It should come as no surprise that I side more with Ariel Beery than with the folks at Jewschool on the issue of whether Jews should focus on particular or universal concerns. In June, responding to a piece in Commentary about declining Jewish interest in specifically Jewish causes, I posted the following on my blog:
Just as Dreyfus’s Jewish supporters came to his defense out of concern for justice and human rights, not to save one of their own, today’s American Jews and American Jewish organizations make sure to reiterate time and time again that they care if anything less about the Jews than about the rest of the world.
But the authors are missing something–when Jews favor “humanity” over their own people, this isn’t mere apathetic, comfortable assimilation, and admirable readiness to solve the world’s problems regardless of race/creed/nationality of the opporessed. Sometimes, the desire to help the world rather than the Jews comes from what some would call self-hatred but which could more justly be called fear. Many Americans are convinced that Jews are behind the Iraq war and other less-than-successful aspects of American politics today. Yet peace in the Middle East is taking a whole lot longer than anyone with even a shred of optimism would have guessed, and Europe is problematic for other reasons–governments’ not knowing what to make of Islamic radicalism, etc. America seems in many ways the best place to be Jewish (or to live, period) these days, and American Jews don’t want to blow it.
This is where my view seems to differ from Beery’s: while I agree that American Jews are wrong to equate Jewish action with universal action, I don’t believe the main message here is that there’s some poor thinking on the part of my co-religion/nation-ists. Jewish preference for the universal over the particular says something not so fabulous about the level of comfort experienced by Jews in America. Acting out of fear, many among us are wary of admitting to any specifically Jewish concerns. Many among us want so desperately to be liked, not out of patheticness, but out of a genuine understanding that we, well, aren’t. Does that excuse Jewish committment to the universal over the particular? Perhaps, but at any rate, it explains it, and reveals that the problem lies both with the Jewish community and with society in general.
But all this brings up a larger question, which is, what should the relationship between the particular (Jewish rights) and the universal (human rights, etc.) be? To me, this is absolutely straightforward: Jewish rights matter– and no matter how irritating or neurotic or horribly Christ-hating some may find Jews– because they are a subset of human rights. You do not have to be Jewish or even philo-Semitic to believe that Jews, like all other people, should be allowed to live in peace. But which group is most likely to care about the Jewish subset of human rights, especially when major rights–think national self-determination–are being messed with? Jews, obviously. But if Jews stop trying, then we are implicitly agreeing either that a) Jews are not human, or b) Judaism, or Jewishness, is something not protected by human rights, that the universal rights we all ought to enjoy include being all sorts of things– gay, Palestinian, obese, and so on– but not Jewish.
So does this mean that Jews must only worry about Jewish causes? Of course not. But it means that Jews need to stop apologizing for caring more about the particular than the universal. It’s the way the rest of the world works, and the rest of the world has a point. Also worth understanding: Jews were hated pre-Zionism and once the movement succeeded. We’re hated if we stand in Union Square declaring our committment to the Palestinian cause or if we demand a Greater Israel. So what we might as well do isn’t take any out-there stance just because we’ll be hated anyway, but rather we should choose the most moral, nation-survival-promoting route we can come up with, and follow it without worrying all that much about if these jeans make us look fat.