Anyone my age or older heard echoes of the Cold War and the struggle to save Soviet Jewry this week following the Russian government’s efforts to shutter the Jewish Agency offices in the country on claims that the organization is violating Russian law. The Jewish Agency facilitates immigration of Jews to Israel—including the 10,000 who have immigrated to Israel since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February—and closing it down will make it much harder for Russian Jews to leave should they elect to do so. While the Russian Justice Ministry accuses the Jewish Agency of illegally collecting personal data, the uniform consensus among Israeli government officials is that Moscow is retaliating against Israel for its stance on the Russia-Ukraine war by targeting the Jewish Agency and Russian Jews.
Russia’s efforts to use its Jewish citizens as pawns in a diplomatic dispute with Israel place the practical implications of Zionism in a stark light. The conversation around Zionism, particularly in the U.S., has become enormously polarizing in recent years, not only beyond the confines of the Jewish community but inside it. As with any polarizing issue, many adherents on both sides gravitate toward the extremes, with one camp claiming that Zionism is an unvarnished force for good when it comes to Jewish well-being and that the state of Israel is the only failsafe guarantee of Jewish safety, and the other camp claiming that Zionism and its manifestation in Israel as a Jewish state are illegitimate endeavors for which Jews ultimately have to answer. Russia’s actions toward the Jewish Agency and Israel’s unfolding efforts to deter Russia from holding its Jews hostage demonstrate why neither of these two camps’ absolute claims is accurate, and how the complicated issue of Zionism eludes neat characterization.
The fact that we still live in a world where a state believes its foreign policy goals can be accomplished through targeting its own Jewish community demonstrates the continued relevance of Zionism and the necessity of Israel not only as a Jewish homeland but as a Jewish state that can provide safe harbor. The history of Russian rulers fomenting violence against their Jewish citizens is an unfortunately long one, and directly led to the rise and success of the Zionist movement in the 19th century. Russian tsars used Russian Jews for their own political purposes long before there was a state of Israel, Soviet leaders continued the ugly tradition during Israel’s first four decades, and today’s Russian government sees fit to do the same despite Israel and Russia allegedly having entered a new era in relations. It is impossible to look at the scope of Jewish history and reasonably conclude that it makes no difference to Jewish safety to have Jewish sovereignty, and the fact that Russian Jews are walking around today wondering if their government will prevent them from making aliyah is a testament to Israel’s importance. It remains the ultimate failsafe and the only truly secure option for Jews, come hell or high water and no matter where they currently reside in the world. The rise of liberal democracy marked neither the end of history nor the end of Jewish history.
Nevertheless, it is also the case that decisions taken by the Israeli government—decisions that I not only find justified, but that I have criticized as not going far enough—are the direct reason that Russia is using its Jews as a bargaining chip. That this was a fact of life for Russian Jews before Israel’s existence does not negate that it is now happening because of Israel’s existence and actions that the Jewish state is taking. There is a built-in tension within Zionism between the benefits of sovereignty and the potential drawbacks for those who choose not to live under the mantle of that sovereignty, and a built-in tension for Israel between its identity as a sovereign state for its citizens and its identity as a state for Jews around the world. This tension does not make Zionism untenable or an inherent burden for non-Israeli Jews, but it exists and must be acknowledged. Russian Jews are today experiencing that tension firsthand, knowing that they have an option available to them that their forebears did not and of which hundreds of thousands of their family and friends have already availed themselves, but also knowing that it is that very option that is now being wielded against them in a larger dispute between Russia and Israel.
The challenge for Israel is an acute one, and it is managing these tensions built into Zionism in theory and Israeli sovereignty in practice in a way that allows Israel to operate as an independent geopolitical actor without endangering Jews around the world who may be scapegoated for Israel’s actions. The appropriate response to this is not to give up on the Zionist project and declare Israel a failed or unnecessary experiment, and it is also not to pretend that difficult and unpleasant tradeoffs do not exist. It is to help conceptualize how Zionism in the 21st century should deal with these problems—ones that are in some ways more complicated than what Zionism contemplated a century ago—and to empathize with the bind in which Israel finds itself. For better or worse, the inherent tensions in Zionism make Israeli government actions and Israeli foreign policy a trickier proposition than they are for states that only need worry about a single category of citizen stakeholders. The crisis that is now being managed with Russia is an unfortunate but crystalline example of how Israel’s obligations to sovereign Israelis and to non-Israeli Jews do not always, and in fact often do not, lead to the same conclusions.