Analysis from Israel

On Tuesday, I discussed how Israel Apartheid Week, which is taking place this week and next, feeds off latent anti-Semitism. But it’s a truism that anti-Semitism never harms the Jews alone, and IAW is a classic example. To understand why, consider three news reports from the last two weeks.

Some 500,000 Syrian civilians, or perhaps even more, have fled Aleppo in response to the government’s aerial bombing campaign, “creating what aid workers say is one of the largest refugee flows of the entire civil war”–an impressive achievement for a war that’s already created 2.4 million refugees and caused 6.5 million to be internally displaced. Tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing spiraling violence in the Central African Republic, “in what human rights groups and a top United Nations official characterized … as de facto ethnic cleansing.” And in South Sudan, where a fragile truce has broken down, almost 900,000 people have been displaced, while “millions could go hungry if fields remain unplowed before the coming rainy season.”

And those are just samples. Altogether, millions of people round the world are being killed, displaced, and/or facing starvation. Yet IAW activists are blanketing campuses throughout the West with a campaign aimed at persuading educated young people that the world’s biggest problem, the one they should focus on persuading their governments to solve, is a low-level conflict that isn’t generating mass slaughter, mass displacement, or mass starvation–one whose total casualties over 65 years are barely a tenth of those produced by Syria’s civil war in less than three. And because the miserable Syrians, Central Africans, and South Sudanese have no comparably well-funded and well-organized group to press their cases, a great many well-meaning Westerners have become convinced that Israel’s “oppression” of the Palestinians truly is the world’s most pressing problem, and are lobbying their governments to direct their efforts accordingly.

In democracies, governments tend to react to public pressure. A classic example is the “Kony 2012” video, which detailed the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony’s militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army, in Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan: The video went viral, and its popularity is credited with spurring Western governments to make hunting down Kony a higher priority, which in turn helped persuade the African Union to launch a mission to do so. Yet any government has only so much time, energy, money, and political capital to spend; thus a greater investment in one cause inevitably comes at the expense of other causes for which there is less public pressure.

Consequently, to the degree that groups like IAW succeed in generating public pressure for Western governments to make “Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians” a top priority, they inevitably cause these governments to devote less attention to real crimes happening in places like Syria, Central African Republic, and South Sudan. In other words, they are contributing directly to the ongoing slaughter, displacement and hunger in those countries by persuading Western citizens, and hence Western governments, that far more effort should be invested in trying to create a Palestinian state than in trying to ease the much greater distress elsewhere in the world.

Thus while Israelis are IAW’s main targets, they are far from being its main victims. The real victims are the millions being massacred, displaced, and starved while the West ignores them, because it’s too busy obsessing over Israel.

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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

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