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What makes an issue a Jewish issue?
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What makes an issue a Jewish issue?

What is a Jewish issue?

Does it have to have a direct impact on Jews or Israel to be considered a Jewish issue? Is such a designation simply a matter of perspective?

This question has been debated on and off for years at community relations committees and councils and other advocacy organizations. For example, is there a nexus between the issue of gun control and Jewish precepts that gives rise to a unique Jewish position — or is the common stance taken on the issue merely one held by policy makers who happen to be Jewish?

My daughter was involved in a similar debate while studying for a master’s degree in Jewish art. She defines Jewish art as art with Jewish themes or contexts, as opposed to works merely produced by a Jewish artist. According to her, adorned spice boxes, illustrated Haggadot, and the Chagall windows would qualify, while the paintings of Modigliani would not. The idea is that Jewish art should reflect, in some significant way, the influence of Judaism.

One problem is that often there is no unifying Jewish position on a particular issue. Theological differences among the denominations frequently inform stances on issues, typically Orthodox Jews on one side of an issue, the more progressive streams — Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — and even secular Jews on the other. Consider abortion, with Jews affiliated with the more liberal denominations usually espousing a pro-choice position, and Orthodox Jews often taking an anti-abortion stance.

Another factor is the broad-brush claim of tikkun olam, made by Jewish social justice warriors, that almost everything can be seen as a Jewish issue. In the April issue of Commentary, John Podhoretz, son of conservative columnist Norman Podhoretz, wrote, “To hear liberal Jewish leaders talk, there is little distinction between contemporary leftish beliefs and the classic convictions of the Jewish faith — which they have enshrined in the concept of tikkun olam, or ‘healing the world.’ Tikkun olam is used to kasher any and every progressive aim.”

Viewed from that lens, is every item on the contemporary liberal agenda — from immigration policy to gun control to reproductive rights — a Jewish issue? If so, shouldn’t Jewish opponents of the progressive agenda be allowed the same leeway, as tikkun olam advocates, in defining Jewish issues?

A potential new Jewish issue that can be related to the principle of tikkun olam relates to the concept of “intersectionality,” described by Alan Dershowitz as a “radical academic theory, which holds that all forms of social oppression are inexorably linked.” For Dershowitz, the term “has become a code word for anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic bigotry.”

As exemplified on college campuses, Dershowitz writes, “intersectionality has forced artificial coalitions between causes that have nothing to do with each other except a hatred for their fellow students who are ‘privileged’ because they are white, heterosexual, male, and especially Jewish.” Those accused are automatically guilty and must atone — the approach of the intersectionality proponents could be likened to that represented by the re-education camps set up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. That includes the venerable organization HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which has been “re-educated” in a manner echoing that undergone by Wilson Smith in Orwell’s “1984,” as explained by E.M. Oblomov, an international law attorney, in an article published in City Journal.

“The U.S. Fourth Circuit recently upheld a lower court’s injunction against enforcement of President Trump’s executive order restricting entry into the United States of nationals from six Muslim-majority countries…,” writes Oblomov. “The second named plaintiff in the suit is HIAS, the world’s oldest resettlement agency, with roots in Manhattan’s Lower East Side dating back to the late nineteenth century, when the organization assisted Jews fleeing Czarist pogroms in Russia.”

HIAS’s business, says Oblomov, “is resettlement, without distinction of religion or national origin. The Trump ban, if implemented, would threaten that business, at least as the organization sees it. So it found itself not only in opposition to the Trump order but also arguing that the 1970s resettlement policy it had helped create amounted to unconstitutional favoritism toward Jews — in violation of the Establishment Clause.”

To explain, the referenced resettlement policy is the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, which required non-market economy countries to meet freedom-of-emigration criteria in order to receive preferential trade status. For the Soviet Union, hungry for Midwestern grain, this trade status was a valuable prize. Although the law was written in ethnically and religiously neutral terms, the policy it put into effect was designed to favor Soviet Jews, and HIAS was heavily involved. In short, HIAS now argues that the favoritism it sought in the 1970s is unconstitutional. 

So what makes something a Jewish issue? Is it a cause seen as having a potential significant impact on members of the Jewish community as Jews, or is it one that focuses on the general population?

Yes, Jews concern themselves with a range of issues disproportionate to our numbers, but concerning ourselves with a multitude of societal matters spreads our resources thin and diverts Jewish organizations from their original mission: to protect and further the interests of the Jewish community.

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