“Everybody wants social justice, but no one wants to help Mom with the dishes,” writes University of Haifa economics professor Steven Plaut of Israel’s current social protests. I suppose he is saying that left-wing politics do not a better person make. Indeed they often serve as a salve for a guilty conscience: Witness President Obama’s 2008 fundraising triumphs among rapacious Wall Street executives. The great thing about bumper stickers like, “Save the whales” or “Justice for Palestine” is that they proclaim one’s moral grandeur, without demanding anything of the owner of the car.
Many years ago, my Dad, a”h, taught me this lesson. During my senior year in high school, I organized a large fundraising campaign for starving Biafrans (the proceeds of which I promptly gave away to a con woman from the South Side of Chicago.) One Sunday during that campaign, I mentioned to my father that I had been late for a class at our synagogue that morning. He was pouring batter into the waffle iron at the time, and without even looking up, he said, “You are so busy saving the world, but you can’t show someone the common courtesy of getting to his class on time.”
For the first (and probably last time in my life), I was furious with my father, and I ran out of the house, not to return for many hours. It did not take me long, however, to recognize that my fury came from the fact that my father was absolutely right. I was a very self-righteous teen – in my high school graduation speech, I lambasted my classmates for their lack of social consciousness – but not given to doing the dishes without being asked or particular about not keeping others waiting.
My father’s offhand comment had stripped me bare, and no one likes to stand exposed, especially in front of oneself.
The lesson that there is no necessary overlap between a particular political position and being a good person has been reinforced, at least in my mind, by empirical studies showing that residents of conservative Red states give a far greater percentage of their income to charity and are more likely to volunteer their time than residents of Blue states. For the latter, voting for ever higher taxes substitutes for reaching into one’s pocket and directly giving to someone in need. The redistributive welfare state tends to break down social bonds and feelings of mutual responsibility by delegating to the government what neighbors once did for those less fortunate.
Meanwhile, Israel’s “social justice” protestors combine the worst of “old Israel” with the worst of the “new Israel.” They seek a return to the statist economy of the early days of the state, when the Histadrut labor federation was the largest employer, but without any of the willingness to engage in bone-crunching labor and live in extreme simplicity – with shoes worn for years, clothes patched with the burlap from bags of sugar, etc. – of those days.
First published in Mishpacha, August 17.