whenever i start to get bored with the idea of staying vocal as one of the surprisingly few non-closeted secularists in most of the electronic jewish spaces i frequent, something like this comes up.

ruth messinger, former manhattan borough president, american jewish world service president, and makher-in-chief of the current (and problematic as well as important, of which more another day) darfur support campaign in the u.s., had this to say about the purpose of AJWS on jspot last week:

AJWS and its fellow “emerging [jewish] service and social justice organizations” are “all about new ways to build a meaningful faith connection for Jews seeking beyond the secular.”

it’s nice, if appalling, to have the most prominent leader of the u.s. jewish liberal nonprofit sector confirm my most deeply-seated suspicions about her organization’s basic intent. but it should raise a whole lot of questions for those of us who make up the secular majority of u.s. jews about what organizations we want to support, and which we want to actively critique in their work in u.s. jewish communities.

i adore AJWS’ work outside of the u.s., with the exception of its past few years’ focus on darfur (again, a subject for another day). it’s one of the few groups that effectively does what every international funder in the global north claims to do: take money from liberal u.s. citizens and give it to radicals in the global south to do things that most of its donors would actively oppose in their own communities. which is to say it does a great job moving cash to sex worker organizing projects in southeast asia, indigenous/campesino movements in central america, street vendors’ unions in africa, HIV medication access fights in the former USSR, and queer/trans struggles in south asia from donors who support bloomberg/giuliani/shumer/clinton “clean up the streets”/”broken window theory”/”quality of life” attacks on sex workers, street vendors, queers, transwomen, HIV+ folks and indigenous migrant workers in the u.s.

but AJWS’ work at home has often left me cold. at times it’s been wonderful, bringing (for instance) the struggle against the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) to a substantial jewish audience in a way that didn’t dilute AJWS’ grantees’ anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal, anti-‘washington consensus’ politics, and placed the issue solidly in a hemispheric context. but it’s been almost entirely geared towards the religiously oriented minority of u.s. jews. most of its outreach and education materials, fantastic as many of them are, are either framed through religious texts, designed to function in religious contexts (dvar-toyres, etc), or disseminated almost exclusively through religious institutions (shuln, day schools, etc), or all three.

one good gauge of this: every one of the “jewish resources” listed on its webiste is religiously oriented – written by a rabbi, published by a religious press, dealing with a religious topic, using religion as its lens to examine social justice (either halakhicly or in the loose ‘tikkun olam’ mode), or more than one of these. the closest thing to a secular volume is michael walzer’s exodus and revolution, a (fascinating) examination of how this fundamental jewish myth has influenced political traditions and the conception of revolution. there’s not a single sign of the fairly vast literature from or about the jewish secular progressive and radical – or even liberal – movements which have been a much larger part of the past two hundred years of jewish social justice work. even the most acceptable face of the jewish secular left – the vast participation by young u.s. jews in the african american struggles of the 1950s-70s – is replaced by the bearded visage of abraham joshua heschel, whose comparatively activist orientation and ties to the religious wing of the civil rights movement had little support from his conservative movement colleagues until many years later.

so in some ways it’s a relief to have messinger confirm that AJWS’ basic conception of the role of her organization in relation to u.s. jews is a missionary one. it’s far better that she’s honest (at least in jewish left spaces) about AJWS’ “faith connection” aim than to remain unpersuasively disingenuous, as she has until now, as far as i’ve seen.

it would, however, be nice if the organization’s websites and other public faces ceased to claim that its home-community goal is “promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community”, though. that framing implies that what matters to AJWS is that jews take on progressive values and responsibilities (which, for most u.s. jews, come from secular sources), not that we “build a meaningful faith connection” (which, for most religious u.s. jews, does not imply a particularly progressive stance or global perspective).

also worrying is the fact that messinger’s new framing implies that in her vision, AJWS uses “service and social justice” as a hook to draw jews into a “meaningful faith connection”, or to redefine “service and social justice” in faith-based terms. this is a radically different project from the various efforts to develop a jewish theology of liberation – which in many ways looks at how faith can be used to bring jews into progressive or radical political consciousness, and to define faith in terms of liberation. the one moves liberal- and left-leaning jews into religion, the other moves religious jews to the left. the former, by endorsing the religious right’s axiom that religious belief should be the basis of political legitimacy and practice, not only strengthens the position of the entrenched religious right in u.s. politics, but also marginalizes and politically delegitimizes the majority of u.s. jews, whose largely liberal to progressive politics are firmly secular in origins and expression.

it also – in the (unfortunate and hopefully temporary) absence of a much stronger jewish liberation theology movement – is very likely to have a conservativizing effect. we know from the AJC surveys as well as more anecdotal reports that while there are plenty of progressive religious jews and secular jewish neocons, conservatism correlates quite strongly with degree of religious commitment in the u.s. jewish community (see for instance this and this*). which must, if we take an evidence-based approach to life and organizing, make us sceptical of efforts whose stated aim is to increase religious identification among progressive jews, rather than either strengthening progressive and radical views among the already religious or promoting those perspectives among jews in ways that are independent of religion.

fundamentally, though, what it comes down to is the simple fact that between the christians and the chabadniks we’ve got too many missionaries targeting u.s. jews as it is. AJWS should decide whether it thinks the many culturally specific and secular movements it supports elsewhere in the world are a model it supports or not. if so, why not act to support such efforts at home? if not, why support them abroad?

if, however, as is more likely, it continues to pursue the path of promoting a different and in many ways opposite agenda among u.s. jews and elsewhere in the world, it’s in a long tradition of american exceptionalism. and it does get props for at least supporting good work in most of the world, and even a few extra points for honesty about its double standard.

* careful readers of the notes to the latter study will have noted that its researchers found the secular respondents to the jewish population studies were somewhat more politically conservative than the reform and reconstructionist respondents. while this may hold true for reconstructionists – a politically defined denomination in many ways, with a strong liberation theology strain – it is largely an artifact of the methodologies used for jewish population surveys, which undercount jews who live outside of ‘traditionally jewish’ neighborhoods, jews without notably ashkenazi last names, and jews who choose to distance themselves from jewish institutional life – all largely secular categories, and (in the latter case in particular) often progressive ones. which is to say, it’s a lot easier to find progressive reform jews and conservative secular jews than progressive secular jews when your survey sample is chosen based in large part on the UJA mailing list.