Book explores Jewish call to social justice

By Susan Margolis Balk, Special to the Jewish Light

Can the teachings of Judaism provide a sacred framework for repairing the world?

Righteous Indignation, A Jewish Call for Justice, answers with a resounding “Yes!” This accessible and absorbing anthology edited by Rabbi Or N. Rose, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser and Margie Klein comes at a time when political talkers, who claim to draw on faith for their positions on issues, cloy and posture.


Laced with emotion, thought and scholarship Righteous Indignation asks and answers questions in ways that would have been useful to all but a few presidential candidates during this election primary process.

Tikkun olam (repairing the world) is, of course, not a new concern for Jews. This book traces the roots of such concerns and issues through Biblical and Talmudic sources. The editors managed to find a perfect mix of leading rabbis, intellectuals and activists to explore the relationship between Judaism and social justice, drawing on ancient and modern sources of wisdom.

All of the contributors, in very different ways, many of them not agreeing with the others — feel that American Jewry must move beyond “mitzvah days” and other occasional service programs, and dedicate itself to systemic change in the United States, Israel, and throughout the world.

The book offers more than big-name contributors. It covers topics as diverse as eradicating war, global warming, health care, gay rights and domestic violence, providing practical methods to transform theory into practice.

And because it is an anthology drawn from many learned, committed Jews — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — it avoids the cloying possibility of droning or preaching to the converted.

The boldest and most riveting piece in Righteous Indignation is April Rosenblum’s essay on anti-Semitism and Social Change entitled “How to Split the Sea.”

She begins by asking: “If the Israelites had been forced to watch for the soldiers at their heels, instead of focusing on the way forward, can you imagine the bottleneck at the Red Sea?…In a world that hasn’t yet defeated anti-Semitism, this is the tension faced by Jews fighting for social justice….Whenever progressive movements get confused, and take part in anti-Semitic thinking, they are held back from building a real vision for social change.”

Rosenblum lists the factors she believes are responsible for why Jewish identity often goes unspoken and unclaimed by activists in social justice movements:

* The rightward drift of parts of the organized Jewish community;

* The pressure for Jews to fit into the American mold of religion, not ethnicity, which isolated thousands of Jews who once would have been at home in secular Jewish communities

* The general effects of assimilation.

* Less often identified, she argues, is anti-Semitism.

She continues, “During peaks of anti-Semitism, Jews have sometimes had to cope by laying low — such as after World War II, when American Jews shuddered over the execution of the Rosenbergs, fearing that it might signal the start of wider targeting of Jews.”

She puts her finger on how “times like these have impacted Jews’ abilities to be politically active and their willingness to identify themselves as Jewish in their activism.”

And then again: “If attacks from the outside world are bad, the anti-Semitism that Jews have periodically encountered inside our own movements has in some ways had an even greater impact on our morale. Each time that the Left engages in or tolerates anti-Semitism, a generation of Jewish activists is affected.”

And so “the more anti-Semitism pushes out those of us who are appalled by it, the less those of us who are left know how exactly to stand up against it.”

Then, with no self-indulgence whatsoever, she gets personal: “When, around September 11, I first started to encounter anti-Semitic behaviors in the movements I cared about, I found myself speechless — and worse, so did my Gentile friends, whom I trusted to speak out against harm to me, just as we worked to support one another to speak out against racism wherever we encountered it.”

Heartbreakingly, she writes that “seeing my friends silent inspired me to embark on a long-term effort to figure out why social justice movements have such a spotty track record when it comes to anti-Semitism, and what it will take to change that.”

The rest of this essay tells of how she analyzed anti-Semitism on the Left, concluding that anti-Semitism is exploited to protect unequal power structures, diverting anger at injustice towards Jews instead. Some of the points made are:

* Jews are isolated, especially from other exploited groups — people who might normally be expected to team up with us and defend us in times of danger.

* Other oppressed groups are encouraged to channel their anger at Jews, which keeps them from identifying and fighting the real sources of their exploitation.

* Jews are targeted for violence or other forms of attack, sometimes intentionally by local governments and other times spontaneously at the grassroots of society.

* In search of some protection, Jews are pressured to cooperate with those in power to stay quiet, and not to challenge the status quo, for fear of greater targeting.

The reader must go to the book itself to unearth Rosenblum’s method for change.

Like the other contributors to this collection, hers is a prescription for activism.

And the activism that proposes itself is meant to enable tikkun olam — a goal of all Jews who crave social justice — by taking down the invisible fence that keeps many of us from working more vigorously for it.

The editor of Righteous Indignation, Rabbi Or Rose, brother of Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona, will speak and sign books at Left Bank Books on Tuesday, March 11, at 7 p.m.

Susan Margolis Balk is co-author of Vienna’s Conscience: Close-ups and Conversations after Hitler, companion volume to the exhibit of the same name that ran at the St Louis Holocaust Museum last fall.