By Gol Kalev, The Jerusalem Post
In 1895, as he was crafting his vision for a Jewish state, Theodor Herzl wrote: “In my observations, I stared at the phenomenon of the crowd for a long time without understanding it.”
Next week, with a Jewish state a firm reality, some of the world’s leading Jewish thinkers will gather in Jerusalem to try to understand the effect of today’s “phenomenon of the crowd” on the Jewish world. Meeting for the annual conference of the Jewish Planning Policy Institute, they will analyze the impact of rising nationalism and globalization. Stuart Eizenstat, former US ambassador to the European Union who served in senior positions in the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations, is co-chairman of the JPPI. “A lot of people feel that they have been left out of an increasingly digital economy,” he observes. “That was reflected in the last US election, in Brexit and in developments in Europe. Globalization benefited just a portion of the population. It contributed to the demonstrable economic divide that we have today. Median income has been frozen, while most of the growth has occurred at the top.”
Eizenstat, who among other roles, served as deputy secretary of the Treasury, explains why these developments need to be explored in a Jewish context. “The Jews have been the beneficiary of globalization. Given our disproportionate education levels, nearly all of us have been on one side of the digital divide. We need to understand what that means for Jewish communities.” Dennis Ross, who served five US presidents, including as president Bill Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator, is also co-chairman of the JPPI. He underscores the gravity of these issues.
“Globalization is a reality that is not going to disappear. One cannot wish it away. The digital age does not respect borders, nor does the movement of capital. We have to recognize that in reaction to that, there is a new kind of nationalism, populism and identity-based politics.” Ross is concerned about the populist reaction to globalization. “When you look at historical instances of populism, there was often a search for a scapegoat. Those who were viewed as cosmopolitan or seemingly doing well were scapegoats, and that was typically the Jews. We simply cannot ignore that whenever we have seen those forces of populism emerge, we have seen a growth of antisemitism.” But the situation can also be seen in another light, as Avinoam Bar-Yosef, president of the JPPI, remarks. “There are certainly potential threats, but there are also opportunities. After all, Israel is a nation state. There are parts of the world that do not comprehend that Judaism is both a nation, a religion and a civilization. Now, with the rise of nationalism, it is possible that there could be greater appreciation of that.”
Indeed, an interesting dynamic emerged. Often the nationalist movements that are accused of housing antisemitic elements in their midst are also fervent supporters of the state of Israel. Ross emphasizes, “We need to be careful and look at it on a case-by-case basis. We need to penetrate the issues more closely when making our analysis. But what is clear is that there are forces within those nationalist movements who are indeed antisemitic. They need to be discredited and rejected.” Eizenstat makes an important distinction. “There has been an increase in antisemitic incidents, but that increase is by a fringe. Data shows that there has not been a general rise in antisemitic attitudes in Europe or the US. Moreover, when the fringe in nationalist parties exhibited antisemitism, it was sharply rebuked by those parties’ leadership.” This leads to the question of where today’s threat to the Jewish people comes from. Is there a bias to over-emphasize the dangers of the past? One could argue that today’s nationalists and populists do not have the capabilities to eradicate the Jews, but that forces of globalization do. Flag-carriers such as the EU and UN have the capability to politically assault the Jewish state. Eizenstat puts it this way: “There are enough checks and balances in our institutions to make sure that governments do not follow the lead of the fringe, but there is always the possibility that the fringe grows into the mainstream as outside circumstances evolve.” As for the EU, Eizenstat sees the coming year as crucial. “There are three upcoming elections in Europe this year that could have major ramifications. We are facing the potential unraveling of the EU if anti-EU nationalist parties win. I do not believe this will be the case, but we need to have a view on what this would mean for the Jewish world.”
Similarly, Ross sees the changing dynamics in the US as a development that needs to be closely analyzed. “In the US we saw a lot of populism in the last campaign. It was not an assault on the Right or the Left. It was an assault on the Center, a rejection of the establishment, rejection of expertise.” With those global forces unfolding, the JPPI decided to dedicate its resources to ask the question: “What does it mean for the Jews?” Bar-Yosef explains, “The JPPI brings together the best policy planners from around the Jewish world to think strategically through those issues – from various fields of expertise from the Left to the Right, from atheist to ultra-Orthodox. We analyze the issues and make action-oriented planning recommendations for the future of the Jewish people globally.” Bar-Yosef points to an important reality governing such a Jewish future. “Israel has turned into the largest Jewish community in the world. That changes the rules of the game, but it also comes with a responsibility.” Such responsibility also draws fire. Ross states it bluntly: “Israel lies at the heart of the Jewish future. The effort to delegitimize Israel is an effort to delegitimize Jews. The delegitimization movement is not about settlements or any other excuse. It is about Israel’s existence.” Putting that in context, last year when presenting JPPI’s annual assessment to the Israeli cabinet, Ross told the prime minister: “There has never been a golden age for the Jews. In eras that are called golden ages, the Jews had no rights. Whatever they had could be taken away from them in an instant. Now the Jews have Israel. That makes today the golden age for the Jews.”
In his four years in Paris, Herzl observed the populace, the rise of nationalism, and even of globalization through debates about controversial alliances, as well as about socialism and antisemitism. As his days in Paris drew to a close, he incorporated those observations into a vision for a Jewish state. One hundred and twenty years later, as Jewish thinkers delve into their exploration of similar global forces, they will do so in the Jewish state, in the company of its president and Supreme Court chief justice – a powerful testament that indeed, if we will it, it is no dream.