From Zion To Darfur

Can tikkun olam save the world?

Books
“Abolish Child Slavery”: Two Jewish girls on a Labour Day parade in New York City, c.1909

A few years ago, when Michael Barnett was driving to synagogue, he noticed that the banner declaring support for Israel outside had been replaced by one reading “Save Darfur”. Why concern for the security of the Jewish state had been superseded by the welfare of a distant region with no obvious connection to the Jews in the hierarchy of this community’s priorities aroused Barnett’s interest.

A political scientist at George Washington University with an interest in humanitarianism, Barnett recognised that this occurrence at one synagogue reflected rather well the prevailing mood in the American Jewish community, and set out to investigate its causes and what it signified. The result is a book about the foreign policies of American Jews.

To be clear, this is not, as one might have expected, a book about Jews in American foreign policy: names like Kissinger and Albright, Morgenthau and Podhoretz, Elliot Abrams and Dennis Ross, among the leading Jewish practitioners, scholars and influencers of American foreign policy, go all but unmentioned. Instead, “Jewish foreign policy” for Barnett is “the attempt by Jewish individuals and institutions to mobilise and represent the Jewish community for the purpose of protecting Jewish interests and advancing a vision of global justice inspired by Jewish political and religious thought.”

Barnett presents a historical survey of developments in American Jewish cultural and political life that pertain to the community’s attitude to events beyond American borders. The notable episodes in this survey include the settlement and acculturation of Jewish immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century; the surge of American Zionism in the first half of the 20th century; the American Jewish view on the League of Nations and minority rights, reaction to the Holocaust, and involvement in the United Nations and human rights in that same period; the campaign to free Soviet Jewry in the 1970s; the vacillating relationship between American Jewry and the State of Israel; and the current American Jewish interest in social justice and tikkun olam (“repair of the world”). The book does not break new ground in terms of research, but it usefully brings together important episodes in American Jewish history.

The two aforementioned purposes of American Jewish foreign policy occupy Barnett throughout his study: the protection of Jewish interests (what he calls “the Jewish Problem” of potential harm to Jews by non-Jews); and advancing a vision of global justice (what he calls “the Jewish Question” of the relationship between Jews and the world). The first reflects a more particularist or “tribalist” or “nationalist” stance, which is a more conservative politics; the second speaks to a more universalist or “prophetic” or “cosmopolitan” approach, which is more leftist. Both have always been present in American Judaism, hence Barnett speaks of the “foreign policies” of American Jews. But he does argue — rightly — that American Jewish foreign policy “is more cosmopolitan than tribal”.

That is also true of the Judaism that American Jews practise, which has its origins in the Reform movement of 19th-century Germany. That Reform Judaism, which came to flourish in the United States, rejected the traditional commandments and the dream of a return to Zion in favour of a religion of ethical humanism and patriotic assimilation. The more extreme features of this Judaism have been mitigated over the past century, but American Jewry is still, for the most part, animated by similar universalistic sentiments. Take, for example, the story of American Zionism. Under the leadership of Germanic Jews, the American Jewish community entered the 20th century staunchly opposed to Zionism (of the 200 delegates to the First Zionist Congress in 1897, only one was American), because of what it might say about Jewish loyalties. But as Americans in general began to celebrate their distinctive identities, American Jewish anti-Zionism gave way to a Zionism that advocated a Jewish homeland with the promise that it would be a beacon of social good. This rather indulgent Zionism was discredited by the Holocaust, which compelled in its place a Zionism that desperately supported the creation of a Jewish state as a sanctuary — albeit one for non-American Jews, as the American ones had no need for it. Today, American Zionism has somewhat reverted to its pre-Holocaust conditionality, with American Jews showing ambivalent support and deep concern for the character of this Jewish state. Whether this regressive trend will end here remains to be seen.

Thus whether it was because they felt a Jewish homeland should only exist if it reflected their liberal values or because they never had the need for a refuge, American Jews have essentially always viewed Israel through the prism of the universal, not the particular. They would do well, however, to heed the warning of the philosemitic Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to the Jews: that the particular cannot be a servant of the universal if the particular has no security. Sadly, serial tests of that axiom have proved its worth. The year 1917 gave Jews a choice between the particular — the Zionism of the Balfour Declaration — and the universal — the Communism of the October Revolution. The Jews who opted for the latter would soon find themselves betrayed by the values they thought they were on earth to advance. In 1948 the Jews were presented with a similar alternative: the particularism of the State of Israel or the universalism offered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Anyone familiar with the treatment of the Jews by the United Nations, its human rights council and the international industry of NGOs will know that human rights too have betrayed the Jews.

The latest expression of the American Jewish infatuation with universalism is tikkun olam, an ideology that worships at the altar of social justice. Do not be fooled by the Hebrew moniker: tikkun olam has no basis in traditional Judaism. And like its seductive forbears, this new universalism will also come to betray the Jews: the correlation between tikkun olam and Jewish distancing from Israel is as clear as the signage outside Barnett’s synagogue. Maybe tikkun olam will save Darfur. But it will not save the Jews.