In Praise of Altruism: The Antidote to a Morally Bankrupt Ethnocentrism

This piece is cross-posted from Eretz Acheret where it was published today.

It’s been fashionable in recent decades to be sniffy about altruism. Self-interest, we are told, is the most important instinct that leads to action in support of people who are destitute, infirm, the victims of natural disasters, targets of racial hatred or oppressed by brutal regimes. If I look after no. 1, I’ll be better equipped and more able to look after others.

Jewish communities have been fertile ground for those who are keen to sow the seeds of this approach. For historical and some would say religious reasons, the virtues of self-help, the entrepreneurial spirit and private philanthropy have been central to the sustenance of Jewish life. There’s no shame in making money as long as a proportion of it is put to good social use. In the UK, both the current and the former Chief Rabbis of the United Synagogue, the mainstream orthodox denomination, have appeared to lend their spiritual authority to the ideas of Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher. The Jewish philanthropic stars of Europe today hail from the former Soviet Union. They’re men who made billions in the cowboy capitalism years after the collapse of communism, seem to live high on the hog (as it were) and are now feted by any Jewish charity that can get anywhere near them. The thriving market in European Jewish revival is the product of the free market and neo-liberal economics.

But Jewish reality is more complex than this picture and these arguments allow. In most of Europe, and particularly in two of the largest three Jewish communities, France and Germany, the traditions of private philanthropy remain very weak in comparison to the UK, and even more so to the United States. State funding for Jewish communities, which was the means by which post-war governments tried to make some amends for the destruction of Jewish life during the Holocaust, has played a crucial role in underpinning the basis of communal life.

Even more important is the fact that so many of the activists behind the organizations and voluntary associations that focus on social and humanitarian needs are clearly motivated by their understanding of Jewish teachings, by what they believe to be the Jewish values they learnt from their parents, their extended families and the communities in which they grew up. By and large, they are not self-made millionaires. They haven’t felt it necessary to feather their own nests first before engaging in social action.

And the truth is that we don’t fully recognize the crucial importance that the Jewish social action movement, which has crystallised so significantly in recent years as a result of the persistence of altruism and the tenacity of those who put tikkun olam, repairing the world, above everything else, now plays in keeping alight the flame of the Jewish pursuit of justice. Among the voices and forces that dominate in the great controversies that are tearing the Jewish world apart—the Israel-Palestine conflict, the bitter religious divisions, the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, the degree to which most of the world does or does not hate us—I struggle to find anyone paying much attention to their Jewish moral compass. But look—in the UK, for example—at the leaders and activists in the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, ‘a Jewish voice on race and asylum’, in Tzedek, ‘Jewish action for a just world’, in René Cassin, ‘the Jewish voice for human rights’, in the Big Green Jewish Website, ‘connecting Judaism to the environment’—to name but a few—and there you see a passion for social justice that may guide us through these dark times and into a brighter future.

This is a worldwide Jewish movement of which the Israeli civil and human rights NGOs, so severely under siege at this time, are an integral part. And it’s also one in which private philanthropists play a very important role, so don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for those who start from the perspective of self-interest. But without those who are motivated first and foremost by what they believe to be good, right, enlightened and just, and who apply such values equally to everyone, no matter what their religion, colour, ethnic origin, social class or mental and physical ability, the social action movement wouldn’t exist.

A cautionary word is necessary here, however. I think I’ve mentioned the phrase ‘Darfur chic’ before in these letters. I heard it first from a key Jewish educationalist and social activist who was drawing attention to the fact that there is a tendency among some in this movement to congratulate themselves on how wonderful Jewish humanitarian engagement is in developing African countries, in the aftermath of floods and earthquakes, when famine strikes. And yet, when it comes to the humanitarian plight of the Palestinians they are silent, inactive and sometimes positively hostile. The ultimate test of the Jewish social action movement is precisely how and when it will face up to this challenge.

Fortunately, there are groups doing precisely this, but by no means enough to alter the image of Jews today as characterised by the unsightly battles of raucous political ideologues and propagandists. It’s not more self-interest that’s going to change that. Altruism may not be a fashionable motive any more, but without it, we’ll never escape from out morally bankrupt ethnocentrism.

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