Repairing the World Has Torn Us From Our Senses

By Jeffry Mallow

Published July 03, 2007, issue of July 06, 2007.
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‘Give me the strength to change the things I can, the courage to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This mantra has been reproduced ad nauseam on greeting cards and T-shirts, but it nevertheless provides a counterbalance to that other overexposed locution, tikkun olam.

Literally “repairing the world,” tikkun olam has become the mantra of progressive Jews, and its use has produced a distorted worldview.

Tikkun olam must be acknowledged as the psychological product of a powerless people, condemned to persecution in exile. If your life is controlled by others, what better refuge than the notion that your individual acts have import?

Traditional tikkun olam may have aspired to nothing more than the hastening of the messiah, but inevitably it spilled over into quotidian existence, re-enforcing the mindset of Galut Jewry. If the peasants have beaten you up, what did you do to provoke them? What could you have done differently?

In reaction to Galut, the progressive Zionist interpretation of tikkun olam produces a complementary error. Because the exile rendered us impotent, the thinking goes, the reconstituted Jewish state must therefore have made us omnipotent. Israel allegedly controls its neighborhood, so when things go badly, it must be held accountable.

The result of this thinking is the same as that during the exile: an obsession with what we could have done differently to change the outcome.

Thus, following the failure of the peace talks at Camp David in 2000 and the subsequent intifada, pundits left no stone unturned analyzing Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s errors. But if the truth was that no offer would have satisfied Yasser Arafat, then all that these clever post-mortems accomplished was to let him off the hook.

Progressive Zionist writings now describe the outcome of Camp David as both sides having failed to come to an agreement. This ignores President Clinton’s ascription of the vast majority of the blame to Arafat. It obscures the difference between Barak’s artlessness and Arafat’s intransigence.

Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the Hamas election victory have evoked the same obsessive search for culpability. In a classic application of the philosophical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc — the belief that if one event happens after another, the first must have caused the second — it is taken as axiomatic that had Israel included Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a partner in its withdrawal, Hamas would have lost the 2006 elections.

But Hamas did lose the elections, earning 44% of the vote to Fatah’s 56%. Hamas won more seats because Fatah made the fatal error of dividing its vote among too many candidates.

Is it not entirely possible that nothing Israel might have done would have mattered?

Each time Israel has tried to include Abbas, he has been accused of being a traitor and an American-Zionist stooge. Arafat himself was regularly reviled whenever he negotiated with Israel. Could this not have affected his stance in 2000?

As progressive Zionists magnify the power of Israel, so do right-wing forces in the American Jewish community minimize it, painting Israel as a helpless victim while deluding themselves into believing in their own political omnipotence.

They have hectored Congress to pass meaningless and counterproductive resolutions to impede negotiations between Israel and its neighbors, and even directly sabotaged Israeli peace efforts. Has anyone forgotten the “private” 2001 visit to Jerusalem of Ronald Lauder, then-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to undercut Barak’s proposal to share the city with the Palestinians?

Far too many people believe that Israel controls the Middle East and that Jews control the American government. For this, we can in part thank ourselves: Jewish leftists for exaggerating the power of Israel, and Jewish rightists for exaggerating the power of American Jewry. Each of these is a distortion based on the erroneous belief that we can control events.

We must not forget that while we are obligated to try to repair the world, when we fail it is not necessarily our fault. We should adopt a realist position: We are not as powerless as we once were, but we are not as powerful as many of us (and them) think. To believe either extreme may be comforting, but neither is true.

Jeffry Mallow, a professor of physics at Loyola University Chicago, is treasurer of the Forward Association and author of “‘Our Pal God’ and Other Presumptions” (iUniverse, 2005).

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