Jerusalem Post op-ed: The Jewish imperative of the coronavirus crisis

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Jerusalem Post op-ed: The Jewish imperative of the coronavirus crisis

Published in The Jerusalem Post, April 23, 2020

By Ronald S. Lauder, World Jewish Congress President

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented global crisis. Hundreds of thousands have died, millions have been sickened, and billions have been confined to their homes. Healthcare and economic systems have been stretched and strained, and many nations are facing a test the likes of which they have not encountered since 1945.

For many weeks now, the pandemic has disrupted our civilization. Life seems to have stopped in its tracks. The whole of humanity has found itself contending with a common threat to life as we know it.

Even as spring brings hopeful signs, humankind is facing a gargantuan challenge. As governments around the world set about easing restrictions and life begins to gradually, carefully and haltingly return, it is evident that the coronavirus has changed every one of us, creating a new historic reality.

The Jewish people have once again found themselves at the forefront of the struggle against a worldwide calamity. New York City has been an outsized victim of the pandemic, and some of its Jewish communities have been especially hard hit.

London, too, has suffered badly, and in some of its Jewish communities the number of cases has been especially high. The same is true in other major European cities, chief among them Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Moscow. From Borough Park to Golders Green, from Williamsburg to Stamford Hill, Jewish communities are experiencing loss, panic, hardship and pain.

However, these same communities are demonstrating exceptional fortitude and cohesion. Their difficult hour is also their finest. At a time when darkness seems to be descending upon the world, they are lighting the candles of dedication, determination and love.

Now we must raise our eyes and look toward tomorrow. As the pandemic peaks and begins to abate - with the resulting devastation plain for all to see - we must understand its implications for the near and far future of the Jewish people.

In the coming months, the Jewish world will have to confront the same challenge facing all nations: how to safeguard our lives and wellbeing as we renew business and economic activity. In order to find the right balance of life in the shadow of coronavirus, we must demonstrate prudence, ingenuity, self-discipline and creativity.

At the same time, we will have to find new ways to conduct our communal life and educate our children. The social-distancing we have all been compelled to undertake should become a tool of community-building and social-bonding. We must ensure that Jewish life isn’t enfeebled, but empowered.

The second challenge is solidarity. Like every family, the extended family of the Jewish people is tested in a time of crisis.

ON ONE HAND, enormous external pressure exacerbates internal tensions, often sharpening divisions that may descend into brotherly strife. On the other hand, today more than ever, it is clear just how dependent we are on one another. It is doubly clear that we must overcome that which divides us, rediscover what unites us, and above all, support one another.

The virus does not differentiate between ultra-Orthodox and Reform Jews. The economic implosion hurts liberals and conservatives alike. And the imperative to nurture a strong, unified Jewish community grows exponentially in the face of the dangers surrounding us. Now is the hour for unity and harmony, for a renaissance of Jewish solidarity.

The third challenge is antisemitism. In the last few years, we have witnessed a new outbreak of one of the oldest and most odious plagues the world has ever known: hatred of the Jews. Now the situation is deteriorating even further.

Today there are those who blame the Jews for the spread of coronavirus, and there will be those who will blame the Jews for the coming severe economic dislocation. As in the past, a fatal biological epidemic is spawning a vicious torrent of antisemitism, endangering the lives of Jews.

On this front, there is absolutely no room for compromise. We must stand as one against those who would destroy us. We must protect every Jew and every Jewish community that comes under attack. Therefore we must deploy the only remedy that can eradicate the virus of antisemitism: strength, strength and more strength. Only by standing united and resolute can we hold back the resurgence of hatred that threatens to engulf us.

The fourth challenge is the State of Israel. Over the last few months, Israel has confronted the coronavirus pandemic in a remarkable manner. It identified the threat earlier than most, enacted stringent measures and bolstered its healthcare system (which has garnered international praise).

Israelis have once again proven that they are strong and resilient, able to confront the crisis as one nation. At the same time, the pandemic has created a certain tension between the Jewish state and Jews in the Diaspora. Many felt frustrated because during their hour of need they were prohibited from traveling to the state they see as their second home. Others felt that Israel could have done more to help crisis-stricken communities. The gap between stanching the spread of the virus in Jewish Tel Aviv and succumbing to the virus in Jewish New York (Jewish London and Jewish Antwerp) has rankled.

In order to contend with the dramatic challenges of 2020, the Jewish world must prepare and organize anew.

The first urgent need is an ambitious initiative to bring Israeli and other medical aid to Jewish communities ravaged by coronavirus. The second is a global approach to waging war against antisemitism wherever it rears its ugly head.

Also required are coordinated measures so that Jewish communities which have escaped the worst of the pandemic can help those suffering illness and devastation. Last but not least, intensive action is needed in every individual community so the fortunate among us stand by those to whom fate has been so cruel.

Above all, we must renew the credo of “one for all and all for one.” We must re-embrace our age-old ethos of mutual responsibility and love of Israel.

In the post-coronavirus world, globalization will wane, and nationalism will rise. Thus, we must act now, fostering the Jewish spirit of enlightened, generous, humanistic and democratic nationhood. And we must vow - as a unified extended family - to confront all that still lies ahead with courage and determination.

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