From Israel to Budapest: Reflections on Universalism Vs. Particularism

PP12_cover[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Limor Friedman

On my way to work every day, I pass by Lewinsky Park across from Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. Despite the fact that my 12 shekel morning coffee has yet to kick in, I cannot help but notice the young African refugee opposite me, who cannot afford to treat herself to the same morning indulgence. One of thousands, she most probably trekked for months across the desert from Eritrea to Israel seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity. She heard of Israel’s reputation as a model of liberty, tolerance, and ingenuity. Since her arrival, she has been living with a 100 other immigrants in a filthy, decrepit, one-room apartment in Tel Aviv, approximately five kilometers from Rabin Square, home to Tel Aviv’s City Hall. She has been unable to secure a visa, unable to work legally, and has no access to health care. She came to Israel with hope, but apparently “Hatikva” is not for all.

The current ethical dilemma facing Israel of whether to absorb immigrants from Sudan and Eritrea is at the heart of the challenge of balancing particularism and universalism. On the one hand, those voices expressing concern over the demographic implications of integrating a large number of non-Jews into Israel or the perceived adverse economic implications of absorbing thousands of penniless refugees represent the particularistic approach. On the other hand, those demanding concern for human beings fleeing religious persecution or poverty champion the universalistic position. Surrounding this issue are debates about the precise motivations for the immigration – economics or personal safety? – and legal disputes over definitions of “refugees” and “asylum seekers.”

Instinctively, some might assume that Jewish tradition comes out on the side of particularism. Keep the Jewish State Jewish. Don’t let thousands of Christian and Muslim Africans in our home. But, a close read of Jewish tradition disrupts the false dichotomy between particularism and universalism. No law appears in the Torah more often (36 times!) than concern for the foreigner. “Particularistic” Jewish law challenges the Jewish people to exhibit concern for the “other.” Jewish tradition requires us to provide otherwise “faceless, nameless” foreigners with physical, emotional and legal support.

Beyond Jewish legal tradition, explicitly driven by the recognition that “you were foreigners in the land of Egypt,” basic Jewish historical sensitivity highlights the degree to which our own people have wandered from country to country over the generations. So long as the Jewish People were “wandering Jews” – living in foreign lands, facing constant persecution and relentlessly struggling for their own survival – it made sense that we focused on the “particular.” We were in a state of danger. We didn’t have the luxury of focusing on others. But, now that the State of Israel is prosperous and strong – with a standing army, a flourishing economy, and power and influence around the globe – should we continue to take care only of our own, or should we direct the help to those who need it most? May the “wandering Jew” ignore the plight of others in comparable predicaments?

Once I get to the office having completed my daily walk through Levinsky Park, the issue of balancing the competing values of self-preservation and concern for others continues to confront me. At work, however, the emphasis is on how Jews outside Israel – as a Jewish minority and not as a sovereign majority – struggle with the tension between universalism and particularism. As coordinator of Siach, a network of Jewish social justice and environmental professionals from Europe, Israel and North America, I am in daily contact with colleagues around the world who find themselves advocating for the allocation of Jewish communal resources towards global issues or meeting the needs of local, non-Jewish populations in the context of a larger, more established Jewish community, often preferring to focus resources on self-preservation.

One of the Jewish communities I’ve recently come to know is Budapest, the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, which has been undergoing a revival of Jewish life over the past few years. Before World War II, there were more than 100 active synagogues in Budapest. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case, and less than 25% of them are in use. The Jewish community has put a premium on maintaining all 100+ synagogues at a great expense (money, manpower and resources) to the Jewish community. The younger generation, especially those for whom their Jewish identity is expressed through a mission of Tikkun Olam and social justice, are interested in turning a number of these synagogues into public buildings for the general community, to serve as libraries, parks and community centers; imagine if one of these synagogues transformed into a foodbank / soup kitchen run for the most vulnerable population in Budapest? What if the funds dedicated towards upkeep of the old synagogues would theoretically go to a variety of other social and universal causes, such as reaching out to young/ unaffiliated Jews through Jewish innovation and entrepreneurship, promoting Jewish Tikkun Olam programs to meet the needs of the Roma/Gypsy population etc. I know these choices are not easy, but they are one example in which universalism versus particularism plays itself out in this dynamic community.

In an effort to address this timely issue and other issues along the same theme of particularism versus universalism, Siach, together with the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, as part of the Connection Points Program and MiNYanim, has organized a conference of Jewish social justice leaders in Budapest, Hungary entitled: “From Me to We: Between Tribal and Global” to take place June 9th-11th. The gathering aims to achieve three main goals: 1) Inform – by shining a spotlight on issues of particularism and universalism, Siach hopes to raise awareness towards the specific problems, and towards the tension between the competing values. Siach hopes to provide participants with access to experts across the geographic and political spectrum and to provide a platform for real dialogue and discussion. 2) Network – These issues cannot be solved by a small group of people alone; by introducing activists to one another, each struggling with this tension in his or her own community, the gathering will allow and encourage open conversation and the flow of new ideas, resources and support. 3) Enrich – As the tension between universalism and particularism is as old as the Jewish People itself, we will explore Jewish texts that describe each side of the dilemma, in the hope of fleshing out the Jewish values and morals inherent in the dilemma, adding a deeper layer to the conversation and tying it back to our Jewish heritage.

Even though Budapest and Israel are far apart geographically, the community organizing skills necessary to meet the needs of the African refugee population in Tel Aviv are not fundamentally different than the skill set necessary to meet the needs of the Roma population in Budapest. As such, I believe there is a great value in bringing together activists from Israel, Europe and North America to share, discuss and learn from one another. Each geographic region shares this dilemma in a different way and represents a unique model: The American Jewish community is a wealthy and influential minority, which begs the question of their role towards other less fortunate minority groups in America; Israel is a sovereign country with a Jewish majority, and the question Israel faces on a daily basis is its responsibility toward minority groups in its country; Whereas European Jewry are a minority with a long history of persecution and oppression, that are undergoing a Jewish Renaissance and growth and are struggling with their commitment and relationship to other minority and majority groups around them. I can’t wait to see how this conversation unfolds.

Limor Friedman is the Siach network coordinator and the Resource Development Director at the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv.

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.