Message from our President

It’s never been easy to be Jewish. But this moment is especially daunting.

October 7th, the invasion of Gaza, anti-Zionist campus protests, the surge in antisemitism, the growing isolation of Israel, and the widening gulf between Biden and Netanyahu, are all reasons for Jews to be alarmed. Never in my lifetime have I seen so much pressure and distress thrust upon the Jewish people all at once. Channeling Thomas Paine, it seems fair to say that these are times that try the Jewish soul.

I certainly don’t have a comprehensive solution to these predicaments. But I do have at least a basic idea of how not to respond to them.

First, let’s do our best to avoid extremism. It was extremists who created the conditions of the current crisis to begin with, and it is extremists who are preventing its resolution. Cooler, more reasonable voices have essentially been silenced, which only deepens and extends what is already an insufferable situation. But even closer to home, we have to understand that members of the American Jewish community have different interpretations of our circumstances and there is bound to be disagreement. Applying labels and contemptuously dismissing one another’s views provide little insight into where we are and the practical steps we need to take.

For example, I’ve been a sustaining donor with Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders for many years. Lately, I’ve been making additional contributions to these effective and hard-working charities as they’ve increased their efforts to help sick, hungry and injured children in war-torn Gaza, in conjunction with the humanitarian aid being provided by the US government. I recently discovered that there are rumors circulating on the internet which claim that one or both of these non-profits are working with Hamas. It seems that such remarks have been generated by people who don’t want any aid to reach any Palestinians whatsoever, including children. But claiming that these highly reputable organizations are thus assisting anti-Jewish and anti-Israel terrorists is just as nonsensical as saying that because I’m a Zionist, I support ethnic cleansing and genocide. The suffering of innocent children should be a politically neutral point that focuses our moral resolve. Muddling the issue with these kinds of fact-starved accusations only prolongs the misery of those who least deserve it.

Second, let’s be careful not to succumb to despair, which involves resignation to the worst outcomes that a situation may produce. Instead, let’s commit ourselves to what Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times calls possibilism.  The future belongs to those who are honest about their circumstances and are willing to work for something better. Despair, as well as blind optimism, can paralyze us. To realize a future that’s best for the Jewish people, indeed best for everyone, we must avoid the temptations of these kinds of thinking. In the early and mid-20th century, there was serious resistance to the idea of a Jewish state from the Ottoman Empire, the British government and the Arab countries. Many Jews in Europe and the United States thereby resigned themselves to the futility of the Zionist project. On the other side of the spectrum, some Orthodox Jews have resisted Zionism because they believe that the Messiah will soon come, who will then lead the Jewish people back to their ancestral homeland. The success of Zionism and the establishment of Israel demanded a pragmatic confidence that the Jewish people can surmount their difficulties with a clear-eyed sense of the future and a willingness to achieve it. Neither despair nor blind optimism would have permitted this to happen.

In spite of these internal and external obstacles, over the course of half a century, from the first Zionist Congress to the international recognition of Israel, the Jewish nation was born. Had despair won the day, the hard work necessary to create a homeland for the Jewish people would not have been attempted. But neither did the early pioneers indulge in a naive religious optimism, believing that sooner or later an intervention from Heaven would lead us triumphantly to Zion.

Extremism, whether in thought or action, expresses both too much and too little confidence. It invests too much confidence in a single point of view, while showing too little confidence in the possibility that our own imperfect opinions can be corrected and supplemented by other people who are willing to reason with us in good faith. To be Jewish in the current moment requires that we avoid the extremes of overly optimistic and pessimistic thinking. Instead, let’s join together as possibilists in the belief that our people will endure once again as we have so many times over the course of the centuries.

Mark Packer