The exclusionary dark side of ‘Tikkun Olam’

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

When Ethiopian Jewish anti-racism and police brutality protests broke out in May 2015 there was one thing that was absent: The participation of major Israeli left wing organizations.  It wasn’t just a paucity of white faces at these protests, but a near silence from the usual groups that have an outcry over racism.  Newspapers identified with the “left” in Israel made basic errors in reporting about Ethiopian Jews, one claiming that women “plainly defying the religious laws of modesty that are widely accepted in the community, many of the young women sported snug-fitting jeans and very short skirts.”

Why are protests by Ethiopian Jews against racism not on the “liberal” agenda?  In the US similar protests by African-Americans are at the top of the progressive, especially Jewish, agenda. So how to explain it?  Clearly it is not an issue of them being black.  Jewish Americans have been at the forefront of struggle against racism in the US.  But racism against Ethiopians in Israel doesn’t pique the same interest.  It is particularly interesting when one compares the number of opeds in the “left-wing” press in Israel against racism and maltreatment of Eritrean asylum-seekers with opeds against racism towards Ethiopians.  There are basically no opeds about Ethiopian Jews.  There is no well-spring of support.  All those study trips to Israel where every discusses “social justice” don’t address racism against Ethiopians.

A lot of it has to do with the concept of “Tikkun Olam.”  When Ashkenazi Jewish progressives want to help “the other” there is a tendency to turn to an obscure religious concept.  So in order to raise awareness for African asylum seekers a Passover dinner was held.  An article on it noted; “Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein of Elgin, Illinois said that the campaign really ‘resonated with’ her. ‘As Jews, we are told that we have to welcome the widow, the orphan and the stranger — the most marginalized among us.'”

Writer Bradley Burston describes the concept in line with various holidays; “On this, the eve of Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking a great deal about Tikkun Olam, human acts which repair the world.”  But actually the concept is more narrow than just human acts.  One article notes that “for the first time this year at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations, the potential for a Jewish contribution to international development was big news…Suddenly, everyone is talking the talk of tikkun olam. This is a welcome change. Investing in international development truly has the potential to bring multiple returns. Beyond enabling us to act upon Jewish humanitarian values by helping others, it also is a way for Jewish organizations to engage young people who may feel more passionately about their responsibilities as global citizens than they do about their identities as Jews.”

The author, a fellow at Tel Aviv University, asks “how can Jews help the third world” and follows it up with a discussion of “African American and immigrant communities.”  Another manifestation of this narrative is a discussion of Jewish “Tikkun Olam” saving Tibet.  According to the story, “the Tibetans will participate in camps with the goal of developing their leadership skills as part of the TIbetan Jewish Youth Exchange…inspired by the Zionist youth model.”  A project leader notes: “The project draws on the Jewish concepts of `Tikkun Olam’ [Repair of the World] and being a `Light unto the Nations…It involves us reaching into our collective experience to connect with and support another people.”

The danger of the concept of ‘Tikkun Olam’ is that it becomes a one way street, not cultural exchange, but cultural hegemony.  It imbues the Western Jewish experience with a sort of manifest destiny or mission civilsatrice (civilizing mission) of the sort found in the 19th century.  The modern concept of ‘tikkun olam’ and its mass prevalence in particularly US Jewish life only occurred in the 1980s.  Mordecai Kaplan wrote in 1937; “We cannot consider ourselves servants of the Divine King unless we take upon ourselves the task ‘to perfect the World under the Kingdom of the Almighty.’”  Jonathan Krasner argues that the concept gained more power in the wake of the election of John F. Kennedy.  Some felt it was the “task of Jews to fix the world.”

Beware of the mentality of the

Beware of the mentality of the “civilizing mission”

Krasner concludes; “The understanding of tikkun olam as a universalistic, this-worldly endeavor is barely a century old, a corollary to the late-nineteenth century rejection of Jewish quietism by Zionists, Jewish socialists and others…For educators, it was a badge of relevance and a way of bringing a highly intellectualized and ethereal Judaism down to the level of practical experience…tikkun olam called for pragmatism that suited the American Jewish ethos. For communal service professionals, it helped elevate an American Jewish civil religion that was criticized for its preoccupation…for political activists, it was a means of expressing commitment to a progressive political agenda in a Jewish idiom.”

