“I could revive the dead, but I have more difficulty reviving the living.” — Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
In a recent article for PJ Media, I expressed my skepticism regarding the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, or the injunction to “repair the world.” It is a noble behest, deriving as I speculated from the 7th Noahide Law traditionally enjoining the “sons of Noah” to ensure justice and restore harmony in the world. But, as I suggested, it has a dark side, too. Since the publication of the article, I have received ample commentary, most of it sympathetic but some of it rather clueless and even wilfully perverse. I thought I might take this opportunity to answer my detractors.
As I explained in the aforementioned article, my argument, initially delivered at a Holocaust Memorial conference convened in Toronto in June 2012, holds that the universalist sympathies typical of the left-wing branch of Judaism are potentially inimical to Jews themselves, suppressing their awareness of the hostility which Jews have met from time immemorial and deflecting them from the need to consider their own continued existence as paramount. Strive to protect and preserve yourselves and your families, I contended, and only then address your attention to humanity at large. Realize that what you call “home” is a problematic notion. The need for personal and communal survival has to pre-empt missionary commitment carried out in the name of universal morality. My thesis was not well received by some members of the audience. The entire New York contingent of conferees rose in collective reprehension and marched out of the hall.
As Gershom Scholem wrote in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, regarding the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, “The unending Jewish demand for a home was transformed into the illusion of being at home. During the generations preceding the catastrophe the German Jews distinguished themselves by an astonishing lack of critical insight into their own situation.” Dan Diner, a professor of modern history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, referred to the relation between Jews and Germans as a kind of “negative symbiosis,” that is, cultural vigor and economic prosperity shadowed by a half-conscious premonition of precariousness.
Clearly, early 21st century America is not early 20th century Germany, not by a long shot; nevertheless, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism continue to percolate — at 23% among blacks and 14% among the general population in 2016. Holocaust-deniers and avowed anti-Semites affiliated with the alt-Right consort with the anti-Semitism of the alt-Left, but they are not the real danger — except to the genuine conservative Right tarred by association. The onus falls on the Left.
The Democrats’ latest sweetheart Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez provides a worrying example of this trend in her ignorant condemnation of Israel. MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson rhyming former Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s given name with “Kikle” may have been inadvertent, but it is telling nonetheless. Who knows what lurks in the unconscious? The slip was much appreciated by her colleagues. In his excoriation of the American Left, Dennis Prager points out that many on the liberal/Left would consider that most Israeli Jews and a third of America’s Jews are Nazis. He regards such people as cripplingly naïve. Jewish liberals are equally naïve, however, in refusing to acknowledge the danger and persisting in a state of Panglossian ingenuousness.
Similarly, Eileen Toplansky, writing in American Thinker, laments the “overt anti-Semitism that rears its ugly head at American universities,” where one-sided and factually inaccurate reading lists are heavily slanted toward Palestinian favoritism and anti-Israel denunciation. She refers to former Fleshbot CEO Lux Alptraum, “a left-wing Jew who claims universalism at the expense of the one Jewish nation in the world.” CNN’s Peter Beinart and J-Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami are close ideological relatives.
That Israel has passed legislation declaring itself a Jewish state has predictably met with a chorus of outrage from American Jewish organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism and the American Jewish Committee. These assimilationist groups are serenely unconcerned with the myriad Muslim states that regard themselves as … Muslim states. “It’s sad,” Ed Straker comments, “that some Leftist Jews pay lip service to Israel existence while doing everything they can to oppose it.” It is not only sad, it is also foolish.
This is an attitude in varying degrees of intensity characteristic of many assimilationist Jews in America (and Canada), who regard the existence of Israel as a thorn in the flesh, a nation whose robust patriotism and cultural vitality work against their universalist aspirations and their desire to blend into the mainstream where they imagine themselves to be safe. They do not understand that assimilation and integration are not the same things, for assimilation erases identity while integration makes for citizenship. One can be a good citizen, integrating civically and politically into the nation without assimilating oneself into a condition of non-identity or zero-ethnicity.
Consequently, they hitch their wagon to the Democrat Left/liberal star which is really an incoming asteroid. They put their faith in the party of the Left, the party of one-world global governance, thinking they will be spared any future catastrophe by sinking their ethnic and religious identity into a pastoral and generic totality of a socialist nature. They will do their bit to repair a fallen world — the Mishnaic concept of Tikkun Olam — and thus ensure their well-being by renouncing their particularity, or so they believe. In addition, they regard themselves as among the anointed in their solicitude for their fellow man, always a pleasant emotion.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a heuristic case in point. A Left-leaning, Democrat-appointed Jewish judge with a Tikkun disposition, her personal mandate was clearly articulated upon her reception of the Genesis Award honoring her “groundbreaking legal work in the field of civil liberties and women’s rights.” “The demand for justice,” she said, “for peace and for enlightenment runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.” Ginsburg professed pride in her Jewish heritage, but her political bias and Noahide magnanimity, her satisfaction in agitating for exalted causes, come at the consequent expense of her own people’s ultimate security.
