Social Justice Movements: The Good They Do (Through the Stories They Tell)

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November 3, 2010

Editors Note:

This article is written in response to Jay Michaelson’s, also posted on the Zeek site today. Weigh in on the debate in the comments section after the article!

Jay correctly points to the tendency that both individuals and organizations have to respond to a particular “story” of injustice as opposed to those sources of much greater suffering in the world which are almost always too complex to reduce to a simple story.

Those of us who, for many years, have been trying to raise consciousness about social justice and inspire greater activism among Jews are well aware of the dilemma. I could offer numerous anecdotes that could support Jay’s argument: the one night fundraiser for Darfur; the blanket run to an inner city in January to help a half dozen homeless get through the night; the one week trip to a third world country where a handful of Jews provide “labor” to impoverished locals.

I have been in each of those settings, and many more. I am well aware how easy it is to ridicule the efforts because essentially, they address symptoms of larger, systemic problems and not the root causes themselves. Yet I believe that in making that observation Jay misunderstands the purpose of social justice work in the Jewish community.

The vast majority of social justice activities sponsored by Jewish organizations are symbolic and educational. Whether we are talking about a one-day Hazon bike ride, a week-long Hillel alternative spring break trip or a three-week PANIM summer program, the goal is not to solve a social problem. It is rather to create an activity in which a group of Jews experience an emotional connection to some social/political/environmental problem in the world or to a group of people who are experiencing pain, suffering or oppression. In the best-case scenario the activity gets framed by the host organization so that participants come to see what is “Jewish” about it. There is growing evidence that such experiences do make Jews feel more connected to their Jewish identity because they are proud that their tradition puts such an emphasis on tzedek (justice). .

Now it may be true that both the promotional material for such programs and the enthusiastic staffers may overstate the extent to which a given program or activity is “healing the world”. But the dedicated professionals who spend months planning such activities know full well that such experiences are more about the impact on the participants than on the specific social problem or the target population.

In my own article in this issue I tell how we always used the experience of bringing teens to soup kitchens as a way to raise their awareness of the scope and complexity of the problem of hunger in America. We were very explicit about saying that the three hours in the soup kitchen did not and would never make a dent in the problem. What we did say was that there were systemic causes to the problem and that they would have to devote much more time, thought and energy to understanding the roots of the problem and committing themselves to being part of a longer term solution.

Jewish organizations need not apologize for using compelling stories to mobilize Jews to action. I have met dozens of alumni of PANIM programs who are now professionally engaged in addressing the systemic roots of a wide array of social, political and environmental problems. They include academics doing research, staffers at NGO’s and public officials. Many tell me that they first got interested in the work that they ultimately pursued on a PANIM program.

And while the above examples may only represent a small percentage of our alumni, the vast majority had their understanding of the place of tzedek in their Jewish practice dramatically changed for the better. That kind of change of consciousness among a wide cross-section of a younger generation of American Jews is no small achievement and every Jewish social justice organization that I know about can claim credit for contributing to the phenomenon. It has already started to change the face of the American Jewish community and we are only experiencing the beginning of the impact that will grow over time.

Jay has set up a strawman that makes the perfect the enemy of the good. From what I have seen and know, Jewish social justice organizations have been doing a heck of a lot of good.

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