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Finding a Reason to Do Nothing
Psychologists have sometimes used the Rorschach test for personality assessments. Whether or not reactions to a series of ink blots actually means anything or not is a matter of opinion.
But when it comes to politics, there are some issues that function more or less the way the Rorschach is supposed to. Like the ink blots, some topics produce a reaction that speaks volumes about who we are as individuals or as groups and how we see our place in the world.
That's the best way to understand the controversy that erupted over whether or not Jews are supposed to care about China's human-rights policy.
On April 30, a group of 185 rabbis and other leaders issued a statement calling on individual Jews to refrain from attending the Beijing Olympics to protest "China's policies regarding Tibet and Darfur, and its assistance to Iran, Syria and Hamas." The statement made specific reference to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which were used by the Nazi regime to polish their image.
This "Yom Hashoah Declaration" was spearheaded by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the former chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, and Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a New York City educator and author, and was assisted by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
The Kosher Kitchen
The signatories represented a wide cross section of American Jewish life encompassing the entire religious and political spectrum, including leaders of the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox movements. Other signees were longtime activist Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York and former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
What was most interesting about the wording of the text was the fact that it noted that Beijing's authorization of a "kosher kitchen" at the Olympics village was a ploy to "attract Jewish tourists to the games as part of its broader strategy of improving its image and deflecting attention from its complicity in severe human rights abuses at home and abroad."
Beijing's belief that the Olympics was going to help its image was a serious mistake. The attention given to the games and the Olympic Torch run (a bit of baloney that was actually invented by the Nazis in 1936) has, in fact, afforded its critics the opportunity to highlight issues that the Communist regime wanted to sweep under the rug.
But rather than generating more support for a potential boycott or pressure on China, the rabbis' statement had the opposite effect.
Within 24 hours, much of the Jewish establishment was falling over itself to dissociate themselves from the statement. The Anti-Defamation League was joined by others, including the American Jewish Committee, in denouncing the boycott. They dismissed the initiative, and were particularly unhappy about the analogies to 1936 and the Holocaust. Their position was that any such reference was, by definition, unkosher.
What was particularly remarkable was the speed and the vehemence of the counterattack by the anti-boycotters. For the organized Jewish world to respond so quickly and definitively to an activist project of any kind is a feat in itself.
Was it to protect the memory of the Holocaust from trivialization? Hardly. No one who wants to do something about China's outrages in Tibet and elsewhere says that it is Nazi Germany whose crimes were unique. But have we now painted ourself into a rhetorical corner where anything less than Auschwitz is unworthy of protest?
To dismiss the clear human-rights imperative of protest by merely saying that "China is a complicated society," as the ADL did, is no argument. It is an obfuscation. It is true that China is far less tyrannical today than it was under Mao. But what sort of standard is that?
Are events in Tibet, Darfur and China's use of its growing power to back Iran, Syria and Hamas none of our business, as these establishment groups seem to be saying?
Back in the early 1990s, when activists sought to make the massacres in Bosnia a matter of Jewish concern, few voices were raised then to quash the push for action. At that time, some of the same arguments about a "complicated" situation could have been used to argue against the attempt to stop Serbian and Croatian depredations against people who had little in common with most American Jews.
What's different today?
For one thing, China is a lot more powerful than Serbia. In that case, many prominent Jewish business leaders and some organizations (who receive donations from these business people) did not see their interests jeopardized by the application of human-rights principles to policy as they do with China.
Groups could afford the luxury of conscience on Bosnia. That's not the case with China.
Given the vast entanglement of our economy with theirs, a stand on this issue requires a degree of courage that the calls for boycotts of the Serbs or, more recently, of Sudan did not.
Indeed, there are some, including those that we don't normally think of as being motivated by international trade, that see China as a vast market rather than as the world's largest human-rights violator.
The Orthodox Union, whose helpful O.U. symbol is the gold standard of kashrut also denounced the boycott. But unlike others that merely issued terse statements and then clammed up, the O.U. followed up by distributing a long statement from a "marketing associate" who waxed lyrical about the joys of selling kosher food in China.
The O.U. has a long and honorable history of service to the Jewish people.
But it's clear that it now falls under the rubric of what columnist George Will once called capitalists "who love commerce more than they loathe communism."
What good can a boycott do? Perhaps not much. Even if the few who are wealthy enough to think about a two-week vacation in China don't go, Tibet won't be free. But since when have Jews regarded human rights as merely a matter of expediency? If Jewish opinion weren't that important, then Beijing wouldn't bother with that kosher kitchen.
Jews With Chutzpah
It is no accident that the Wyman Institute was a driving force behind the boycott. It has specialized in preserving the memory of those who had the chutzpah to speak out for rescue during the Holocaust when most of the Jewish establishment thought such a protest was pointless or imprudent.
Tibet and Darfur are not the Holocaust, and Chinese leader Hu Jintao isn't Hitler. But its deplorable human-rights record and the effort to whitewash it is not a matter of dispute except for those who have a financial or political motivation for doing so.
As in the past, activists and establishment types will look at an issue and see their own agendas reflected. Those who want an excuse to do nothing and let business as usual proceed can always find one.
What a pity that this rule still applies to so much of the Jewish world.