An exploration of the changing motivation behind American Jewish foreign policy and humanitarianism.
In his compelling, nuanced study, Barnett (International Affairs/George Washington Univ.; Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism, 2011, etc.) tracks his research into Jewish philanthropy over the decades as it resonates to a larger connection or disconnection with the state of Israel. As part of the ingrained sense of social consciousness called tikkun olam, a Hebrew expression that means “to repair the world,” Jewish giving to those in need fluctuates with a changing sense of identity and belonging. Barnett looks at the bifurcated themes of American Jewish foreign policy as it leads to particularism (tribalism), on the one hand, and universalism (cosmopolitanism) on the other. As the author defines it, Jewish foreign policy has two predominant concerns: the “Jewish Problem,” or the historical threat from non-Jews that erupts periodically in anti-Semitism; and the “Jewish Question”—i.e., “Are the Jews a people apart from the world or a part of the world?” Diaspora Jewry is by definition a people suffering from constant insecurity, yet in America, Jews did not experience the kind of rabid anti-Semitism that the Jews of Western and Eastern Europe endured through the centuries. While George Washington welcomed Jews in America, they were expected to conform and walk “a thin line between acceptance and ostracism.” Reform Judaism pursued an agenda of integration, drawing inspiration from the history of Prophetic Judaism, with its emphasis on “ethics rather than archaic laws,” universalism over particularism. As a result, American Jews did not fully embrace Zionism until the Holocaust settled the Jewish Question. Barnett looks at the fluctuating sense of tribalism, which rose from the mid-1960s, a time when Israel battled for physical security against the Arab nations, and liberalism, since the 1980s, when Israel’s aggressive militarism has caused American Jews to look for larger humanitarian ways to repair the world.
An astute study that should provoke productive conversations.