The merging of Jewish traditions with the moral callings of our times can be a struggle. And sometimes, politics gets in the way
A new non-profit social advocacy group, that links elephant poaching, genocide of minority peoples in the Middle East and Africa, and a decidedly right-of-centre approach to the Palestinian-Israeli problem proves that when it comes to social justice these days, it’s impossible to predict how political and religious alliances will line up.
Michael Diamond, a Toronto businessman and conservative commentator who is active in the Jewish community, is a supporter of the new group, called Mozuud, which is currently helping Yazidi families, an endangered religious minority group in Iraq, immigrate to Canada.
“You don’t need to be uni-dimensional. I’m a very good example of that,” says Diamond. “My view on the right to die is far more liberal than the government’s, yet in the case of Israel, I don’t believe we can implement a two-state solution.”
After a divisive federal election campaign and in a time when partisan differences seem to be increasingly entrenched in the Jewish community, any assumption that denominations or individuals will align in predictable ways on social advocacy is problematic.
What is clear is that social action and advocacy are, for many, a key part of Jewish identity. The 2013 Pew survey of American Jews found that over half, 56 per cent of respondents, said “working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them,” ahead even of values like caring for Israel or being part of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Debra Landsberg, president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader at Temple Emanu-El, sees this attitude at her shul, where congregants range “from one end of the spectrum to the other” on how they vote in Canada or express their love for Israel.
“We are clear here that our Jewish commitments do not out of necessity align with political parties or even with particular political thinking,” she says.
“I think the impulse to see it might be reflective of the highly partisan world in which we’re living right now… but I think it’s wrong.”
As an example, when Rabbi Landsberg’s congregation wanted to sponsor a Syrian refugee family, she called her colleague at nearby Kehillat Shaarei Torah, an Orthodox shul, which ended up partnering in the project.
The Reform community has a long legacy of social action, and Temple Emanu-El is renowned for its own history of social activism, but Rabbi Landsberg says she made “a very conscious decision” to partner with an Orthodox shul on the Syrian issue, a cause both synagogues could support.
Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, who leads Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Toronto, says Judaism has always struggled to find the balance between particularism – caring for its own community – and universalism. Recently, however, as Orthodox Judaism has become more comfortable in the larger world, the movement has engaged in both social action and political activism.
“There’s a social re-orientation in more traditional parts of the community, people are recognizing they can reach out.”
He points to Canadian Orthodox Jewish leaders who have recently joined forces with the Catholic community in the national debate on physician-assisted death.
But even while Jews are often at the forefront of social activism, there are calls from both ends of the political spectrum for organized Judaism to do more in addressing the most challenging issues of our time.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of the U.S-based Uri L’Tzedek, which he describes as the “first and only Orthodox social justice organization,” says Orthodox Judaism has excelled in taking care of its own, but has traditionally shied away from engaging in larger political issues.
“Just as Orthodoxy has a lot to learn from liberal denominations on how to respond to moral imperatives of our time, liberal denominations have to learn from Orthodoxy how to deeply root social justice ideologically in Torah, intellectually and spiritually,” he says in an interview.
Social action in the broader community sometimes competes in Jews’ hearts and minds with advocacy for Israel. The rest of the world can worry about immigration reform or climate change, the thinking goes, but Jews need to focus on Israel.
Rabbi Yanklowitz dismisses this way of thinking as dangerous.
“If we were to only advocate for Israel, we would essentially make Judaism totally irrelevant,” he says. “When we talk to officials, they should hear us advocating against genocide and poverty as much as they hear us advocating for Israel.
“On the other side, there are a lot of social justice activists who are not supporting Israel. It’s our responsibility as Jews to support Israel’s safety, but also to support Israel being as moral and upstanding as it can be.”
Benjamin Shinewald, former CEO of the defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, says the Jewish community is turning inward, with the notable exception of the widespread response to sponsoring Syrian refugees.
He places some of the blame on previous governments that politicized issues such as climate change, which he says should not be seen as either right- or left-wing issues. But much of the problem lies in the Jewish community’s focus on Israel advocacy to the exclusion of other causes, he argues.
“Israel advocacy has never taken up so much space in the community agenda as it does now,” crowding out other concerns such as poverty and fighting for human rights, he says.
Ultimately, the over-emphasis on Israel advocacy is alienating a generation of young people, he adds.
“Israel advocacy has a super-important place in our community, but how we go about it and how we harness resources for competing obligations as Jews is a discussion this community needs to have.”
Earlier this year, Shinewald, and 40 other “authors, artists, human rights advocates, scholars, rabbis [and] Jewish communal professionals,” signed an article in The CJN calling for just such a debate.
The response has been disappointing. “It was surprising to many in the community this did not spark a discussion,” Shinewald says.
Shimon Fogel, who heads the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the community’s pre-eminent voice on social and political issues, says the Jewish community is represented by CIJA on a wide range of initiatives.
CIJA is a “lead member of coalitions” dealing with genetic discrimination, physician-assisted death, immigration and refugee policy and aboriginal issues, among other concerns, he wrote in an email.
“We reject zero-sum propositions. Within our constituency, there are those who have a special interest in Israel-related issues, while others are driven by a concern for social policy issues. One basket of priorities is not pursued at the expense of the other.”
On issues that have no “unique or specific Jewish dimension,” such as the environment, “there is a sense that in light of the many general organizations devoted to those issues, Jews can engage directly without a Jewish-specific conduit. But that does not make the issue any less important to the Jewish community,” he wrote. In those cases, CIJA will often comment or join a coalition, but not as a “stand-alone initiative.”
But there are those who argue that not only is it vital for Jewish institutions to be deeply involved in a wide variety of issues, it’s also crucial for the future of the Judaism.
The success of the Jewish community will be determined, “by how well we can integrate our traditions with the moral callings of our time, how well can we integrate our Jewish particularness with our universalism,” says Rabbi Yanklowitz.
“This is not only to suggest whether we can survive as a Diaspora people, but whether we’re going to have truly something of value to add to the world during this critical period.”