In identifying with the party of lies, the Democrats or the Palestinians, Jews show themselves incapable of appreciating the simple force of the Jewish sage Rebbe Mendel Menachem of Kotzk’s dictum: Peace without truth is a false peace. And there can surely be no peace for the Jewish people — or such peace as is possible for them — until they accept the truth of their predicament in the world and take steps to remain prepared in the event of historical recurrence. To put it somewhat bizarrely, Jews need to develop a Confucian mentality: family first, mankind in due course. They cannot do this by affecting a presumably redemptive universalism.
For, whether they like it or not, they are still Jews. A sense of ambivalence is intrinsic to the Jewish spirit in the Diaspora and manifests in the staple Jewish defense mechanism, a mix of historical amnesia and political accommodation with the national temper — often, as noted, with the surplus element of anti-Israeli sentiment. The psychological response to the inner dilemma is to double down: left-wing peace activists, liberal rabbis, dedicated internationalists and post-Zionist intellectuals, all worshipping at the altar of Baal.
Acclaimed anti-Zionist Tony Judt famously declared that Israel was an “anachronism” and a colossal historical error. It was parochial, self-assured and no longer socialist, having rejected the notion of global trans-nationalism so popular among Leftist elites. A typical New York Jew, Judt wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2003 in an article titled “Israel: The Alternative,” “Today, non-Israeli Jews feel themselves once again exposed to criticism and vulnerable to attack for things they didn’t do.” Judt is alluding to Jews fearful of being rebuked for not being sufficiently critical of Israel.
Rather, they should demonstrably follow in the footsteps of the Jewish-Palestinian Peace Alliance Brit Shalom movement, a reckless movement adhering to the tradition of gemilut chasadim, or loving kindness — to a world neither loving nor kind; a movement, moreover, without a sincere and reliable peace partner or a considered sense of historical recidivism. No matter. Non-Israeli Jews would be seen as endorsing Judt’s utopian hope of a better world, expressed in the theoretical emergence of a new political class among Jews and Arabs alike — which, it must be mentioned, no Arab leader from 1948 to the present has ever given the slightest indication of joining. They would earn their brownie points by promoting the principle of ecumenical benevolence, whether directed to the Palestinians or to the world as a whole, while faulting Israel for its political insularity.
The irony, of course, is that, contrary to Judt’s anti-Israel allegations, Israel still holds to the Tikkun Olam predisposition, providing the bordering terrorist regime Hamas with fuel, electricity and material goods, rescuing Syrians embroiled in a civil war, sending out medical teams and relief missions to alleviate peoples subject to natural disasters and supplying underdeveloped nations with life-saving technological and agricultural expertise. A further irony is that this species of altruistic patronage and global benefaction avails little for Israel, which is still condemned as a pariah state and a historical anomaly that should be obliterated. Nonetheless, Israel’s robust self-confidence, thriving economy, military hardiness and non-apologetic resilience fly in the face of universalist assumptions and propitiating sympathies habitual to the capricious and improvident Left.
The Tikkun crowd will not learn from history. Exodus 32:9 describes a stiffnecked condition that seems to be chronic. I recall a conversation I had with the renowned Israeli novelist Abraham Yehoshua at the time of the Gaza withdrawal. I regarded it as a terrible mistake. Yehoshua, true to his left-wing convictions, was absolutely certain that a new morning of reconciliation and peaceful co-existence with Hamas was about to dawn and scoffed at my strong misgivings. Needless to say, Hamas immediately launched a protracted shelling campaign against the Negev communities in Israel’s south, a state of war which exists to this day.
Non-Israeli Jews (and left-wing Israeli Jews) continue to labor under the assumption that salvation lies in a featureless and generalized benevolence, in striving to “repair the world.” The processed cheese of conspicuous goodwill and programmatic compassion, however, does not necessarily lead to communal health, national immunity or cultural integrity. Applied indiscriminately, it connotes an appetite for junk metaphysics.
Melvin Konner points out in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews that over the past two millennia, Jews have been expelled from 94 countries. There is no provision against a 95th. The Jewish sense of security is always a false sense of security. Tikkun Olam is all well and good, but it is a guarantor neither of respect nor of survival. Anti-Semitism will always be with us, as the historical record — and the state of the present world — has proven beyond a doubt, and so, it appears, will Jewish self-estrangement — what I once diagnosed as “an etiology of dislocation of the self.” The Jewish people may be a light unto the nations, as the Book of Isaiah has it, but they are all too often a darkness unto themselves. Jews must remain alive to these ineluctable facts if they are not to find themselves, once again, confronting demons.