Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Tikkun Olam – Really?

“Every person [when they see evil] who can protest against their family and do not – are as guilty as their family; against their townspeople – are as guilty as the townspeople; against the entire world – are as guilty as all the world” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b).

Once again, the Jewish world and Israeli society are awash in cries of gevalt!, presently over Ben & Jerry’s boycott of the West Bank/Judea & Samaria/administered territories/proto-Palestine (choose your nomenclature). It’s a complex issue – the boycott and Israel’s presence there – this time made even more head-scratching given the patently Jewish background of the ice cream company founders. However, precisely this point raises a wider and more profound issue: what does Judaism mandate to do when (think) we see injustice?

American Jewry’s answer, certainly the non-Orthodox majority, is overwhelmingly “tikkun olam”: fixing the world. These days, part of the “confirmation” as personally and socially responsible young Jews involves Bar/Bat-mitzvahs choosing a “cause” to either work on or donate to. As they reach adulthood, many turn to wider social justice issues to define their Jewish identity, among them the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. From a Jewish perspective that’s legitimate – up to a point: about halfway.

What is forgotten is that they are supposedly committed to tikkun olam – that means the entire world. Obviously, no single person can take on every injustice around the globe, but the question remains: even assuming that what Israel is doing in the territories needs criticizing, is this the worst thing happening these days on our planet?

One can easily make a “world injustice” list that would gain wide consensus as highly egregious injustices. Just for starters: what the Chinese are doing to the Uighur’s (a million people in forced “re-education camps”); attempted genocide in Eritrea; the Syrian President of Syria slaughtering hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, not to mention causing millions to be displaced; four African countries with the death penalty for homosexuality; and so on. So why choose the Palestinian cause – and ONLY the Palestinian cause?

Many Israelis who too find at least parts of their country’s activity in the territories problematic are nonplused by the overwhelmingly focused attention by their Jewish compatriots overseas on this specific issue – especially as most of the Jewish-American critics have never even visited Israel but think that they are experts regarding the purported “injustice” of Israel’s actions and policy. Meanwhile, the other injustice problems around the world are well reported – but from these Jewish “injustice protesters” not a word is heard regarding those issues. Again, where’s the “olam” in their tikkun?

It is too facile to call such critics “anti-Semites” – not only because they are Jews themselves, but mainly because criticism of Israeli policy is not ipso facto anti-Semitic. As mentioned, many Israelis also criticize these policies. However, there’s more than a sneaking suspicion among Israel-loving (but still Israel-criticizing) Jewish Israelis that much of their overseas compatriots’ protests are residues of historic anti-Semitism: when things are bad anywhere about anything, it’s the Jews who are to blame – or at least, let’s focus on what they are doing and forget everyone else. As if the Palestinians themselves aren’t part of the problem; as if nothing else of heinous character is happening elsewhere.

Israelis in general, including those who support Israeli government activity, would be far more tolerant of Diaspora Jewish criticism if they felt that Israel wasn’t being singled out for behavior far less egregious than what is clearly taking place elsewhere. To repeat the last part of the Talmudic mandate: “…against the entire world – are as guilty as all the world.” If they want to really be “Jewish” in their protest, let them raise their voices as vociferously not just against Israeli “apartheid” (patently ridiculous, for anyone cognizant of what goes on in Israel, inside and even beyond, the Green Line), but against physical genocide and cultural annihilation occurring elsewhere as well.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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