Zionism and Tikkun Olam as complementary identities

“I feel like I’m forced to choose. Either I can be a “Tikkun Olam Jew” or an “Israel Jew.” I cannot be both.”

Illustration by Darius Gilmont, from the German-language ‘Torah for Children,’ published by Ariella Books, Berlin (photo credit: WWW.DARIUS-ART.COM/WWW.ARIELLA-VERLAG.DE)
Illustration by Darius Gilmont, from the German-language ‘Torah for Children,’ published by Ariella Books, Berlin
Several years ago, an educator working in a US-based, Jewish social justice organization confided in me. Not wanting her colleagues to overhear, she closed the door to her office and whispered: “I feel like I’m forced to choose. Either I can be a “Tikkun Olam Jew” or an “Israel Jew.” I cannot be both.”
She went on to express her deep pain and frustration.
Most of her co-workers felt alienated from Israel and questioned its moral underpinnings.
She herself wondered why some of Israel’s policies seemed to radically diverge from her own understanding of Jewish values. At the same time, she fondly recalled the year she lived in Israel. It had shaped who she was – as a person, an educator and a Jew. In a work environment where avoiding the contentious “Israel conversation” had become the norm, she had few avenues to explore her mixed feelings about a place she had once called home.
It was that conversation – and numerous others like it – that led me to devote much of the past decade to finding ways for Jewish social justice activists from around the world to connect to Israelis and to Israel. I’ve done so because I believe that, when progressive Jews feel distant from Israel, it is not only Israel and the Jewish people that suffer, but the pursuit of justice itself.
Much ink has been spilled about “Tikkun Olam Jews” who are disengaged from Israel – a concern I share and one which has motivated much of my own work. Far less attention has been given, however, to something else that gives me pause: “Israel Jews” who fail to appreciate the importance of Tikkun Olam.
As someone who is deeply passionate both about Israel and about a just world, I refuse to accept a reality in which Jews choose one or the other. To talk about Tikkun Olam without Israel is to deny the Jewish state’s tremendous potential to do good in the world. To talk about Israel without Tikkun Olam is to deny Israel’s soul.
Israel’s early political leaders understood this well.
David Ben-Gurion wrote eloquently about the role Israel should play in fighting extreme poverty: “Israel has been granted a great, historic privilege, which is also a duty... to solve the gravest problems of the 20th century – the dangerous gap between Asia and Africa, on the one hand, and Europe and America, on the other hand.”
Feeling a kinship with other countries making the difficult transition to independence, Golda Meir said: “Like them, we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yields of our crops, how to irrigate, how to raise poultry, how to live together and defend ourselves...
We had been forced to find solutions to problems that large, wealthy, powerful states have never encountered.”
This was not empty talk. A mere decade after the State of Israel was founded, MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, was established.
Remarkably, this was several years before the creation of the United States Agency for International Development in 1961.
Within a short period, Israel became a world leader in the field of international development.
By 1964, the Israeli ratio of development experts to population was almost twice that of the OECD average.
In 10 years, Israel trained over 10,000 people from over 90 countries and sent more than 4,000 technical assistants to 62 countries.
MASHAV’s establishment occurred against the backdrop of Israel’s own manifold challenges. The state’s first decade was marked by two wars, numerous border skirmishes, and a doubling of the population by nearly 700,000 immigrants. Lacking food and foreign currency, the government imposed a strict food ration of 1,600 calories per person a day.
Yet, despite all this, Israel’s leadership recognized the importance – political, economic and moral – of reaching beyond its own confines to join global efforts to help the rest of humanity. Our own challenges may have been grave, but they did not obviate our responsibility to others.
Fast-forward to the current day and many “Israel Jews” seem to have forgotten this message. The near exclusive focus on BDS, Iran and terrorism – critical issues deserving attention – has left little room for substantive discussion about Israel’s role as an ethical actor, within its borders and beyond. Ironically, sometimes the “Tikkun Olam Jews,” with their implicit challenge that Israel can and should do better, are those who remind us of Ben-Gurion’s vision.
Next week, two noteworthy Jewish conferences will take place in Washington within a span of several days.
The first is OLAM’s inaugural gathering of its coalition partners, over 40 Jewish and Israeli organizations supporting vulnerable populations in developing countries. These organizations – emanating out of the diverse Jewish communities of Australia, Israel, Mexico, South Africa, the US and UK – represent a powerful and unprecedented collective Jewish voice on global service and development.
The second is AIPAC’s Policy Conference, the largest gathering of America’s pro-Israel community, which is expecting an extraordinary 20,000 attendees.
While these conferences have different agendas, there are interesting and surprising cross-overs. Along with the expected fare of sessions on Israel’s security and the US-Israel relationship, this year’s Policy Conference will also showcase various Israeli efforts to support the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Some are OLAM coalition partners, like Innovation Africa, which brings solar technology to African villages, and MASHAV which, despite a meager budget compared to its heyday, continues to do critical work around the globe.
AIPAC should be applauded for including these sessions and I hope conference attendees go to them en masse. But it would be a mistake to see these programmatic offerings as simply feel-good or window- dressing compared to the “real” issues affecting the Jewish state. Israel’s role as a global citizen is not simply a hasbara (public diplomacy) tool. It’s part of who we are.
Only when we address both concerns – finding avenues for “Tikkun Olam Jews” to connect to Israel and for “Israel Jews” to connect to Tikkun Olam – will we begin the dual processes of healing within our own community and of making the most of our potential to do good in the world.
The writer is the director-general of OLAM.