Israel Serves as the Insurance Policy of Jews Worldwide
It’s impossible in Israel these days to escape bad news from the war.
Just last week, I paid two separate shiva calls to the parents of soldiers killed in the fighting in Gaza: One, a college friend’s son, Efraim Jackman, 23, and the other, Amichai Oster, 24, the son of a former colleague.
On New Year’s Eve, my wife and I were startled from our slumber at the stroke of midnight by an air raid siren. We ran downstairs to where our children sleep, scooped them up and rushed into our home’s bomb shelter, sitting in the dark while Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system boomed outside. Afterward, my two younger kids cried that they didn’t want to go back to their own beds; they wanted to stay in the bomb shelter.
We are the lucky ones.
Our next-door neighbors have a 25-year-old son in the army reserves fighting in Gaza. Because soldiers there cannot have their phones with them—to avoid being tracked by Hamas—his parents haven’t heard from him in weeks. On a recent Friday night, we ate Shabbat dinner with another family whose son, 20, is also fighting in Gaza. They haven’t seen him for more than a month.
In my youngest daughter’s kindergarten class, two of the children are refugees from among the more than 200,000 Israelis who have evacuated their homes in the conflict zones near Gaza and the border with Lebanon.
The sacrifices Israelis are making for this multifront war sparked by Hamas’s terrorist attacks on October 7 are deep and painful. In this difficult hour, it’s important that American Jews recognize that these sacrifices don’t just benefit Israeli citizens, Jew and Arab alike. They also benefit Jews all over the world—even those who don’t support Israel or appreciate the critical role Israel plays as the insurance policy of Jews worldwide.
The unique history and circumstances of the Jewish people make clear why Israel is so essential to safeguard Jewish life.
Jews have been perpetually pursued and persecuted for thousands of years. Often, as in Nazi Germany, Jews were murdered by their own governments or, as in 15th-century Spain, banished by them. Jews also were expelled from France (1254), southern Italy (1288), England (1290), Hungary (1360), Austria (1420), Portugal (1496) and cities in Russia, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland over the centuries.
Jews in the Arab world, although restricted to second-class citizenship, fared better by comparison—at least until the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, when their governments and neighbors in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and other Muslim-majority countries massacred Jews and forced them from their homes.
Who took in the 900,000 or so Jews fleeing these Arab countries? The nascent State of Israel.
More recently, Israel has taken in hundreds of thousands of immigrants from places like Ukraine, Russia, Argentina and France who have chosen to leave or flee their homes due to war, politics, economics or antisemitism.
American Jews have been fortunate in that few have felt the need to exercise the insurance policy that Israel provides in the form of the Law of Return, which offers citizenship rights to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent.
Yet recent developments raise ominous uncertainties about the future of American exceptionalism. It’s not just the spike in anti-Israel demonstrations and attacks against Jews in the United States since October 7. Hate crimes in America, where Jews are the primary targets, have been surging for several years, including deadly attacks on synagogues in California and Pennsylvania and residences and businesses in New York and New Jersey. Both the extreme left and the far right traffic in antisemitism, and the mainstreaming of hate has accelerated over the last decade.
I hope America will continue to be safe for Jews and a strong democracy for decades to come. But if we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s how quickly things we believed immutable can change. We can’t be certain of what will happen in another 20, 30 or 50 years.
If American Jews ever decide to exercise their Israeli insurance policy, Israel will take them in. They won’t have to risk their lives like the thousands of migrants arriving at America’s southern border or Africans headed to Europe on dinghies in the treacherous Mediterranean Sea. They’ll be guaranteed entry as citizens thanks to Israeli law, and they’ll be welcomed with a free flight, cash assistance and myriad other benefits.
Sadly, there’s a price to pay for maintaining Israel and the global Jewish insurance policy it provides—not to mention the “Jewish Disneyland” role Israel serves for Jewish visitors from overseas who come to enjoy its tourist attractions, religious seminaries, beaches and food. The soil of Israel is stained with the blood of thousands of men and women who died to establish the country or safeguard it. Diaspora Jews don’t have to pay this bloody price; Israelis are bearing that burden.
What Israel cannot offer is a hermetic seal against Jewish loss of life. The nation is surrounded by enemies eager to destroy it—as the Jewish people have been throughout history. Some people have to die so the great majority can live.
But, as President Joe Biden noted recently in front of a Jewish audience at the White House, “Were there no Israel, there wouldn’t be a Jew in the world who was safe.”
What Biden understands is that Israel is indispensable to the Jews of the world as a fallback in the event their own countries become inhospitable. In 1939, the Jews had nowhere to run; even America turned away most Jews seeking refuge. Had Israel been around, many more Jews would have found safe haven. Even today, only Israel guarantees that safety.
So rather than disparaging Israel as the “world’s most dangerous place to be a Jew,” as Rob Eshman, a senior columnist at the Forward recently put it in a column arguing that American Jews “should know better” than to believe “antique Zionist platitudes” about Israel being a safe haven, American Jews should show humility and gratitude for the sacrifices Israelis are making by risking and giving their lives in defense of the Jewish homeland. They’re doing it not just for Jews in Israel, but for Jews all over the world.
Uriel Heilman is a journalist living in Israel. He works for 70 Faces Media, the parent organization of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.