A commitment to economic justice is deeply embedded in Jewish tradition, history, and culture. Throughout their several thousand year history, Jews as a people, culture and community have cared not only for the poor, but for the ways in which society treats the poor and other vulnerable populations.
The Tanakh, Talmud, pre-modern kehillot, Zionism, Bundism, the American labor movement, and the record of Jewish communal life in the United States all display strong elements of concern with the distribution of wealth and the needs of the impoverished. In much of 20th century America, Jews and their institutions largely sided with liberal, if not progressive, strains in American political life and social discourse.
Recent times have, if anything, highlighted economic justice concerns. The Great Recession and other factors led to the explosion in Jewish poverty. In the New York area, for example, the number of people living in poor Jewish households grew from 244,000 in 2002 to 361,000 in 2011, encompassing a fifth of all such people in Jewish households in the New York area. (See the Jewish Community Study of New York 2011
.) The recent presidential election highlighted differences over economic policies. Not surprisingly, the Jewish vote turned on matters of economic justice, the key determinant of which Jews voted for Obama, and which for Romney. (See the Workmen's Circle / Arbeter Ring 2012 American Jews' Political Values Survey
Economic justice issues dominate public discourse, with continued focus on such matters as taxes, Medicare, food stamps, minimum wage, affordable housing, social services, and related issues. As recent surveys well document, US Jews as individuals remain well to the left of the societal center on most of these questions. Yet, as an organized community, one would be hard-put to find Jewish leadership articulating a clear message in favor of protecting, let alone expanding entitlements, or taxing the more fortunate to ameliorate the hardship experienced by the far less fortunate.
The BJPA Reader's Guide: Economic Justice
covers a sweep of writings-analytic, policy-oriented, philosophic, and religious-from the depths of the Great Depression in 1932 to the current time. It spans both North America and Israel. And, for the most part, it demonstrates a deep and historic commitment to alleviating poverty and redressing the societal ills that create and tolerate increasing numbers of poor people alongside non-parallel increases in wealth and affluence.