These days it seems to me like I could end the genocide in Darfur with a little Internet shopping. For example, I could start by purchasing a Green Day T-shirt that promises to end the violence in Darfur; or I could buy “colonial style leatherware” designed by George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Don Cheadle under the clothing label “Not on Our Watch.” But since clothing isn’t my thing, I could always buy “Instant Karma,” a CD recently released by Amnesty International as part of their Darfur campaign. The title of the CD (taken from a John Lennon song) illustrates the impatient attitude that characterizes 21st century consumer and cyber activism. The stylish Instant Karma website entreats me to sign a petition, of which only a line of its text is displayed (I had to click a link to actually read the petition).
Is this combination of consumerism, technology and compassion a brilliant fusion destined to save the world? Or, is it a shallow way of feeling like you’re doing your part to help the world, while getting a really sweet T-Shirt in the process?
By turning to Jewish texts, we can find some answers. Judaism continuously stresses that charity is not sufficient to Tikkun Olam, repair the world. Instead, Jews must be holy and engage in tzedekah, a Hebrew word derived from tzedek, meaning “justice.” Tzedekah is not limited to giving money to support charitable causes, such as buying a Darfur T-Shirt. According to the medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, one of the most important acts of tzedekah is helping a poor person get a job, instead of giving a poor person money. In other words, to pursue justice you must take out your work-boots and not only your credit card.
It is logistically difficult and incredibly dangerous to take out your work-boots by personally visiting Darfur, however, there are other ways to get actively involved with ending genocide. I recently spoke with Dan Feldman, a former Assemblyman of New York who informed me that in his opinion, the most powerful way to enact change is to personally visit your elected officials. He basically said that online petitions barely influence decisions because they are so easy to sign that they don’t indicate any true commitment to the cause.
I believe that consumer activism is a shallow solution to deeper problems that require our full attention. While it is important to monetarily support the issues we care about, we mustn’t feel complacent after purchasing a leather jacket, even if it dons the label “Not on Our Watch.”
Just yesterday, the U.S. reported that the Sudanese government has resumed bombing civilian targets in Darfur. This sort of widespread government-sponsored terror is not going to end with buying a T-Shirt from the comfort of our computers. Unfortunately, ending genocide is not as “instant” as our credit-card transactions.