Philanthropy Nation?

by Suzanne Last Stone

It seems an opportune time to reflect on the attitudes of the Israeli and American Jewish communities toward philanthropy, given both the recent release of Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s billionaires, 13 of whom are Israeli, and the appearance [last] week of Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley – UK’s former Ambassador of Philanthropy and a Kindertransport refugee – at two [local] conferences, one the Amuta 21C conference on nonprofits in Israel, which face an uncertain future, and, the other, the annual meeting of the United States-based Jewish Funders Network, the largest network of Jewish philanthropists in the world.

The Forbes list is merely the latest confirmation of the remarkable economic flourishing of Israel. This development is poised to alter the relationship between the two Jewish communities in dramatic ways. I am old enough to remember the little blue and white pushkes collecting every spare penny not only for needy individuals in Israel but for the State itself. The relationship between the Israeli and American Jewish communities was built, for good and bad, around that pushke. The implicit terms of the relationship were that American Jews gave money and, in return, Israeli citizens bore the burden of physically enacting the two communities’ common goal: creating a Jewish State that would be a haven for world Jewry. In many respects, this relationship was modeled on the symbiotic relationship ascribed by rabbinic tradition to the two tribes, Zevulun and Issachar, with one engaged in commerce and the other in Torah study. This familiar model also underlay the support given by an older generation of largely secular American Jews to traditional yeshivot that had transplanted themselves on American soil

In the heady age of “Start-Up Nation,” the Issachar-Zevulun model of partnership requires serious retooling in favor of a far more horizontal and collaborative model, in which both communities bear the financial burden of supporting common Jewish projects. Moving toward a collaborative model of partnership is no easy task, however. On the contrary, the model presents challenges for both communities. American Jewish identity was largely centered around the figurative pushke – it was a uniting force. And it is psychologically disorienting to no longer occupy a clear position of dominance in terms of funding Jewish projects (including the common project of the Jewish State). A genuine and rich horizontal partnership would also require instilling a greater tradition of philanthropy among Israelis – a tradition that does not, at present, exist. Strikingly, Israel is ranked 38th on the list of charitable nations, well behind far less wealthy countries

Given that charity, tzedakah, is such a core Jewish value – indeed, one of the three marks of Jewish identity, according to the rabbinic tradition – why, then is philanthropy so lagging in Israel? One reason, to be sure, is the relatively recent change in the Israeli economic landscape. The deeper reason, I suspect, is that charity and philanthropy are not synonymous. Charity is a familial virtue; philanthropy is a political virtue and, therefore, closely tied to particular political cultures

In the classical Jewish sources, Rabbi Ozer Glickman points out, charity is fundamentally about a relationship between two people in close proximity. The Bible vividly describes it as “opening one’s hand” or “not closing one’s hand” to a needy brother. A relationship is forged based on an encounter between a “brother in need” – someone with whom one has a familial tie – and a person with the capacity to donate

Philanthropy, by contrast, is about private individuals promoting the public good and enhancing their society. Philanthropy is a feature of civil society: it occupies an intermediate position between the private realm of family and the public realm of the state. These institutions of civil society are “quintessentially American,” writes Kathleen McCarthy. By organizing and participating in the voluntary sphere, Americans demonstrate their faith that they can influence politics through institutions of their own making. American Jewish philanthropy is a reflection of this quintessentially American political culture as much as it is a reflection of the Jewish value of charity. Israel, by contrast, is struggling to create a more vibrant civil society in the face of a very different political culture, still bearing the imprint of statism, or mamlachtiyut, pursuant to which citizens and the State relate to one another largely without mediating institutions. Citizens are obligated directly to the state and, in turn, it is the state’s obligation – and the state’s alone – to promote the public good and enhance society.

The American and Israeli Jewish communities share the familial virtue of charity. For the Start-Up Nation to turn into the Philanthropy Nation, however, requires a political culture that is, perhaps, only now beginning to emerge.

Suzanne Last Stone is a member of the iEngage Team of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
cross-posted from Shalom Hartman Institute