“Aniyei Ircha Kodmim”- Where Does it End? The Israeli Case

by Nir Sarig

As long as the value of tikkun olam does not make aliyah, we cannot view it as a central feature of Jewish Peoplehood. I belong to the group within the Jewish People that is interested in it happening. We are not yet there.

The use of the term tikkun olam is spreading in the new Jewish narrative. From my perspective, it means applying the Jewish concept of chesed beyond the borders of the Jewish People. According to the Rambam, chesed is a deed done for another human being, not based on any legal obligation. “True chesed, or gmilut chasadim in the Jewish tradition happen only when the doer does not gain any profit from the deed. One can see in the modern aspiration for tikkun olam an adaptation of the universal humanistic principle articulated in the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which claimed that every human being should be seen as an end in himself and never merely as a means to an end. Like Kant’s “man as an end in himself”, tikkun olam should not be the sole consideration when we seek to help the other, but it ought to weigh heavily in the desire to help. Tikkun olam expands the willingness to help someone who is not part of our people, beyond political, social and economic considerations. Tikkun olam is an attempt to build a better world as part of human solidarity and empathy to human suffering.

Many Israelis remember the Israeli military hospital mobilized to Haiti as one of last year’s highlights. Israel was ahead of the rest of the developed world in providing emergency medical assistance to the worst crisis in our times. For a moment one could think that finally we, the State of the Jewish People, take part in tikkun olam.

When the IDF soldiers returned home, they were greeted by Prime Minister Netanyahu who congratulated them on their professional and efficient work, and then added, “You uplifted the human spirit, the name of the State of Israel and the IDF. Especially in these days, when there are those who distort and blemish the name of the IDF and the State of Israel, you have shown the world the true IDF spirit.”

In my opinion, the words of the Prime Minister represent well the spirit in the country. The humanitarian act in Haiti was justified by the need to counter negative positions against Israel and the IDF in the world. The main argument for funding the military hospital in Haiti was the need to gain the world’s support. It can be seen as a continuation of Israel’s policy in Africa in the 1960s. Then the reasoning was more specific: to gain pro-Israel votes in the United Nations.

The world is changing. The “advanced” countries recognized long ago the moral responsibility to support and aid the underdeveloped countries. According to the OECD which Israel joined recently, member organizations are required to dedicate 0.3% of their GNP to foreign aid. In Israeli terms it comes to $600,000,000 a year. The budget of Israel’s foreign aid department comes to less than $25,000,000. Even if we were to add to it the absorption cost of Ethiopian Jewry and aid to foreign workers and all of the government foreign aid we are still very far from the required international standard.

Back to Haiti. Next to the IDF hospital and in the months following the return of the soldiers, Israeli social organizations such as Latet, Natan, Tevel B’tzedek and Magen David Adom operated in Haiti. Those organizations went to Haiti and simultaneously launched campaigns to fund their activities there. Funding came from world Jewry and non-governmental sources in Israel.

As the one responsible for fundraising for Natan during that period, I remember the frustration from the poor response of the Israeli public. No less frustrating was the response of the public to the appeal for contribution. On the January 18, 2010, a few days after the earthquake, Walla news reported the following headline: “Israelis are not opening their pockets for Haiti”. The item reported the poor achievements in raising contributions from the Israeli public. On the bottom of the news item one could read a record number of 296 talkbacks. The majority expressed negative attitudes towards contribution to the disaster’s victims. A talk backer named “Daphna” seemed to represent the general sense: “With all due sadness, your town’s poor come first, and sadly there are many of them”. Another response, by “Nice citizen”, reiterated the same overall outlook: “Who will contribute to us?” Or as “Yona” responded: “Your town’s poor come first and in two months we will be forgotten anyway and two days after we get out of there all will be forgotten and they will vote against us in the UN.” The business sector also disappointed. Most appeals to business firms received the laconic response along the following lines: “Our company is committed to fighting poverty throughout the year so your request is being denied.”

While fundraising from world Jewry was built around the ethos of tikkun olam the concept of “your town’s poor come first” typified the response of the Israeli public. Do we have to accept the fact that the value of tikkun olam will not be accepted by Israeli society? I do not think so.

Fifteen years ago concepts such as: “corporate responsibility”, “sustainable development” and “handicap access” were strange to most Israeli ears. Today, thanks to NGOs such as Ma’ale, Israel’s Nature Society and Israel Access those concepts have become a substantial component of the Israeli narrative. Those organizations were helped by significant resources from Diaspora Jewry to promote their goals.

As the infrastructure of Israeli humanitarian organizations grows stronger, more Israeli volunteers will become involved in tikkun olam projects which, in return, will increase the chance of making the concept more acceptable in the wider public and its elected officials.

There are also encouraging signs. The mobilization of wide sectors of the Israeli public for the foreign workers’ children and the African refugees, the exceptional work of the Israeli social organizations in Haiti and the increase in volunteerism for humanistic causes, create hope that the desired change is doable.

There is also room for creative thinking and innovative ideas such as recruiting Israelis to volunteer during trips to the East or Latin America (an existing activity that can be expanded), the creation of a national service track alongside the American Peace Corps, the export of Israeli social entrepreneurships and the opening of professional training tracks for Israeli students abroad. All these ideas can be implemented in joint frameworks for Israelis and Diaspora Jews, thus paving the way for making the notion of tikkun olam a substantial component of Jewish Peoplehood.

Nir Sarig a social inventor and entrepreneur, has been working for nearly 25 years in a variety of roles in the Israeli public sector, including deputy director of the civic-national service authority, head of delegation of Natan to Haiti, etc. He initiated the “Israeli Model” that promotes Tikkun Olam through exporting Israeli social models abroad.

This article is from the series, Peoplehood – Between “Charity Begins at Home” and “Repair the World”.