Based on information coming out of Russia, President Vladimir Putin is clearly working to hobble Jewish and Israeli organizations in the country, particularly the Jewish Agency. This developing crisis presents Israel with a terrible dilemma: Should we fight for Jewish interests behind the rewoven Iron Curtain, or prioritize Israel’s interest in ensuring its freedom of action on our northern border, which depends on good relations with Russia?
This dilemma is the first major test of the section of the 2018 Nation-State Law that obligates the State of Israel to act on behalf of Diaspora Jews. It is hoped that the current crisis will soon subside, but the dilemma it presents will likely continue to haunt Israel’s relations with Russia and may also appear in other contexts. It is important to develop the tools necessary to address it.
Israel, like any sovereign state, must act to ensure the well-being and security of its citizens. But unlike other countries, Israel sees itself as the nation-state of a people that is scattered all over the world—the Jewish people. Israel is home to any Jew who wishes to immigrate there, but it is also the protector of Diaspora Jews in need of its help.
This historical and traditional obligation, which is rooted in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and a long-standing political tradition, has recently been anchored constitutionally. The Nation-State Law, enacted by the Knesset four years ago to great fanfare, stipulates that the state “will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people and of its citizens in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness or their citizenship.”
This clause imposes an obligation upon the State of Israel to act to ensure the well-being of Diaspora Jews in general and especially when they are in distress. The law further states that Israel is obliged to act in the Diaspora to strengthen Jewish identity there, something that, among other things, is pursued in Russia by the organizations now under threat.
In the Middle East reality, however, Israel’s dual commitment to the safety and well-being of its citizens and the peace and security of Diaspora Jews often places Israel in a difficult if not impossible quandary. History shows that Israeli actions sometimes come at a terrible price paid in Jewish blood, such as the murderous terror attack (85 dead and 350 wounded) on the AMIA building in Argentina, which was Hezbollah and Iran’s revenge for the elimination of Abbas al-Musawi in Lebanon.
To what extent, then, should Israel exercise restraint in Gaza, knowing that the more forcefully it acts, the more likely it is that Jews abroad will suffer violence and even terrorism? And in the current crisis with the Putin regime, to what extent should Israel insist on the continued activity of Jewish and Israeli organizations in Russia, if such a confrontation could jeopardize its freedom of action in the northern arena?
Israel’s strategic dilemmas are also legal and, above all, ethical dilemmas. The fact that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people is one of the main justifications for its establishment and continued existence. It has now become a constitutional obligation. Turning a blind eye to that commitment and focusing on narrow Israeli interests would violate this fundamental existential value.
Whatever decision is taken in such dilemmas could compromise the security of Israelis here and of Jews around the world. In order to make such decisions in an informed manner, Israel must hold a principled strategic discussion aimed at designing tools for dealing with cases where these critical interests conflict, so that decision-makers can fulfill their duty while weighing all of Israel’s values and interests.
Dr. Shuki Friedman is vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.