Religion, State and Philanthropy

by Robert Hyfler

Both Dan Brown and Danny Allen make important statements in their recent articles in eJewish Philanthropy. Coming from the same place in the heart as the two authors, I have my own digressions, cautions and concerns. Three question and some thoughts on each tumble about in my mind:

What are, from a Zionist perspective, the proper boundaries of state and religion?

What role should the Diaspora play in the policy debates within the Jewish State?

How should our political stance impact the communal philanthropic agenda?

State and Religion

When politics and religion are too closely intertwined it does not end well – not for the polity as a whole and, as recent events prove, not for the Jews. Religion thrives when it is the voluntary outgrowth of a like minded community of believers. We have only to look at America, the most “religious” of Western democratic societies yet guided by the spirit and wisdom of the first amendment to the Constitution. When a state, any state, engages in definitional debates and theological rule setting it corrupts both the fairness of the state and the integrity of religion. There is no novel compromise on the issue and no remedy for the situation other than that legal fix that gives individuals the freedom to participate freely in their faith and freedom from religion if they so choose.

There are however issues on which no “live and let live” middle ground is possible. When the democratic norms of the state come in conflict with religious practice it is religion that must bend. The obvious presenting example is gender equality. If the state establishes a single standard for the treatment of its citizens and the education of its children no religious community can opt out of that principle or standard. To allow such to happen would deny to women and girls the tools and the opportunity to freely choose their own lifestyle and fate.

Zionism, in its revolutionary fashion redefined Jewishness as a cultural and national phenomenon, albeit one with roots in a religious tradition. (What long standing national tradition does not have such roots?) A Jewish State, as all states do, can take steps to preserve and promote its cultural and historical heritage and can comfortably do so without allowing theological norms to dictate life in the public sphere. It can offer freedom of full political and civic participation to all its citizens without giving up its uniqueness or identity. The Law of Return, for example, is not a theological statement but, similar to legislation in other states, a law offering a quick road to citizenship to individuals with ethnic ties to the founding culture and history of the state. Its definitions are decidedly not halachic. That, along with the language of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, showed great wisdom on the matter.

Diaspora Involvement in Israeli Politics

This is an issue on which there is much grandstanding and much hypocrisy. Truth be told, that train has left the station decades ago. Israel’s political right and political left, the various religious communities of the land and their secular counterparts aggressively invite outside dollars and public support from like minded individuals, governments and groups (Jewish and otherwise).

And trust me, in today’s world the goyim have no problem finding out what Jews think and how we divide. (I also suspect that Bibi confidant Ron Dermer’s attacks on The New York Times and its columnists have more to do with that paper’s influence on Jews than its impact on public policy.)

Furthermore, as any family member knows, unconditional love is not the same as unconditional approval and advice and opinion freely given, solicited or not, can be freely turned down.

Yet even families have internal boundaries. My simple caution is that if we assume the responsibility of a most interested third party we must do so from a position of both humility and knowledge. We owe to ourselves and our Israeli counterparts to develop a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the issues before, as we sometimes must, speak. We would be wise to temper our words and actions with the humility of knowing that we will live only indirectly with the consequences when our advice is taken. Israel is a normal state where real people live out their national and individual dreams and aspirations – it is not the ideological playground of Diaspora Jewry. As the punch line of an old joke goes, there is a real difference between a contribution and a sacrifice.

The Politicization of Israeli Philanthropy (and Jewish Philanthropy in General for that Matter)

Where I have my most major concerns is over the destructive effect that the politicization of Israel centered philanthropy might lead.

Diaspora Jewry, particularly in America, has created a public Jewish space where partisan politics is left at the communal door. Great care has been taken over the years to find common concern and purpose and to give practical problem solving primacy over ideological differences. (The “Joint” in JDC and the “United” in UJA speak historically to this point.) The Jewish political space (may it thrive in all its diversity) should not undermine the ability of the Jewish collective to work together on a range of Israel based issues from social gaps to workforce development to ethnic and cultural development. If our philanthropy breaks along sectarian and political lines the quality and impact of our actions will be greatly diminished.

I will end with a true life midrash. Early in my career, I worked at the Memphis Jewish Federation. At the time the most beloved community volunteer was Lewis “Red” Kramer, a secular Jew, regional Vice President of the Workman’s Circle and yet the membership chairman of what was then the largest Orthodox congregation in America. Red was fond of telling the following story related to a split that occurred in the 1920’s in his native community of Atlanta between Jewish Socialists and Jewish Communists. Separate self help organizations and separate burial societies and fraternal associations were formed (from what one can only imagine was a pretty small population to begin with.) The only common activity to remain was the Yiddish choir. “After all”, as Red would tell with a big smile and in his best Southern drawl, “there was only so many soprano’s, alto’s and tenors to go around”.

Bob Hyfler is a consultant to non-profit organizations and can be reached at bobhyfler@comcast.net.