Rattling the Cage: Decline of Jewish social conscience

World Jewry has changed, in Israel and everywhere else. Today its voice is the voice of wealth and power.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
As an American-born Jew who grew up in an East European immigrant, Left-liberal household, I'm very happy to say that democratic socialism has become the rising tide in South America. It's basically a peasants' revolt, only peaceful, electoral. The poor people want to take back the ownership of their countries' natural resources from the foreign corporations. They also want New Deal-type economic policies, not the tight-fisted, bank-capitalist approach demanded by their creditors at the International Monetary Fund, which only made them poorer. This week Bolivians voted Evo Morales into power, joining the leftward trend that's spread through Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay and Peru. The movement's leader is Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who is loathed by the Bush administration and even wishfully marked for death by evangelist Pat Robertson, but who keeps winning elections because he spends his country's oil profits to help the poor. There was a time, up to about 30 years ago, when I would have been part of a worldwide Jewish rooting section for the South American socialist upheaval. What's more, the assumption would have been that South American Jews were heavily involved in the movement, and Jews all over would have been worried for their safety at the hands of the continent's old, wealthy, fascistic elite. But world Jewry has changed, in Israel and everywhere else. Today its voice is the voice of wealth and power. The strongest Jewish reaction to what's happening in South America - to the extent that influential Jews know what's happening there - is alarm. Fear. Fear that this poor people's movement could spread to other parts of the world, and endanger the wealth and power of all the Jews whose attitude toward the poor is more or less the same as the Bush administration's. I know - 70% of American Jews vote Democrat. But they don't offer much dissent anymore on the subject of poverty. When Jews were struggling immigrants in America, their economics was socialism. For their children and grandchildren, it was liberalism. Today, for the immigrants' great-grandchildren, it's conservative, businessman's capitalism. When the American labor movement was born in the early 20th century, New York's Jewish immigrants were indispensable to it. This week, with the city's subway workers going on strike, the dominant voice of New York Jewry seems to be that of Republican billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "This selfish strike is illegal," he warned. "We live in a country of laws where there can be severe consequences for those who break them. Union members are no different." And in South America, the only Jews who might gain the sympathy of world Jewry are the prosperous, those who would stand to lose some of their wealth, even if only by higher taxes, in the new economic order. I IMAGINE some of you are thinking: Anti-Semitism! Nope, sorry, I'm just anti the rich and powerful. And that happens to be a very old, proud, defiant Jewish instinct. As a matter of fact, it used to be a bone-deep Israeli instinct - and not all that long ago, either. When I came to this country 21 years ago, being a socialist - as distinct from being a communist - was a solidly Israeli thing to be. The prime minister at the time, Shimon Peres, made a point of describing himself as one. Israelis weren't saints, they weren't monks - they envied the wealth and comforts of Western Jewry. But fighting this envy was the pride they took in the lack of pretension and nonsense in their way of life, and the contempt they felt for the shallow, selfish lives of wealthy Jews abroad. Yeah, well, times have changed, haven't they? Today Diaspora Jews and Israelis are of like minds, all going for the gelt, all looking out for No. 1, all agreed that the poor will always be with us, so let's maybe throw them a bone (and put up a plaque). Most important, we are all agreed that the world is divided into the haves and have-nots, and we - Jews of the Diaspora and Israel together - have become the natural allies of the haves, and the natural enemies of the mobilized have-nots. And it's not just the Palestinian issue or radical Islam that divides world Jewry from the Third World. It's also the assimilation of American Jewry into the conservative economic and political establishment of their country, and Israeli Jewry's identification and connection with it. You can add the Russian Jewish oligarchs to the mix. You can also throw in the leadership of Jewish organizations across the Diaspora, which are basically plutocracies - societies ruled by the rich. Together, we are the voice of world Jewry. And as the saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit. We're grown alienated from desperate poor people and striking workers everywhere - in South America, in New York City, and, of course, in Israel. Right after the start of the intifada, the elected leadership of the Jewish state began slashing welfare and social benefits as never before, literally driving hundreds of thousands of people to the poorhouse. This was done just as Israelis came under assault from unheard-of terror, when businesses were drying up and people were getting laid off, when the haves suddenly had less but the have-nots didn't even have enough food anymore. When riding a bus - which, for the hard-pressed, wasn't really a matter of choice - became a game of Russian roulette. I never thought Israel would do such a thing to its poorer citizens. But Israelis had changed, Jews had changed. I don't know if Amir Peretz is as pure as he makes himself out to be. I don't agree with everything he says, I don't know if his policies would work, I don't know if he would make a good prime minister. But I do know that for the first time in a long time, there is a mass Jewish movement that stands for something the Jewish people once stood for, but don't any longer: Compassion for the weak. Identifying with the weak, instinctively, in their fights against the powerful. I grew up with the understanding that this, above anything else, is what it means to be a Jew. It's the social meaning of our history. We've forgotten it, and it's time we remember it again.