American Jewish philanthropists should put their own oxygen masks on first

You board an airplane and after everyone is seated you get the familiar in-flight safety demonstration. Stow your items, fasten your safety belt, place your cell phones on airplane mode. The flight attendant then instructs: “If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your oxygen mask first, and then help the other person.”

This oxygen mask instruction is quite simple but counterintuitive — you can save yourself and others only if you do the seemingly selfish act — put your mask on first. It’s an instinct for self-preservation that has been lost among American Jews. In the wake of Oct. 7, we desperately need to get it back.

How did we lose sight of our own interests?

First, we became complacent in assuming we are secure in today’s America and that others finally accept us for who we are. We became integrated and gained positions of authority with input into the political process. We lived our lives in peace and prosperity along with other Americans who strove for the American dream. That false sense of safety rendered many blissfully unaware of the mounting dangers. 

Second, a majority of American Jews long viewed their fate as inextricably tied to the American left. They saw the political right as intolerant and hostile to their interests, and the political left as allies in making America a better, more humane country. They joined progressive coalitions on all manner of issues, believing that if America became more accepting of all minorities, Jews would remain secure. In this worldview, tikkun olam (repairing the world) creates the kind of society in which Jews, too, can thrive. 

This combination — an inflated sense of comfort and an unawareness of the non-reciprocal nature of our allyship — blinded many Jews to the growing threat, even as they continued directly funneling philanthropic resources into the groups that would ultimately turn on them. 

Then came the attacks of Oct. 7. Many American Jews were jolted out of their comfort zones when angry protests erupted on college campuses blaming Israel for the massacre of its own citizens before the blood had even dried on the pavement in southern Israel. Videos surfaced of high school students marching down the halls chanting “From the river to the sea.” Long-time progressive friends didn’t call offering emotional support. Liberal rabbis who spent decades cultivating relationships with other progressive faith leaders reported that they were often confronted with silence, or worse, from many of their erstwhile allies. 

Many American Jews are now in a state of deep contemplation, asking where they fit into the American political and social landscape; they no longer believe that the political left offers them safe harbor against antisemitism and extremism. Jewish parents have joined Whatsapp groups sharing information about the latest outrage in the classroom, and others openly worry about where their children go to college.

The time has come for the pendulum to swing toward an independent-minded, practical, balanced and more realist approach to Jewish politics and philanthropy. While many of us still want to contribute positively to the larger world, we need to prioritize our own security and well-being. We need to put our oxygen mask on first and make sure whatever universal commitments we make are carefully calibrated to our particular interests — or, at the very least, don’t serve to fan the flames of hatred against us.  

We propose these simple guidelines for Jewish philanthropists:

1.) Stop giving money to people who hate you, propagate hate against you or put you in danger

Many will say, “Of course we don’t give money to people who hate us.” Well, that is almost certainly not true. 

Brandeis University, for example, published a study that identified universities experiencing elevated levels of anti-Jewish hate on campus. There are many that tolerate violent and intimidating behavior against Jews under the guise of free speech that they do not and would not allow against other groups. 

One of the authors has given money to one of these universities — his son’s alma mater —. Those donations have stopped.

2.) Direct donations for specific purposes

Many large non-profits work on causes you feel strongly about, others about which you are neutral, and still others that you don’t support. Non-profits strongly prefer that you provide your support toward “general operations,” but this means your money might support areas of an organization’s work that are hostile to Jewish interests. In large nonprofits with complex and varied activities, direct your philanthropy to the areas you most strongly support.

3.) Don’t give money to charities that just sit on large endowments, funnel it to other groups or partner with groups that have been hostile to Jews

Focus on who is making an important impact rather than those sustaining outmoded work. Avoid philanthropic giving to organizations that support “partners” who showed after Oct. 7 that they are no friends of the Jewish people or Israel.

4.) Give at least 50% of your philanthropic funds and time to Jewish “oxygen mask” issues.

Consider it a modern form of Jewish tithing: academic scholarships for low-income Jews; strengthening new and creative approaches to countering antisemitism; funding Title VI lawsuits for Jewish students on campus; funding research and policy efforts to reduce campus antisemitism; funding trips to Israel for disadvantaged Jewish families — there are so many areas that would benefit from your support. 

5.) Do not give money to charities that propagate anti-Western values

The destiny of American Jews is tied to a thriving, confident American society. Many of the attacks against our people are part of a larger attack against capitalism, free speech, the U.S. and the values of the West. We are the canaries in the coal mine, and protecting American values is part of protecting Jews.

A large majority of people in the U.S. vehemently support Jews and Israel as the epicenter of the Abrahamic religions and a Western ally. New groups are emerging standing up for democratic, “small l” liberal values. Understand who our supporters are and funnel financial resources to specific causes where our values overlap. 

6.) Demand accountability for how your money is spent.

The importance of this directive for philanthropists predates Oct. 7, but it is especially important in our post-Oct. 7 world. Read organizations’ annual reports and stakeholder letters and get to know the CEO and chief development officers to understand their true priorities.

7.) Get involved with your time.

We can’t all do this with every philanthropic endeavor, but identifying opportunities to bring your expertise and other help beyond money is part of making an impact. Set aside a number of hours each month to help keep our people safe.

The old tikkun olam approach had its time and place; unfortunately, it all too often benefited causes and organizations that work against Jewish interests and safety. Our way of life, and potentially our survival, depend upon first tending to our own interests.

David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV). 

Phil Siegel is a serial for-profit and non-profit entrepreneur, private equity investor and philanthropist out of Austin, Texas.