How can we practise Tikkun Olam in our divided world?

Recent polarising events, both local and global, have got me thinking about the concept of ‘the other’ and how it hampers our moral imperative of Tikkun Olam – the ancient concept of healing the broken world. Seemingly unconnected events weave together in my mind because at their core they all concern an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, groups pitted against each other in a divided world.

The tragic deaths of four (three Jewish and one Arab) teenagers in Israel that sparked increased hostility between Israel and Hamas; the ongoing and often deeply troubling debate in our own country around race and identity, recently brought into sharp focus by Jesse Duarte’s chilling statement on the Gaza conflict; the offensive ad published by the Mail & Guardian comparing the inhumane treatment of pigs to the Jews in Auschwitz, no less abhorrent because it was placed by a member of our community; the sharp rise in overt antisemitism on social media, particularly from pro-ANC sources.

I was privileged to hear Bill Clinton speak about Tikkun Olam at the 2013 Presidential Conference in Israel. What stuck with me was how eloquently he used this ancient Jewish philosophy to describe our modern responsibility to our fellow citizens. In essence Clinton spoke of a “constant struggle to redefine those to whom we feel the obligation of Tikkun Olam. Who is in our group and who lies without?”  Over and over again, he exhorted those present to “expand the definition of who is us and shrink that of who is them.“

An intriguing invitation, but one that is far easier to express than to implement. Had he stopped here, I would probably have forgotten his words. But he went further, beyond the romantic notion of Tikkun Olam as a moral obligation. He warned that when ‘us’ and ‘them’ are compelled by circumstance to “share the future”, if we don’t establish the terms of that shared future in a way that is acceptable to both sides, there will always be an imbalance and there can be no Tikkun Olam.

And that’s when I realised that without Tikkun Olam there can be no lasting peace.  Anywhere. Because when one group is favoured above or more powerful than another, neither group will ever be safe, especially when forced to share close quarters. Tikkun Olam is as much about survival as it is about social harmony and justice. This applies to both Israel and South Africa.
While I have no solutions for lasting peace in Israel or economic and social justice in South Africa, I do have some thoughts about how each one of us can practice Tikkun Olam in our own lives. And why as Jews we should feel compelled to do so.

On Yom Hashoah 2013, Shimon Peres told a gathering at Yad Vashem that the Holocaust is a “warning to the entire human family … to guard against humanity ever losing its humanity again … (and) to ensure that every person will have the right to be different, different and equal.”

As Jewish South Africans – or South African Jews, whichever you feel more comfortable with – we are direct descendants of the survivors of the Holocaust and have first-hand knowledge of the cruelty that was the Apartheid regime. More than others, we know how very difficult it is to live on either side of an imbalanced power relationship and how vicious humanity can be against those they view as ‘different’.

And so, more than others, we should heed Peres’s call by treating every person we encounter with respect and tolerance, no matter how ‘different’ they appear to be. Our antennae are finely tuned to pick up even a hint of antisemitism. But we are not always so quick to look inwards at our own prejudices. There is no place for using words such as ‘girls’ when referring to our domestic workers or ‘shochs’ to describe our fellow South Africans. I die a little inside each time I hear these words uttered by members of community. Each time we use a derogatory term for someone who is one of ‘them’, we break our world a little more.

I leave you with an extract from the hauntingly beautiful words of Pastor Martin Niemöller because they illustrate the often frightening distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. And because they remind us of the danger of separating ourselves from the pool of humanity.

First They Came for the Jews 
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.