Many things that worried us tremendously a few months ago seem to have lost their urgency in the age of COVID19. As Bari Weiss noted in a recent New York Times column, “many of the [culture war] battles of the past decade now seem self-indulgent and stagnant; others a waste of time...”
Some of this may be good; it may re-center our debate around things that really make a difference in people’s lives, things that truly, and not only symbolically, change our communities.
But important things also get forgotten as our brains’ limited “urgency bandwidth” are consumed by COVID.
Think, for example, how worried many of us were a few months ago about the state of relations between Israel and the Diaspora. The breakdown of this link was seen as one of the key problems we were facing as a people, and yet that concern has largely disappeared from the community discourse as we deal with COVID. The issues underlying the conflicts are still there, even more than before; but American Jews are largely – and justifiably – worried about the survival of their communal system, while Israelis are trying to protect their small and crowded country from the deadly virus. Trips back and forth are suspended, and those in exchange programs have returned home. It seems that everybody is turning inwards.
Or are they?
The virus may actually be bringing a much-needed truce in a conversation that was becoming a dialogue of the deaf. Discussions had become circular, with no issue or resolution. Perhaps this pandemic offers an opportunity to reset the conversation under new and better terms. For the first time, after seven decades, American Jews and Israelis are affected simultaneously by the same crisis. The plague is a great equalizer. We are all equally vulnerable, we are all equally afraid; we share the same anguish about the future and the same fear for our loved ones. The stress of a mother working from home while dealing with three kids is the same in Ra’anana and San Francisco; the concern for an elderly parent is the same in Tel Aviv and New York; the sadness of isolation is the same in Bnei Brak and Brooklyn. We may think differently about the Israel policies in the territories, but we all fight for toilet paper in the supermarket.
Deprived of the adrenaline of conflict, exempted of the urge to raise ideological banners, free from the need to second-guess the other’s intentions, we can focus on our common humanity and destiny. And that’s what, quietly but meaningfully, Israelis and American Jews are doing. In a period of two weeks, JFN convened 10 working groups related to areas in Israel that need philanthropic support. Whether addressing the Israeli nonprofit sector, the challenges facing Israel’s high-tech sector, the needs of asylum seekers, the concerns of at-risk children and young adults, or many others, participation rates broke records. Interestingly, the cross attendance in our webinars (events attended by both Americans and Israelis) has soared.
Zoom has turned out to be another great equalizer, and we are seeing a paradox; while they are physically isolated, our members are becoming more genuinely connected across borders and time zones.
But it’s not only that American Jews are thinking of how to help their Israeli brethren, but that Israeli funders are demonstrating solidarity with the American Jewish community in unprecedented ways. In a first, a group of Israeli JFN members is raising money to help purchase and distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to Jewish human services organizations in the United States. Let me repeat that: Israeli donors are contributing to supply PPE in America. Is it millions of dollars? No. Does it fully solve the problem? Not really, but nevertheless Herzl and Ben Gurion are smiling in Heaven. How’s that for coming full circle? How’s that for mutual solidarity?
I’m not naïve. I know that when Covid lifts its ugly shroud, disagreements over religious pluralism, the treatment of Palestinians, and the erosion of democracy in Israel will still be there, and they’ll be of great concern. But this crisis is offering an opportunity to reset the conversation. When the virus is gone, we can return to our fights, but with a renewed sense of mutual destiny and kinship, with a commitment to one another that is stronger than our differences. Let’s tell each other this: “I don’t need you to agree with me; I don’t need you to be like me, but I need you to care for me.” This is precisely what American and Israeli Jews are doing in these trying days. And this fills me with hope and joy.
This Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) is one of physical isolation, but it’s also one in which we discover new ways of connecting, one in which we rediscover our commonality and our inextricable mutuality. This reconnection seems to be one of the hallmarks of this pandemic: Aren’t you renewing contacts with friends long forgotten? Aren’t you calling your mom more often than ever?
This equalizing crisis can help us reconnect with other Jews, whether we are in Israel or the Diaspora.
Like many, I’m spending some of this mandated time at home looking at old photos. I found one, from decades ago, of the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut in my Jewish day school in Buenos Aires. We were all dressed in blue and white, and some were donning the funny-looking “kova tembel” hat that pioneers used to wear in the kibbutzim. In the background, students and teachers were dancing with Israeli flags. In the corner, a stand distributed falafel. Yom Ha’atzmaut was the most joyful day of the year at Bialik School: a simple, unadorned joy at witnessing a modern miracle and at having a homeland that was simultaneously on the other side of the world and deep in our hearts.
Maybe that simple connection is no longer possible; maybe it’s not even healthy. But let’s use this Yom Ha’atzmaut, and this “virus truce,” to climb down from the high branches of our infallible certainties, to rediscover each other and to realize that, as a loving family split by social distancing, we’ll hug each other warmly and with relief once this is over.
Hag Ha’atzmaut Sameach!