(May 31, 2021 / JNS) Tikkun Olam has become one of the concepts most commonly associated with Judaism among more progressive elements of the Jewish community. The term, which has meant overcoming idolatry, amending the law for a well-functioning society and repairing one’s surroundings, seems to have overtaken all other precepts formulated in millennia of Jewish life and tradition, in certain quarters.
Its modern use was popularized in the early to middle of the last century, primarily among liberal Jewish movements in the United States. It was adopted as a way of finding a way to ensure that Jews felt common cause with the many social action and justice causes that were springing up.
It is an extreme universalist interpretation of Judaism, and, while worthy in itself, holds nothing uniquely Jewish. Many have argued that it is a way to mold a frame of Judaism into their already held belief system to provide religious legitimacy.
As author Jonathan Neumann wrote in his 2018 book To Heal the World?: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel, “What the Bible says and what the Jewish social justice movement thinks it says diverge. Abraham’s appeals for Sodom are not the purpose of Judaism. The story of Joseph is not a straightforward example of benevolent government. The Exodus from Egypt is not reducible to political revolution.”
My personal view is that there are many ways to interpret our sacred texts, but when coopted and shoe-horned into one explanation, it damages our tradition and makes it an accessory to whichever movement or belief is trending at the moment.
It is important to state that those Jews who see Tikkun Olam as helping farmers grow their crops in Africa, raising money for charity or assisting disaster-hit areas of the world are doing blessed work. And doing good deeds is certainly a central part of Judaism.
Unfortunately, however, Tikkun Olam for some has taken on a “savior complex”—what is referred to sometimes as “white savior complex”—whereby those who do good deeds see themselves as swooping into a situation that they believe requires repairing, rather than helping others with their challenges by being present, listening and acting out of sensitivity and understanding.
This obsession with fixing parts of the world is no more fraught than when aimed at Israel.
Those with the “liberal Jewish savior complex” like to moralize about Israel’s actions and policies from thousands of miles away to a population with earned and lived experience. They wouldn’t dare lecture Syrian President Bashar Assad or those involved in Chinese detention and concentration camps, but Israel is to be told what is right and good and what is not.
The State of Israel is everything that those with “liberal Jewish savior complex” are not. It is particularistic—a nation-state for a people in a sea of dozens of nation-states for other peoples. It is unabashedly proud of its Jewish center to its national life. It is patriotic and will not bend so easily. Nor does it “turn the other cheek.”
In the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, one would have expected full-throated support from such Jews for measures taken to ensure the safety and security of Israeli citizens against an openly genocidal terrorist organization that represses its people in all facets and aspects of life in the Gaza Strip. They should be completely supportive of an Israel victory and the defeat of Hamas.
Instead, Israel received criticism and direction from its “liberal Jewish saviors,” who called on it not to target the innocent in Gaza, especially children, as if they are ever in Israel’s crosshairs and not used as human shields by their ruthless overlords.
Israeli suffering took a back seat. Our saviors bought into the numbers game parroted by the liberal media, which thinks that a greater number of Israelis need to die to make a conflict more even-handed.
When these saviors come to Israel, they opt to travel to Ramallah over Sderot. They gush over the “moderate” Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, even though he is now 16 years into a four-year term, but berate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for any law they deem inappropriate, proposed by any member of Knesset, even though it has no chance of even reaching the plenum floor.
They see no need for solidarity with their own people because it harms their entrance into the circles they covet—those that are part of the extreme, progressive politics that have entered the American arena of late. An obscure tenet like Tikkun Olam for them takes precedence over Zionism, which literally permeates every Jewish book and teaching from the Bible onwards.
We in Israel welcome their constructive criticism, but don’t need their postulating, lecturing or “repairing.” We in Israel want their support and understanding. We want them to care about the Jewish people and have enough of an identity to understand our historic tribulations. Such tribulations might not shape their understanding of the world, but we Israelis live them every day.
Though we reject such people as “saviors,” we welcome them as Jews. It’s time for them to make a choice.
Nave Dromi is an Israeli commentator and director of the Middle East Forum’s Israel Office.
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