Exploring the phenomenon of the social justice Jewish warrior

In a recent talk to the Jewish Labor Committee, Hillary Clinton exhorted her audience to bring all their forces to bear to defeating Trump: “It’s gonna be a tough election and you need to bring your organizing skills, your shared sense of values, your feeling of empathy and compassion and caring, your deep conviction about justice, because we’re gonna need every single person in this fight,” she said. Fair enough. 

Then, curiously, she added, “At heart, of it all is the concept of tikkun olam which says that repairing the world is the responsibility of each and every one of us, or as I learned growing up in the Methodist church, ‘Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.’”

I say “curiously” only because Clinton’s conflation of tikkun olam, Hebrew for “to repair the world” with the Methodist social gospel of spreading Christian love through do-goodery to all those who are in need is to err about the actual meaning of tikkun olam. I don’t blame Clinton for her mistake, of course. She’s only parroting the mantra she hears constantly from left-wing Jews. She knew that the very mention of tikkun olam to this particular group of lefties would be a winning trope, a political Cupid’s arrow to elevate the fervour she already excites in this crowd. 

Tikkun olam is shorthand for the Judaization of political progressivism.

For liberal Jews have always experienced a deep yearning to melt into the left’s universalist, “brotherhood of man” vision. That yearning has made leftism a magnet for Ashkenazi Jews ever since the Enlightenment freed them from the ghettos of Europe. Diaspora Jews could for the first time choose between continued attachment to Jewish peoplehood as their primary cultural identity and attachment to complete secularism with a view to “disappearing” their Judaism altogether via a universalist ideology. The latter option—social acceptance, normalization, liberation from constrictive codes of behaviour, formerly closed career opportunities—was alluring after centuries of persecution and marginalization. 

It is an indisputable fact that Jews were extremely disproportionately represented in the Communist movement and held high positions in the Soviet Union until that revolution began to eat its Jewish children with shocking perfidy. (Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is doing a fine imitation of the syndrome, and the dazed British Jewish children being eaten find themselves bereft at their loss of a political home.)

To understand how and why it happened that Hillary Clinton, speaking to Jewish lefties, reached for the phrase like a homing pigeon finding its perch, I recommend English writer Jonathan Neumann’s 2018 book, To Heal the World: How the Jewish left corrupts Judaism and endangers Israel. In his introduction, Neumann writes, “The truth is that tikkun olam has no basis in Judaism. It was conceived by Jews who had rejected the faith of their fathers and midwifed by radicals who saw it as a pretext to appropriate Jewish texts and corrupt religious rituals … to further political ends.” In other words, it’s social justice matzo balls swimming in progressive political broth.

Neumann isn’t indicting ordinary Jews who believe that in embracing tikkun olam as a principle, they are “simply doing what feels in their hearts and seems in their eyes to be right.” His umbrage is mainly directed at those progressive activists who have weaponized tikkun olam to undermine all particularist Jewish aspirations, but especially to undermine Zionism. 

Neumann writes, “The general rule appear to be that the stronger your commitment to tikkun olam, the weaker your Zionism and support for Israel. Among Jewish social justice organizations, they are either shades of hostility to Israel or they don’t mention Israel at all.

All the liberal branches of Judaism claim they “are fulfilling traditional Judaism” in promoting tikkun olam as social justice, and insisting that social justice was always core to Judaism—if only we interpreted the prophets and the Talmud properly, that is.

The whole 1960s counter-culture was dominated by secular Jews—Saul Alinsky, Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman, David Horowitz (who famously rejected his cradle leftism when he took candid stock of its human wreckage and became a conservative firebrand) – but radical movements always boast a high Jewish cohort. Neuman singles out Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, as singular for his “mediocrity.” He is fanatically anti-American and a Marxist who views the Torah as a Marxist tract that opposes private property. Socialism was once described as the new Torah. But “Tikkun olam is not about turning Jews into Marxists. It’s about rebranding Marxism as Judaism.”

Those groups who promote tikkun olam most assiduously as their mission spend the bulk of their time championing such causes as gender rights, healthcare, abortion rights and racism. None of these issues are based in Jewish sacred texts. As Neumann put it rather sardonically, “Isn’t it just a little bit incredible for the teachings of the ancient faith of Judaism to happen to comprise without exception the agenda of the liberal wing of today’s Democratic party?” 

Passover is the go-to holiday for the social justice Jewish warriors (SJJW). 

In 1969 Arthur Waskow, then a contributing editor of Ramparts Magazine (and considered by Newsweek to be one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America), published The Freedom Seder Haggadah, meant, he said for everyone, because “in our world, we all live under Pharoahs who could exterminate us at any moment and so enslave us all the time.” In Waskow’s treatment, Moses recognized the employment abuses of his “boss,” Pharoah, and decided to do something about it as a sort of trade unionist avant la lettre

Emboldened by the success of the Freedom Seder Haggadah, in 1984 Waskow created The Rainbow Seder Haggadah, which focused on environmental concerns. A slew of other haggadahs by SJJWs followed, all with specific agendas like feminism, interfaith marriage, refugees, malnutrition, sexist violence and racism. Jewish Voice for Peace (which the Anti-Defamation League calls one of the most 10 most anti-Israel groups in the U.S.) created a haggadah in which modern Israel is portrayed as Egypt and the Arabs as the biblical Israelites. It condemns the ten “plagues” that Israel has wrought on the Arabs. Needless to say, discussion of the miracle of the State of Israel doesn’t come into it in these haggadahs. The Promised Land is entirely abstract—an ethical condition to be aspired to, not a homeland for the Jews.

Israel must remain abstract for the SJJWs, because they are caught in a Catch-22: for if the Promised Land is understood to belong to God’s Chosen People—a concept that makes them squirm—then it is a betrayal of social-justice universalism. The SJJWs are forced by their politics to regard Israel as a “colonialist” state, and it is therefore a sign of Jewish values for Israel to be open to everyone. 

Thus the SJJWs have convinced themselves that the one-state solution, which would obliterate Jewish privilege in Israel and very likely obliterate Jews as well, is in fact the most “Jewish,” i.e. tikkun-olam-y of all propositions. Neumann observes, “It is simply not plausible that a major teaching of Judaism could be the belief in its own abnegation, yet this is precisely the implication of tikkun olam, which undermines Jewish Peoplehood and forecasts the redundancy of the Jews.”

The desire of progressive Jews to pound the square peg of universalism into the round hole of particularism would be funny if it were not so pathetic. The “singing rabbi” and spiritual leader Shlomo Carlebach used to visit a lot of college campuses. He would relate that when a student told him, “I’m a Catholic,” he knew the student was Catholic. When a student told him, “I’m a Protestant,” he knew the student was Protestant. But when a student told him, “I’m a human being,” he knew that student was a Jew. Funny and pathetic in one.

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