Repairing the World Has Torn Us From Our Senses

By Jeffry Mallow

Published July 03, 2007, issue of July 06, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘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).

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.