Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011  

Justice, Not Charity

by Peter Dreier

"Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God." Those words from Micah were engraved on the front wall of my family's Reform Jewish temple in New Jersey. Back in the mid-1960s, when I was in my teens, the Reform movement -- and my congregation -- put those words into practice.

In Sunday school we learned about the obligation of tzedakah (charity). But what impressed me more was the struggle for social justice. Our rabbi and temple members participated in civil rights and interfaith actions, as did many of their Reform counterparts around the country. Some congregants later got involved in the movement against the Vietnam War, the consumer boycott to support Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, and other campaigns for social change. They taught me by example that being a "good Jew" meant being an activist, always siding with the oppressed, and not standing on the sidelines.

One of the major turning points in my political education was hearing Michael Harrington, the socialist organizer and author of The Other America (1962), the influential book about poverty in America, who spoke at my temple when I was in high school. I agreed with everything he said and thought to myself, "If he's a radical, so am I."

I later got to know Harrington as a mentor and friend, but it was that first encounter at my synagogue that helped give shape to my then-unformed political views. Other writers also shaped my political outlook and practice -- Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills, Vance Packard, Betty Friedan, Howard Zinn, Andre Gorz, John Kenneth Galbraith, and especially Martin Luther King and his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" -- but it was Harrington (a Catholic radical) who had the most enduring influence.

The Reform movement's youth group focused on social justice projects and political consciousness-raising at its weekend conferences and summer camps. In high school, I helped organize my temple youth group to join forces with our cohorts at a Quaker meeting, an African American church, and the NAACP to protest racism in my hometown, particularly segregated housing and de facto segregated schools.

In 1964, I was fortunate to participate in the Reform movement's first summer Mitzvah Corps -- a Jewish version of the fledgling Peace Corps. Nine high-schoolers from Reform synagogues around the country spent the summer building hurricane-proof houses and living with families in a poor village in Puerto Rico. It was my first exposure to Third World poverty.

The following summer I joined the Reform movement's Mitzvah Corps project in Israel, living with a family in an immigrant settlement town outside Haifa, spending our days building community gardens with Israelis and traveling throughout the country with our group of American and Israeli teens. I also spent some time visiting my father's distant cousins, who were founders of one of Israel's earliest kibbutzim where (at least from my teenage perspective) women seemed to be on equal footing with men. That was eye-opening. Back then, the Reform movement was still somewhat divided over Zionism, but the version of Zionism we learned emphasized the radical egalitarianism of the kibbutzim. This was two years before the Six Day War, and many American Jews viewed Israel not only as a refuge for Jews escaping persecution but also as a pioneering experiment in social equality. Alas, much has changed in Israel since then.

Despite my involvement in these Reform youth projects, I don't think I heard of the phrase "tikkun olam" until much later, but the importance of fighting for social justice as part of a social movement -- rather than providing charity -- infused much of my Jewish consciousness during my formative years.

Thanks to this upbringing, my religion became "change the world." It still is. Last year, when my twin daughters celebrated their b'not mitzvah, I was proud that they chose to compare Moses and King as organizers in their commentary on the Torah portion they were given (the Torah portion scheduled to be read that day just happened to be about Moses demanding that Pharaoh "let my people go" and fortuitously took place on Martin Luther King weekend). Unlike my Reform training for my bar mitzvah, their training also involved learning how to read Hebrew from the Torah and to wrestle with its meaning.

Over the years, as I've participated in many grassroots organizing campaigns on a variety of issues, I've learned much more about the history of progressive and radical movements. I've come to believe, as Michael Harrington often said, that the role of radicals is to push for "the left wing of the possible." When things get tough -- like when Richard Nixon beat George McGovern in a landslide in 1972, or when right-wing Republicans topple many incumbent Democrats, as they did this November -- I try to remember that all progressive change involves some version of "two steps forward, one step backward." When you suffer a setback, rethink, regroup, and remind yourself, as Harrington said, that changing society requires long-distance runners, not sprinters.

A hundred years ago, any soapbox orator who called for women's suffrage, laws protecting the environment, an end to lynching, workers' right to form unions, a progressive income tax, a federal minimum wage, old-age insurance, the eight-hour workday and government-subsidized health care would be considered an impractical utopian dreamer or a dangerous socialist. Now we take these ideas for granted. The radical ideas of one generation are often the common sense of the next.

I often ask my students: What are the radical ideas today that their children and grandchildren may take for granted? Not surprisingly, they usually have a hard time answering the question, but just by thinking about it, they begin to see that it is possible envision a more humane world, but that it isn't inevitable.

We must give credit to the movements and activists -- many of them Jews -- who fought to take radical ideas from the margins to the mainstream. We all stand on the shoulders of earlier generations of radicals and reformers who challenged the status quo of their day.

I am proud that many Jews were on the front lines of the fight against slums and sweatshops, the crusade for women's suffrage, the battles to end lynching and racial discrimination, the campaigns for free speech and civil liberties, and the movements for peace and human rights. I'm proud, too, that they are still involved in the struggles for workers' and immigrant rights, health care reform, environmental justice, and many of the other changes needed for a more humane world.

Just like Micah said.


Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College and writes regularly for The Nation, American Prospect, Huffington Post, Dissent, and the Los Angeles Times. His next book, The 100 Most Influential Progressives of the 20th Century, will be published next year by Nation Books.

Source Citation: Dreier, Peter. 2011. Justice, Not Charity. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.

tags: Activism, Judaism  
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