Co-opting Judaism for social causes: Paternalism, condescending or justice?


For more than a hundred years or so, ever since large numbers of Jews became involved in various modern movements, there has been a tendency to appropriate various causes or interpret them in a “Jewish” way.  This is not a unique feature of Jewish activism.  Christian anti-slavery activists interpreted their struggle through a religious lens.  But there has been a tendency in some Jewish circles to make odd co-options of religion whose reasoning or meaning has not been well thought through.

For instance one of the phenomena is to introduce extra items into the Passover seder in order to incorporate various other groups or struggles that people think are related to the stories traditional “freedom” theme.  Jewish Voice for Peace has apparently encouraged the placing of an olive on the seder plate to represent the Palestinian desire for freedom,  Palestinians in some sense become the “new Jews” as part of the service, one of whose traditional lines is re-interpreted; “When Israel and the American Jewish community continue to deny the Right of Return to the refugees of 1948, we say: enough! Dayenu!”

Many types of seders re-interpret the holiday (book cover)

Many types of seders re-interpret the holiday (book cover)

Over the years one of the major causes to be incorporated into the Passover social justice agenda has been African refugees in Israel.  Two weeks before Passover a seder was held for them.  It seems to happen every year in various forms. There is a lot of media attention and numerous organizations that try to piggy-back onto the African refugee issue.  The seder is used as a way to influence the public somehow on behalf of the refugees, although since most of the reports about it are in English, it isn’t clear they have any influence on the Israeli Hebrew-speaking public or the government.

The Israeli government doesn’t do itself any favors by seemingly announcing new harsh policies before this years Passover. That caused one writer to, of course, re-write the ‘dayenu’ song around the African refugees.  As we saw with the Palestinians above, the dayenu song is a sort of cliche for being co-opted around a different cause.

The question is, who is benefiting and what is actually happening?  Why was a “Passover seder” held for African migrants two weeks before the actual Jewish holiday?  Do Christian social justice groups often hold an alternative Christmas two weeks before the holiday to raise awareness for prisoners?  Do Muslims decide to do an Eid al-Fitr two weeks early for Christian refugees from Syria?  No.

So why was a seder held early?  Perhaps because it was convenient?  Perhaps because it is a seder in name only, because it isn’t a real religious celebration, and the people involved and being “helped” by it, or whose cause is being given attention are not Jewish, so it seemingly doesn’t matter anyway?  That creates a problem.  Who really benefits?

There is no doubt that in some limited way the African migrants/refugees/asylum seekers benefit because some Jews abroad who read English take an interest in them and lobby the Israeli government to cancel whatever its latest capricious policy is.  But the real benefit actually seems to be the Jewish activists who go and feel good about themselves and then go have a real seder and can boast about how they “helped” the “Africans.”  The African migrants are a cause celebre and there is a fetishistic interest in them.  But nothing really is being done to help them.

A freedom seder poster in Tel Aviv

A freedom seder poster in Tel Aviv

What does a Passover seder do for them?  How about job training or education?  How about helping them apply for asylum in another country, since most of them don’t actually want to keep living in Israel in the conditions they face, but would likely prefer a permanent residence in Europe or the US.

That raises an interesting question.  How paternalistic and condescending are all these co-optings of a Passover tradition for an “other” that isn’t Jewish and likely is never even asked if they want to be part of a Jewish Passover ceremony.  I mean, it’s nice to put an olive on your Passover seder plate, but why not invite a real Palestinian, than just talk about Palestinians?  Becuase ultimately the olive is an insular Jewish activist “I feel good about myself for doing this” activity.  It’s not about Palestinians, it is about Jews showing eachother they are committed to “social justice” and the arrogant concept of “tikkun olam” or “fixing the world.”  Throw some olives on a plate and you can say you “fixed the world” or are a “light unto the nations”, when in fact, none of the 9 million Palestinians or so will ever benefit from the olive.  They don’t even benefit symbolically, because why not devote all the other 364 non-Passover days to supporting their self-determination, rather than doing it on Passover?

Jewish Displaced Persons in Cyprus

Jewish Displaced Persons in Cyprus

Think about it.  Is one actually respecting Palestinians are African migrants in Israel by deciding for them that you will re-write a song in their name for a Jewish holiday?  If they were equal adults with agency, would you still do it, or is there a subtle infantilization involved?  Consider this question from a Jewish historical perspective.  After the Holocaust Jews were kept in Displaced Persons Camps throughout Europe and in Cyprus.  Now what would you think if a bunch of Greek Christians had decided to re-write some Christmas carols about Jewish refugees, or decided to hold and “Easter for Jewish refugees”?  It would be interesting perhaps, but in the end of the day, wouldn’t Jews prefer that local Christians supported them in other ways, for instance supporting them with food stuffs for their own Jewish holidays?

African migrants have a religion in most cases and they have their own holidays.  Why not support their celebration of their Christian or Muslim holidays and join them for those holidays and learn their songs?  Why do they need to be reinterpreted as Jews?  Why not show them proper respect and get to know them as equals rather than symbols?

Because no matter how much people pat eachother on the back for saying “dayenu” about African migrants, it won’t help them.  Work permits will help them.  Permanent residency can help them.  Five children in crowded private daycare centers in South Tel Aviv, catering to migrant children, have died recently.  How about helping the daycares and funding them?  When it comes to the death of children, that’s a time to say “dayenu”, but not on Passover, rather the rest of the year.

Abraham Joshua Heschel with Martin Luther King, he did more than just host a seder

Abraham Joshua Heschel with Martin Luther King, he did more than just host a seder

One response to “Co-opting Judaism for social causes: Paternalism, condescending or justice?

  1. Pingback: Vatican against Opponents of immigration | Marcus Ampe's Space·

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