The Jewish People’s existence is either a miraculous phenomenon or an absurd one. Flung between countries across 2,000 years in exile, Jews were constantly vulnerable, disenfranchised, and persecuted. We were forced out of countries faster than we could settle in, giving life to the Jewish maxim: “Be careful about the government, as they approach a person only when they need him. They seem like good friends in good times, but they don't stay for him in time of his trouble” (Pirkei Avot 2:3). And yet, the Jewish People are alive and thriving all the same.
Israeli political scientist Emmanuel Navon credits this, in no small part, to Jewish diplomacy. “Diplomatic history is about statesmanship,” he writes in his book The Star and the Scepter, “yet the Jews were stateless for two-thirds of their three-millennia history.” Clearly, the Jewish People had some secret sauce to the diplomatic game.
Navon understands Jewish diplomacy as containing two primary elements: Jewish faith and political power, what he dubs “the star” and “the scepter,” referencing a biblical verse from the Book of Bamidbar. The Star and the Scepter reads those tools into Jewish survival throughout history, noting their role from the biblical age through modernity, splitting off to Israel in the 1900s and in the contemporary world stage. And that makes sense. It makes sense that the Jews in fifteenth-century Spain relied upon diplomacy, and it makes sense that the modern State of Israel still relies upon diplomacy. Navon’s book validates as much. But for Jews living in the current age and living in the diaspora, one thing is less clear: Is Jewish diplomacy still relevant?
I thought about that question at the World Jewish Congress’ recent Diplomacy Summit, which brought 40 Ronald S. Lauder fellows to see its diplomatic work firsthand in Europe. The trip, five days split between Brussels and Paris, brought us to some of Europe’s most powerful organizations and parties: the European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Even though I majored in international relations and frequently participated in related experiences, I joined the trip with a guarded ambivalence about diplomacy. Of course, I agreed with scholars that diplomacy allows for relationships that can achieve desired interests, but relationships are meant to be a two-way street. It often feels like when Jews are talking, no one is listening. The state of the world seems to be the greatest evidence of that.
Study after study shows surging antisemitism and that Jews are rightfully concerned. Anecdotally, we also know this to be the case. Students at my own college, Yeshiva University, faced antisemitic harassment last semester—despite being on campus grounds and near the security office. Two months earlier, a phone call threat was made against our school. Jewish experiences at secular colleges seem no better.
For all the advocacy done on behalf of Jews—both in and out of the U.S.—it feels like we have little to show for it. From an outside perspective, Jewish diplomacy seems to be a relic of the past. If not, then where is the progress?
What I learned at WJC’s Diplomacy Summit—what I saw—was that quite the opposite is true. Diplomacy is what keeps the dam from bursting, what maintains a stable present and fights for a more stable future. Globally, we are not where we want to be and things are far from perfect. Without diplomacy, though, they would be a lot worse, with no hope of getting better.
Take, for example, the United Nations. It’s no secret that discrimination against Israel is rampant throughout its bodies and organs, and UNESCO is no exception. Without diplomacy, the bad situation remains bad. With diplomacy, a bad situation can be less bad. WJC opts for the latter—and successfully so.
Among WJC’s involvement with the organization is addressing antisemitism through education. In January 2022, WJC and UNESCO partnered with TikTok to offer comprehensive Holocaust education, coming in response to high rates of Holocaust distortion and denial on the app. A year prior, it struck a similar arrangement with Facebook, which has only grown since. These initiatives do not solve all problems, but they do alleviate serious ones. Working with UNESCO helped make these developments possible.
Diplomacy also makes friends like Austrian Ambassador to UNESCO Claudia Reinprecht, who spoke to our group about her commitment to fighting antisemitism in UNESCO and confronting it within Austria itself. Reinprecht, who is not Jewish, most notably fought (and succeeded) to remove the antisemitic Carnival of Aalst from the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Robert Ejnes, executive director of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, shared a personal perspective on this battle. France is not an antisemitic country, he told us, but it does have virulent antisemitism—attributed to diverse causes. Diplomacy enables Ejnes to work with the French government in addressing that hate. His efforts with WJC may not expunge Jew hatred from his country, but it does prevent it from getting worse, if not making it better. He reaffirmed that the battle via diplomacy is not fruitless.
Diplomacy will never be a quick fix—especially not the Jewish brand. It depends upon time and patience, building relationships and establishing connections. The nature of its change—slow and gradual—should not be mistaken for no change at all.
Whether in the halls of UNESCO and the EU or the streets of Jewish towns, Jewish diplomacy is still relevant today. It’s relevant for the Jews in Latin America; it’s relevant for the Jews in South Africa; it’s relevant for the Jews in France; it’s relevant for the Jews across the world. Our star and our scepter are our inheritance from our people’s tradition. We would be ill-advised to forsake them now.
Sruli Fruchter is a part of the 2020-2021 Lauder Fellow cohort, representing Yeshiva University. He is a part of the Lauder Fellowship: an international network of top Jewish student leaders seeking to represent and advocate on behalf of the global Jewish community on campus.