The Best the Largest Progressive Jewish Org Could Come Up With?

… “Bend the Arc.”

Yup, this is the new name of the largest domestically-focused Jewish progressive organization in the country, created out of the merger of Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice, the latter of which had already swallowed up a number of smaller Jewish social justice organizations. 

I know several people who work at BtA, and I commend them on their ability to keep a secret. I and friends of mine plied several of these folks with drinks, but their lips stayed sealed. (I did find out that the org would have an action-verb in it, as is the fashion these days, but that’s all.)

That being said, I’m not a big fan of the new name. Aside from “Arc” sounding like “Ark,” there’s no Jewish trace in it, and the point of the organization, I thought, was to contribute something specifically Jewish to the American progressive religious scene, the American social justice movement, and so on. Closeting the organization’s Jewishness seems like a weird way to do that.

I do, however, like their new video (though I worry about some of its implications):

As a strong answer to a question I recently posed in The Forwardwhy should American Jews care about social justice? – the clip succinctly highlights a century of Jewish social justice concern. It’s compelling viewing.

At the same time, both the clip and Bend The Arc’s new website situate this narrative in a Jewish immigrant experience that is hardly universal. Sephardic Jews, Jews from the former Soviet Union, Israelis living in America, Jews by choice, most Jews of color, and Jews in interfaith families do not share this narrative. Of course, this history is open to all who seek to claim it, all of those groups included. But it’s curious that BtA explains its social justice commitments not in the age-old teachings of the Jewish tradition (e.g., “You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)) but in more recent, and less universal, Jewish experiences. 

Ironically, this choice is at once too particular, and not particular enough. It excludes many Jews, and perhaps deliberately depicts Jewishness as a secular, American immigration narrative that is accessible to non-Jews as well – such as, importantly, readers of this publication. This is good for building bridges with the wider progressive world and with contemporary immigrant communities, and maybe that’s the point. This is a Jewishness everyone can relate to. And it resonates with the anti-religious bent of many on the old Jewish Left as well. 

It just feels a little shallow. 5000 years of history and culture, and we have to take a metaphor from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about bending the arc of history toward justice? Can you even say “bend the arc” in Hebrew? Or Yiddish? 

I am a fan of this organization, whatever its name. They do great work, and they have the potential to do even more. I have no doubt that many consultants and stakeholders wrestled with all the issues I’ve spotted here, and many more, and that this reflects their sincere best efforts to balance multiple constituencies and interests, many of which are at odds with one another. It’s just too bad that, to me at least, what they came up with reflects that.

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