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The Need to Nourish the Particularisms of a Peoplehood

September 7, 2006 By:
Ariel Beery
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As Israeli soldiers remain in Lebanon in the uncertain aftermath of a difficult war, members of a new Jewish generation are responding through the prism of their quest to fix the world. These Jewishly educated and religiously minded youth have decided to raise money for both Lebanese and Israeli war victims.

The pairing of these victims is crucial.

As Daniel Sieradski, the New Jersey-raised editor of Jewschool.com and an organizer of the most well-publicized of these affairs -- a concert in Jerusalem -- noted that the initial idea for a fundraiser for residents of Israel's north was not sufficient. He "felt that in order to really get excited about it, it would need to focus on having compassion for all war victims."

Anything less, he explained, would show that Israel is inhumane in the face of others' suffering, validating "many of the negative critiques laid at our feet by both the Muslim world and the international community."

Supporting residents of northern Israel alone, he went on, is unnecessary because "there are more than enough Jewish organizations focusing specifically on helping communities in the north."

This attitude -- mixing an overriding concern for the opinion of the international community with an overemphasis of the power of the Jewish community -- has become the norm among a large portion of the young, and is especially prevalent among the leadership of what many call the "New Jews."

As the sociologist Steven M. Cohen has observed, there has been a marked drop in the obligation young Jews feel to put their fellow Jews first: Only one-quarter of Jews aged 35 to 44 strongly believe that they "have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world."

This trend was taken to an extreme at a recent Wexner Foundation seminar for its graduate-student cohort, a group handpicked by the established Jewish community to cultivate future leaders. The group ranked causes related to the Jewish community or Israel significantly lower than more general causes like American Jewish World Service efforts in Africa.

The good news is that Jewish education works -- a generation of young Jews around the world has internalized the message that "being Jewish" means fixing the world in its totality, without regard to race, religion or nationality.

The bad news is that this generation has taken from their education that acting Jewish means doing justice without regard to nationality or peoplehood.

While it feels good to support all peoples and all victims, the nature of the world in which we live -- where Hezbollah amassed thousands of rockets and attacked Israel, where Iran edges toward nuclear weapons, and where over one-third of Israel's Jews live under or close to the poverty line -- makes an ethics of universalism simply irresponsible at the moment. We need to remember the inherent obligation of peoplehood: Justice means providing full support to those whom you live with, those who would die for you, and the people whom you came from -- no matter what the world thinks.

The "New Jews" seem to have forgotten this. Shaped by the Diaspora, educated into multiculturalism and a universalistic morality, these young Jews equate their Jewish identity with global social justice. Even at a time of war, they organize a benefit concert for all war's victims, even if it means necessarily reducing the amount of aid provided to those who sacrificed for our welfare.

With Hezbollah paying out $12,000 in hard cash to Lebanese families, the funds that these young Jews will raise will probably do little more than help fix the wall of a Lebanese home, perhaps enabling the return of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's portrait to its former place.

And what looks like a trickle today is really a breach in the dam of peoplehood.

It's time for the Jewish community to realize that the next generation will be what we teach it, and that the emphasis on universalistic social justice, while appealing, is no more than junk-food Jewish education. Without the particularism of peoplehood, the Jewish community will soon find itself undernourished -- and unable to survive.

Ariel Beery is the editor and publisher of PresenTense Magazine.


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