Krasner expanded on his view in another article; “The association of tikkun olam with human agency, a human-centered utopian quest to realize God’s Kingdom on Earth, most likely originated a few decades earlier, among thehalutzim of the Second and Third Aliyah, whose embrace of modern nationalism and the colonization of Ottoman and British Mandatory Palestine defied conventional Jewish teaching.”

In more simple terms, organizations claiming to do “tikkun olam” define it as “the Jewish people’s moral obligation to care for the stranger and repair the world.”  Organizations tend to show pictures of Jewish “tikkun” that illustrate “saving Africans” or show white Jewish volunteers with Arabs in a khaffiyah.  The aesthetics of this “fixing” are portrayed as purely Ashkenazi and Jewish, what Jonathan Katz has called “Ashkenormativity.

It is hard not to notice the racial element inherent in this.  Jewish volunteers help the Orientalized ‘other’.  They teach “leadership” to people from Asia or Africa, which imbues the volunteers with a sense of moral superiority, as if only a Western person can teach skills to “an African.”  The boundaries of TIkkun Olam are specifically Jewish.  Jewish people “save the world” through some kind of support for non-Jews.  That presents an exclusionary problem when Jews of color are present.  For instance Tikkun Olam helps “African-Americans” but when African-Americans are Jewish they are no longer part of the “tikkun.”  That creates a bifurcation when it comes to fighting racism.

Jewish people of color are sometimes called “wannabe Jews”  or “fake Jews” in some Ashekanzi Jewish circles.  Jewish people who do not “look Jewish” are presented as an unwanted other in publications, subjected to claims they have no “Jewish lineage.”  This interrogation of Jewish roots is not similarly placed as a burden on Ashkenazi Jews from the West; no one interrogates how much “Jewish lineage” they have.  What is interesting is that when it comes to fighting racism, the concept of “Tikkun olam” or “helping the stranger” is uniquely tied only to helping non-Jews.  Racism against Jews by Jews is accepted.

That calls into question the supposed “universalistic” nature of “tikkun olam.”  If it was universal then racism would be an issue whether it was Jewish racism against Ethiopian Jews, or racism against Eritrean migrants.  If it was universalistic then anyone could do tikkun olam, not just Jews whose origins are in Europe, rather than Yemen or India.

This is the dark side of “tikkun olam” that is often ignored.  The more it is pushed as a value the more some people feel morally superior to others, with a savior complex, as if they are specially endowed with the powers of saving others and fixing the world. “What did you do this summer?” “I taught Africans to farm, I saved them.”  That is the conversation that develops when one is not careful to imbue “tikkun olam” with concepts of equality.  The concept is connected to the overall Western neo-colonial and neo-orientalist ethos of projecting western superiority through “aid” programs that create dependency and often do more harm than good in the “third world.”

The religious, Americanist and Zionist underpinnings of “tikkun olam” all present a problematic interplay.  Each presents the self as naturally exclusive, insular and hegemonic, while the “other” becomes an exotic in need of “saving.”  Why are Jews acting as a “light unto the nations”, “saving the world” or “helping the stranger”?  Is it because of a notion of being religiously superior or equal?  The concept of “light unto the nations” means one is above the nations, and not only morally superior but religiously superior.  Is that a “universalist” value?  Is it in line with international concepts of human rights as a natural and individual right?  Do you help the stranger only because “you were a stranger”, which implies if you were not a stranger biblically then your obligation would be negated?  Why have a small group of people, around 14 million Jews, been given a task to “fix the world” of 7 billion?

