Q. You wrote that when we can’t realistically create solidarity with distant sweatshop workers, it may be better to concentrate on improving conditions for local workers, who are really far better off. [See: Is it ethical to buy from low-wage suppliers?] Isn’t this evading our responsibility to help the impoverished?
A. In a recent column, we discussed the value in Jewish tradition of harmonizing economic and social relations. The conclusion was that consumer activism and power are best concentrated on workers with whom the consumer has some degree of solidarity and identification. Some readers felt it was ironic and unfair to give preference to a local product to save the job of a comparatively wealthy worker in the home country rather than an imported product which could give a new lease on life to an impoverished family in the developing world.
One response to this thoughtful objection is to point out that another solution mentioned in the article is to strive to expand our circle of concern and solidarity and try to create substantive social relations with the distant workers. But as the column pointed out, this is not always practical.
A deeper and subtler response would be based on a remarkable foundation of Jewish faith and tradition: very often the best way to help someone out of distress is not to provide them with aid, but rather to provide them with a worthy example. In our case, one of the best ways we can help undeveloped areas is to provide them with a vivid image of a humane and well-functioning society — one that is willing to make sacrifices to help its weakest members.
History provides many examples of this lesson. A prominent one is Japan’s “post-war economic miracle” — post U.S. Civil War, that is. In 1868 Japan was a pre-industrial society; less than 40 years later it was a world power. Japan was not the beneficiary of an outpouring of foreign aid or of foreign sympathy; rather, the Japanese undertook to imitate the attainments of the great powers of Europe and North America.
This insight is one explanation for many of the seemingly insular customs of Judaism, including a preference to do business with co-religionists. Scripture states that God wants the Jewish people to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). As a small and scattered nation, we can provide comparatively little direct aid. Very often the best way we can serve as a beacon to others is strive to be an example of a community whose values consistently enable it to attain a high level of spiritual elevation and material well-being even in frequently hostile circumstances. Perceiving the Jewish community in their midst has inspired other groups to emulate customary ways such as high levels of literacy and education, generosity in charitable giving, personal responsibility for the underprivileged, and so on. [See WorldPerfect: The Jewish Impact on Civilization.]
The Torah commands us, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. (Leviticus 19:18.) Seemingly it would have been enough to command “Love your neighbor”; why “as yourself”? The Torah seems to be telling us that it is impossible to love someone else unless you first love and esteem yourself. Likewise, the love of our neighbor is a pre-requisite for effective love and concern for others beyond my community. A person who recognizes his own worth is capable of loving others; someone who loves and cares for members of his own community is able to push out the envelope and extend that love onward. But if a person starts by deciding that he will love all human beings equally will find it difficult to love any human being effectively. Universal love is certainly the ideal, but this love is achieved by cultivating broader and broader concentric circles of concern.
It is important to help undeveloped economies by buying their products. But it’s important that the process of international economic development should not turn into a “race to the bottom” whereby advanced economies are compelled to adopt work standards of backward countries. Instead, we want to encourage a general ratcheting up of conditions and standards; very often the best way to achieve this is to concentrate on our neighbors. After all, “charity begins at home”.