When Does an Issue Become ‘A Jewish Issue?’

It is possible to find Jewish organizations that focus on environmental issues, women’s concerns, civil rights, and virtually every other subject. One major organization spent a good part of its annual conference discussing poverty. These are all important, but are any of them “Jewish” issues?

Jews take an interest in every subject, and Jewish law and tradition has something to say about all of them, but that still does not really provide an answer to the question. If everything is a “Jewish” issue, isn’t that the same thing as saying that nothing is a “Jewish” issue?

I would suggest that you can determine whether something is a Jewish issue by asking two questions, “Does this issue uniquely affect Jews, or have a greater impact on them than other people?” and “If you take away Jewish participation, would anyone else be involved?” If the answer to the first question is “yes,” then it is a Jewish issue. If the answer to the second question is “yes,” then it is not.

The most obvious “Jewish” issue would be supporting Israel. Some might argue that evangelical Christians also support Israel, but we know the reality is that Israel would not survive without the support of Jews.

We can make a case for participation in everything, because most issues impinge on our lives, but usually they affect us as individuals, not as Jews. Any specific issue I mention will undoubtedly start an argument. For example, are environmental issues Jewish? It is possible to find Jewish texts that discuss them, but our surroundings don’t affect Jews differently than anyone else. And if Jews stopped supporting the Sierra Club, it wouldn’t disappear.

Talking about women’s issues risks going into the Larry Summers mine field, but let me suggest that there is at least one issue that is clearly “Jewish,” and that is the problem of agunot, abandoned Jewish women who can’t remarry because their husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce. I doubt too many non-Jews are very concerned about this issue. Is the general issue of divorce a “Jewish” issue? I don’t think so.

It is now popular for high school and college students to do community service projects around the world, particularly in Latin America. These are wonderful activities, but apply the tests. Are the students visiting Jewish communities? Usually not. If Jewish students didn’t participate, would others do so? Undoubtedly.

If students were going to help Jewish communities in places such as Cuba or Argentina, then they would be engaged in a “Jewish” activity. It would be better, however, if they went to Israel. We already know getting kids to Israel is one of the best ways to build their Jewish identity and connection to Israel, so why can’t the Jewish “Peace Corps” organizations send students to build houses in poor neighborhoods in Israel, help Ethiopian children learn English, or perform any number of public services for Israelis in need? At least one Birthright provider does offer students on their Israel program an opportunity to do good works, but perhaps Birthright should go further and offer a public service track. In the meantime, how many non-Jewish organizations send students to help needy Israeli Jews?

Jewish foundations usually have no trouble distinguishing between Jewish and non-Jewish issues. If you look at their guidelines, they often specifically have Jewish/Israel causes they support and non-Jewish ones such as the ballet or the Red Cross. It’s great that foundations build hospitals and libraries in the United States, but why not do it in Israel? Instead of endowing a chair in engineering, how about creating one in Israel studies? Of course many philanthropists do this now, but a study published last year found that Jewish foundations typically make their largest gifts to non-Jewish causes.

Jews are extremely generous, so other causes would probably suffer from the loss of Jewish support, but those same resources could be redirected to Jewish causes that need them. Our resources are finite, so we should try to maximize the impact of what we have; Jewish contributions typically make a marginal difference on non-Jewish issues, but make all the difference on Jewish ones.

At this point, someone will throw Hillel at me. Yes, he agreed with Bard when he said, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” but, in the next breath, Hillel added, “And if I am only for myself, then what am I?” Fair enough.

If we are doing good for the sake of doing good, then it is virtuous. We often engage in helping others, however, because we hope that non-Jews will then come to our aid when we need them. The record is not that good in this regard. Israel, for example, spent many years doing good works in Africa, in part for the sake of philanthropy, but also in the hope that African states would support Israel politically. In the 1970's, however, Arab political pressure led them to abandon Israel.

Similarly, we often like to remind African-Americans about the Jews who marched with Dr. King, but the alliance on civil rights issues had minimal impact on African-American support for Jewish issues. Today, African-Americans tend to be among the least supportive of Israel (though the Congressional Black Caucus has remained pro-Israel) and are more irked by the Jews’ stand on affirmative action than impressed by old photos of Jews with Dr. King.

I admit to being deliberately provocative, but I believe there are definable “Jewish” issues and that our community has increasingly lost sight of them as we’ve become more assimilated and universalist. Some might argue we need to go further in this direction or risk losing more young Jews who are turned off by parochialism, but I believe the opposite is true, that erasing the line between types of issues makes Jewishness less distinctive and gives the next generation less reason to remain Jewish.

Am I advocating the abandonment of all non-Jewish causes? Of course not. Who am I to argue with Hillel? There needs to be a balance, but it has tipped much too far away from supporting ourselves.