War of the words
In Andrew Silow-Carroll’s column “Jewish is as Jewish does,” he argues that “When a Jewish community or institution decides that something is a ‘Jewish issue,’ it becomes a Jewish issue.” This is in response to the debate between tikun olam and peoplehood, with the former claiming that universal causes for justice are or may be Jewish issues, and the latter claiming that they may be liberal, progressive issues, but they are not specifically Jewish ones.
Is there a fact of the matter? There can only be a fact of the matter when two or more disputants are using words in the same manner. Here they are not (technically, it is a logomachy). So the question becomes, which way of using “Jewish issue” makes more sense, or is more consistent with the way other words are used? I suggest that it is more meaningful to use ‘Jewish issue’ to refer to issues that primarily concern Jews, such as the emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Otherwise, for example, apartheid in South Africa had been a Jewish issue, since Jewish communities and groups came out strongly against it. I think this would surprise (and annoy) a lot of South African blacks. Of course, one could say that it was also a black issue, a Catholic issue, etc., but it makes more sense, in my view, to say apartheid in South Africa was a black South African issue which had the support of men and women of good will the world over.
This choice of reference for the term ‘Jewish issue’ in no way prejudges the propriety of Jews being more concerned with ethical or social problems of a specifically non-Jewish nature than they are with specifically Jewish ones. For example, one might argue that in the 1960’s it was more important for Jews to march in Selma than to worry about whether men and women should sit together during Shabbat services. Tikun olam is an honorable Jewish practice, even when the correction is made to essentially and primarily non-Jewish issues.