Peoplehood and Social Justice

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 21“Social Justice and Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Aryeh Cohen

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Actually, it is neither.

I am a “peoplehood” sceptic. That is, as I wrote in my last contribution to the Peoplehood Papers, I am unconvinced that the term “peoplehood” contributes anything of value to the discourse, and I fear that it may serve “as a way of talking about Zionism without talking about territorial nationalism, and therefore without talking about the occupation of Palestine and the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel.” Therefore, for the purpose of the current conversation, I will assume, as an unexamined working definition of peoplehood, “the worldwide collectivity of Jewish people.”

If I use this definition of Jewish Peoplehood as an analytical tool, I am forced to the following conclusions. One of the two largest gatherings of Jews, the State that claims to be the Jewish State is not interested in a vigorous pursuit of Social Justice. This is especially true when the social justice issue concerns citizens or residents who are not Jewish. The seventy-year occupation of Palestine and its accompanying daily human rights abuses belies the claim to social justice which is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: “[the State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” The situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel is better, however, they are still subject to systemic discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, education, and general social welfare.

According to a recent Jerusalem Post article, twenty five international legal experts claimed the Interior Ministry’s expulsion plan for thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers in Israel is a violation of international law. Israel has demonstrated, then, in regard to the African asylum seekers, that they do not see themselves bound by international human rights and refugee laws despite the fact that the Declaration says: “[Israel] will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Recent laws that have been introduced into the Knesset, especially the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” have put into doubt the Israeli state’s commitment to democracy. The Nation-State law includes a clause which allows for segregated settlements based on religion. Other laws threaten the funding of NGOs which are critical of the government, and members of some of those NGOs have been threatened with imprisonment.

At the same time, there is a vigorous minority which stands in opposition to this trend. Tens of thousands demonstrated against the expulsion of the African asylum seekers, for example. There are still many NGOs, those which the Knesset has targeted, such as the New Israel Fund, Breaking the Silence, ACRI and others which oppose the injustices of Israeli law and practice – oftentimes in the name of Judaism.[1]

In North America, though especially in the United States there is a similar split. Following upon the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the American Jewish community has experienced a surge in political activism. Organizations such as Bend the Arc[2] which had an extensive history of campaigning for criminal and economic justice issues, in addition to campaigning against Trump in 2016, expanded in unexpected and numerically significant issues. Whereas the political state of the Jewish community in Israel was arrayed against the asylum seekers and migrant community, the American Jewish community on the whole was wildly supportive. When the Muslim Ban was first enacted, Jews turned up with thousands of their fellow citizens to the airports in New York and Los Angeles to protest and demand that the Muslim immigrants and asylees be let in.

Jewish social justice organizations have been united against Trump and for criminal justice reforms, and sanctuary city policies, and they represent a growing percentage of the Jewish community. However, this desire for justice does not extend across all issues. Bend the Arc, and most Jewish social justice organizations who work on domestic issues, don’t take a position on Israel/Palestine, the occupation, the refugees. Only T’ruah takes a strong position opposing Trump’s domestic agenda, working for human rights for tomato growers and prisoners in solitary confinement, and at the same time is openly and avidly anti-occupation.[3] It is also true that approximately thirty percent of Jews (mostly in the Orthodox community) voted for Trump, see support of Israel as a partisan issue, and support the Trump agenda in toto.

So, if one is asking the question analytically – is social justice somehow essentially tied to Jewish Peoplehood? The answer is that there is no special affinity for Jewish people towards social justice. The Jewish people is like everybody else.

However, one can articulate an ethic of justice out of the sources of Judaism.[4] The interesting thing that is happening is that there are a growing number of people who are open to hearing that. About twenty years ago a friend of mine, who at the time was the executive director of a Jewish social justice organization, gave a presentation about social justice from a Jewish perspective, and he cited a passage from Talmud. After he had finished, a member of the audience stood up and screamed at him for quoting a traditional Jewish text to this group of enlightened, modern Jews. The likelihood of that scenario repeating itself today is slim. The progressive Jewish community (progressive religiously and politically) seems to be on board with the notion that there is support in the tradition for an ethos of social justice. On the other hand, the conservative (religiously and politically) Jewish community is still regularly proclaiming that “social justice Judaism” is an abomination and “social justice rabbis” are not real rabbis.[5]

And so, to finish on a traditional note, “the day is short and the work is great.” Those of us who understand the goal of Judaism as, in the words of Maimonides, to create hesed, mishpat, utzedakah/love, justice, and righteousness in the world must dig in and do that, using all the tools at our disposal. Is this a “peoplehood lens”? That question couldn’t be less important.

Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. He is also the Rabbi-in-Residence for Bend the Arc: Jewish Action. His latest book is Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press).

[1] Because of space considerations I have not touched upon income inequality, gender inequality, criminal justice, etc.
[2] Full disclosure: I am Rabbi in Residence of Bend the Arc in Southern California.
[3] More recently HIAS and some Rabbinical organizations have come out against Israel’s treatment of the African refugees, but they don’t take a position on the occupation.
[4] There is a growing library of serious books which do this. See under Jill Jacobs, Elliot Dorf, Lenn Goodman, Naomi Graetz, Aryeh Cohen.
[5] Just this week another book was published promising to tear the roof off the fraud which is Jewish social justice. Jonathan Neumann, To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.

Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. He is also the Rabbi-in-Residence for Bend the Arc: Jewish Action. His latest book is Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press).