campuses remain hotbeds of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist activity, putting Jewish students on the defensive and in need of positive answers to combat misinformation about Israel.
Israel’s security concerns about the Iranian nuclear threat have not disappeared; as of this writing, it remains unclear whether there will be a revival of the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, and if so, how much time will it buy? Israel and the United States share the objective of preventing Iran from ever acquiring or developing a nuclear weapon but have different views on what it will take to ensure that. While the current Israeli government is seeking to work closely with the Biden administration on Iran, it has also made clear it will not be bound by the JCPOA if it is revived. Iran, as well as the Palestinian issue in an era when little progress is possible on it, pose difficulties for navigating Israeli policy in Washington.
The Israeli government has indicated an interest in helping the economic circumstances and living standards of both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, but efforts have been halting and not up to the challenge.
There is also some good news in the report. Israel’s economic situation is stable, and the resources available to the Jewish people are substantial. We recommend that some of those resources be allocated to strengthening Jewish education in the Diaspora. Another positive development of the past year is that Israel has continued to improve and strengthen its relations with several of its Arab neighbors.
The Abraham Accords, signed in September 2020, have been highly successful in a short period of time. After more than 40 years of peace, trade between Israel and Egypt in 2021 was only $300 million, with little Israeli tourism to Egypt. By contrast, in a short period of time, trade between Israel and the UAE in 2021, the first full year of the Accords, was over $1 billion, and is expected to reach over $2 billion in 2022. And even with Covid restrictions, 250,000 Israelis have visited the UAE, which has opened two new synagogues and hosted an Israeli pavilion at its world expo. There is room for much greater trade and investment, to the mutual benefit of both countries.
Moreover, the government coalition that formed with the participation of Jews and Arabs, though it has not solved the complex problems in the relations between these groups, has nevertheless highlighted the potential for cooperation that could produce a better future for Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities alike.
This year, in the framework of its policy recommendations, JPPI emphasizes the challenge of absorbing the diverse wave of immigration arriving from Ukraine and Russia, with its cultural and social implications; decision makers are again called upon to carefully examine means of addressing the Haredi sector’s rapid growth and its social, economic, and cultural ramifications; the problem of global antisemitism demands significant attention on the part of the Israeli government, which must plan its response in a systematic way at the highest echelons; and, of special importance, Israel must use its resources and creative powers to narrow the gaps between different groups and sectors, and to achieve maximal cohesion, both internally and among the Jewish people as a whole.
The challenges are great, and the lack of governmental stability still casts its pall, making it hard to cope with the challenges and to formulate long-term plans for their resolution. But it is clear that, given current circumstances, Israel cannot wait until the political situation changes, or until the electorate makes an unequivocal decision. Israel must act, and if the governmental baton once again passes, we hope that those who come after will take action in their turn.
Stuart E. Eizenstat and Dennis Ross