Narratives of Power and Weakness, Part 2: Weakness

In the previous post, I presented a story that showed how one specific population of people, African refugees in Israel, saw one specific identity for the Jewish people—strength and power. The way Jewish “national” identity (in this case, linked with Israeli identity) was perceived was specific to the situation; the power dynamic of a refugee arriving from Sudan or Eritrea and seeking, and receiving, protection in the Jewish state automatically establishes the hegemony of the giver over the asker. Nonetheless, I think the story raises important questions about the ability of the Jewish state to create a self-identity based on regional power.

This second post presents a perspective on the vulnerability and weakness of the Jews, based on what (relatively little) I know about JDC’s work with struggling Jews and Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.

“JDC is the only organization feeding the Babushkas in the FSU” is a phrase I have heard from several people involved in different ways with JDC’s work in the FSU, usually used to open a discussion on what JDC’s role is in the FSU. Leaving aside for now the discussion of what JDC could or should be doing, I think this phrase provides a very stark contrast to the idea of the powerful Jewish nation capable of extending protection to a different starving population.

Unfortunately, this statement is true, and unfortunately, simply keeping these Babushkas and their fellow Jews from starving or freezing to death is a massive task. There are hundreds of thousands of starving, elderly Jews all across the FSU, some in far-flung villages and others living alone and bed-bound in 5th floor walk-ups in Moscow. JDC distributes food and care to these nearly-forgotten Jews, providing assistance both from Claims Conference funds (money given by the German government to compensate Nazi victims) and from money raised independently by the JDC.

Along with distributing food to Babushkas and visiting them in their homes, JDC is also deeply involved with strengthening and renewing the once-vibrant Jewish communities of the FSU and Eastern Europe. Where there were once bustling centers of Jewish learning, culture and life, there are now communities and entire countries with practically no Jews (there is, to my knowledge, one Jewish teenager in all of Albania. One.) JDC supports Jews and helps recreate Jewish communal infrastructure in places where Jews are still afraid to openly identify as Jews for fear of anti-Semitism.

I am by no means trying to suggest, through the title of this post nor through the content, that I unilaterally view struggling Jewish communities as weak and helpless. If anything, videos like this one from the JDC supported Szarvas Summer Camp in Hungary, prove that the work JDC is doing is helping and the communities are slowly becoming stronger and more self-sustainable. But that there are still so many hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide who need basic support to have food and shelter is shocking to me from the comfort of my apartment in Jerusalem.

These types of activities, part of JDC’s priorities of “Saving the World’s Poorest Jews” and “Revitalizing Jewish Life”, are so crucial. I am so inspired about the future of the worldwide Jewish community knowing that these actions are undertaken, and I am so honored to be a part of the organization doing this amazing work.

I present this small glimpses of JDC’s work explicitly to contrast with the economic capability and control over our own destiny that was central to the Jewish identity the refugees ascribe to the Jewish people in the Jewish state. But while my students were stunned to learn that the Jews see themselves as near victims and commemorate their non-destruction with several annual holidays, the danger of the disappearance of the Jewish community in parts of Eastern Europe and the FSU is still high. The story of Jewish life on the brink of disappearance is also still central to worldwide Jewish identity. In fact, this is one of the most common arguments I read in the news for the continuing need for a Jewish state.

This also makes sense, since the Holocaust was only two generations ago and there is still the specter of disappearance hovering behind some of the Jewish communities I mentioned earlier in the post. It is an incredible tribute to the State of Israel that it was able to absorb millions of these people’s family members and, within a matter of decades, become the country I described in Part 1 of this series.

Between these two very different outlooks and perspectives on Jewish power, how do I begin to define “A Global Jewish Identity”? No clue.

To be fair, I don’t think a clear answer exists, nor do I think one is necessary. I simply find it interesting, as someone who is volunteering with the world’s largest humanitarian aid organization in a thriving Jewish state, to consider the current state of affairs in global Jewry.

Thoughts welcome.

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