Jewish Unity and an Israel Issue we can all Get Behind

The Center of Independent Living (Be’er Sheva), created and run by people with disabilities, empowers this population to live independently and advocate for their needs, from social services to recreational programming. Photo: Sarah Levin for JDC.

By David M. Schizer

It is no secret that American Jews are increasingly at odds with each other, and that fissures have emerged between many American Jews and the Israeli Government.

But it is essential to put this fact in perspective. How many American Jews agree with every policy of our own government? If we think of global Jewry as a family, how many of us always agree with our own siblings, parents, and spouses?

Disagreements are a fact of life. The question is whether these disagreements define a relationship, or are merely a part of it, which is offset by the gravitational pull of shared goals, values, and history.

In this polarizing environment, we need to remind ourselves of the essential values and goals we share. Working together to advance those goals is the best way to preserve Jewish unity.

In my experience, many Jews across the political spectrum share a concern for the well-being of disadvantaged people. I just returned from Israel with the board of my organization. Although our board members are diverse politically, they are unanimously committed to helping the most vulnerable populations.

This broad-based commitment is not surprising. Every Jew descends from someone who endured poverty, discrimination, and even violence. The only question is how long ago our families experienced these hard times. Given this shared history, it is natural for us to identify with the poor and those on the margins, and to aspire to improve their lives.

Since so many Jews share this commitment, we should come together to advance it. To celebrate Israel’s 70th, Jews in the diaspora should work with Israeli partners to advance a goal that is as essential as it is uncontroversial: helping Israel’s most vulnerable citizens help themselves.

This goal has deep roots in Jewish tradition. Maimonides’ greatest level of charity was to help fellow Jews find employment so they could support themselves.

Assuring opportunity and dignity to all citizens has been at the core of modern Zionism from the very beginning. Theodore Herzl called for “a model state” and “a land of experiments.”

Another prominent Zionist, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, saw Israel as an opportunity to turn our noblest aspirations into reality. As he put it in 1913, “[t]he great quality of the Jews is that they have been able to dream through all the long and dreary centuries. … The task ahead of them is to make this Zionist ideal a living fact. ‘If they wish it, they can by service bring it about.’”

In suggesting that our divided Jewish community should unite to help vulnerable populations, I am applying a lesson from history. In 1914, my organization was founded as a cooperative effort of two groups who did not get along: German Jews, who came to the U.S. in mid-nineteenth century, and Russian and Eastern European Jews who came later. This is why the word “joint” appears in our name. These groups joined forces to help impoverished Jews in Palestine.

Since then, Israel obviously has become a prosperous nation. But many Israelis do not share in this prosperity. Living standards are much lower for ultra-orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs, and residents of the nation’s geographic and social periphery. These groups are growing. Indeed, half the children in Israeli kindergartens are either ultra-orthodox or Israeli Arabs. If these groups do not participate more fully in the nation’s economic life, the start-up nation’s economic miracle will end.

In addressing this grave problem, our goal should not be to “throw money” at it. Rather, we should empower these Israelis to help themselves. This should be a central commitment of global Jewry, as it is for my organization.

Our experience shows that enormous progress can be made in advancing opportunities for Israelis who are seemingly left behind. We can help children at risk to turn their lives around, empower disabled Israelis to live more independently, and enable unemployed Israelis to work. We partner with the Israeli Government, local municipalities, and Israeli nonprofits to pursue these goals.

The results will be inspiring. Imagine the power of an Israeli society that enables Israelis with disabilities to live on their own, instead of in residential facilities, offering them a better quality of life at lower cost. Picture a generation of ultra-orthodox women who lift their families out of poverty by working in the high tech sector. We can make this happen. Indeed, we already are.

More generally, our goal should be to dream up innovative ways to help Israel’s most vulnerable citizens. In Herzl’s “land of experiment,” we should try new ideas. Some will work. Others will not. But through this process, we can accomplish Brandeis’s dream of making “this Zionist ideal a living fact.”

This sacred work also will remind all Jews that even when we disagree, we are still one people. Our sacred commitment to help the disadvantaged among us helps to define us as Jews, and should unite us forever.

In Israel, and beyond, it’s an unfinished task that we can all undertake together.

David M. Schizer is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.