Tikkun Olam and its connections to American exceptionalism as well as Zionism create a combustible mix of nationalism and moral superiority that can imbue people with racist notions that are theoretically the direct opposite of the values they are involved in promoting.  This was particularly evident in the approaches some Jews take to Ethiopian Jews or Jews of color.  Since fighting racism against them is not part of the “tikkun” agenda, because they are Jewish, the concept of anti-racism or hatred of migrants supposedly inherent in Jewish progressive values vanishes.  It vanishes because one does not get “tikkun” credit for it.  At the same time the superior feelings of white privilege prevalent in this progressive outlook that views itself as primarily a white Ashkenazi endeavor helping the “others”, does not allow for the inclusion of Jews of color in the “tikkun” world, they are instead presented as almost non-Jews, while at the same time they are Jewish enough not to be fully “the other.”

Can Tikkun Olam disabuse itself of these problematic concepts?  It should be clearly stated that helping others does not make one better than them.  Thus fighting racism within the Jewish community should be as great a value as fighting racism outside of it.  It shouldn’t be that racism against an African-American of Jewish descent is somehow tolerated, but racism against non-Jewish African-Americans is outrageous.  Similarly those acting as progressives should not at the same time be stereotyping and excluding Jews of color or stigmatizing them as “wannabe” and “false”Jews.   The narrative of “saving” others or “teaching others” should be replaced by a concept of mutual sharing, such that Jewish people can also learn from other cultures about leadership and farming or whatever agenda is being pushed to “help” people.  There is something patently ridiculous when Westerners from a city say they “went to Africa to teach Africans to farm.” What “farming skills” did the Westerner have?  Or “I built Africans a school,” by someone who never worked with their hands in construction one day before having journeyed half way around the world to “build a school” for people who likely know more about building things then they do.

Tikkun Olam agendas should be careful not to stigmatize, stereotype or portray the other as exotic and primitive or in need of “saving” such that the concept is “if not for us saving them how would they live.” One of the examples of this included “Israeli teens bottle algae for hungry Africa.”  These Israelis teens were being taught stereotypes about Africans, namely that they were all “hungry” and that they would want to eat algae.  Why don’t Israelis eat algae for a while?  Did anyone give Holocaust survivors who were starving algae?  No.  Why didn’t Jewish people when they were starving in Europe get such food choices?  Because of course it isn’t for Jews, it is for “the other”, it is “saving them.”  But they don’t want saving by being fed algae.  Africans are like Europeans, they also enjoy decent food choices.  Inculcating a view that Africans are “starving” and want to eat green slime stereotypes all black people as willing to subsist on food choices that even pets in North Tel Aviv wouldn’t be provided.  And when those high school students then see a black person they think they can “save” them by giving them some grass.  That’s not a good concept.  Racism starts when people are young and conditioned to view Africans or people of color as naturally inferior and accepting standards one wouldn’t have for the self.  Teaching moral superiority and “we can save them” imbues the self with the same racist notions inherent in Europe in the 19th century, but re-packaged.  If “Tikkun Olam” exists it should exist in a narrow and educated sense of targeted assistance, not broad strokes of “we will save Africa.”

It is important to include people of color and particularly Jews of color in the “tikkun” agenda so that they are not always the target of the “tikkun” or not always excluded, so that those doing the “helping” are not only a narrow group of people forming a hegemonic “Ashkenormative” culture.  Excluding people of color, even though it may be unintentional, from activities begins at a young age in Israeli schools or Jewish schools in the West.  Then later those same people who practiced exclusion, through things such as acceptance committees, claim they are going to “do coexistence” in places like Israel, where their entire existence as an exclusionary society has created the very lack of coexistence they then do “Tikkun” to fix.  Rather than “fixing” by going out and “doing coexistence” the real “tikkun” in Israel should be to diversify Jewish schools and dismantle exclusionary acceptance committees.  Tikkun thus can be an internal struggle against internal racism, not just external.  Fighting against poverty and hunger in Israel can be as good as fighting against it abroad.

The “tikkun olam” agenda was built on problematic underpinnings as being primarily an Ashkenazi and American initiative.  It should broaden itself and be self-critical about its own privileged position and not exacerbate these differences.  It can start by confronting its own notions that feed stereotypes and create exclusion.

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