Response and Responsibility in Jewish Philanthropy; Responding to Prof. Richard Marker

by Johanna Arbib-Perugia

First, let me say that I welcome Prof. Richard Marker’s response to my article ‘Looking back to the Future of Jewish Philanthropy‘. He brings to the fore many pivotal questions and issues, some of which I agree with and all of which are worthy of our attention.

To begin with, I think there are few people who would argue with Prof. Marker’s assertion that ‘no one is obligated to give their personal money to any specific voluntary cause’. Secondly, as I have already clearly stated, I believe, as Prof. Marker does, that Tikun Olam reflects a basic Jewish value and should have a place in Jewish philanthropy.

In my fairly broad experience of Jewish philanthropy, I haven’t found either of these principles to be seriously challenged or grounds for hot (or even lukewarm) debate. So I am not quite sure why Prof. Marker feels the need to defend them so vigorously.

Regarding Prof. Marker’s pointed comments on the issue of ‘large established’ organizations versus ‘smaller and limited-purpose’ organizations, however, I am afraid I can not agree less with the insinuation that the former are ‘not where it’s at’ (so to speak) in terms of modern-day philanthropy.

As a successful young businesswoman, who both represents and resembles Europe’s young, bright and energetic Jewish crowd, I can tell you that just as the local and global business world relies on a mix of large corporations and smaller businesses to provide economic balance and answer consumer needs, the same is true for other areas of society, including philanthropy. While I do not dispute the role of smaller agile philanthropic initiatives in attracting young philanthropists and achieving quick and often good results, they often lack the sturdiness, long-term business plans and strategic direction which comprise a vital component of all serious business, including philanthropy – yes, even in today’s fast moving multi-faceted environment.

As a young Jew interested in making an impact quickly and effectively, while looking to fulfill long-term goals, I chose to join Keren Hayesod – UIA, which was established nine decades ago as the fundraising arm of the Zionist movement and is now the central address for Israel fundraising outside of the US. I was elected Chairman of the World Board of Trustees two years ago, (before my 40th birthday) and I am proud to say that KH-UIA has succeeded in drawing young 30 somethingers who are now represented on its Board.

I am certainly not standing in the way of change, and I personally encourage young Jews to creatively reinvent communal structures to meet their needs, ambition and the changing face of society itself. But that is quite a different thing to nonchalantly abandoning valuable and effective institutions whose results speak for themselves – many such institutions are in fact themselves restructuring. A case in point, is the major recent restructuring of the Jewish Agency to a point where it is now barely recognizable in terms of the old Jewish Agency model. Richard Marker talks of ‘those of us above a certain age’ as being ‘guests in this century’. I certainly don’t fall into that category.

But my real demarcation point from Prof. Marker is not really about philanthropy per se or the structure of philanthropy, it is about differing perspectives on the place and role of the State of Israel and how philanthropy fits into that. I do not pretend to be indifferent to the attitude suggested by Richard Marker, that Diaspora Jewry has no necessary moral obligation towards Israel. In answer to the argument Richard Marker poses in his response, that Israel is now perceived as rich enough to take care of herself, or that it should now rely on its own philanthropists – my response is these arguments simply do not represent Israel’s reality and certainly do not divest Diaspora Jewry of its moral obligation towards Israel.

Like Richard Marker, I am the first to celebrate the fairly newfound freedom of Jews to live as equals in the free world, and to choose how Jewish they wish to be or not be. But, I think we must ask ourselves how confident and secure would we feel without the existence of the State of Israel? I believe Israel is central, both on a security level and on a cultural level to the future of the Jewish people. I believe every Jew, everywhere in the world has a stake in the State of Israel, as the homeland of the Jewish people. Of course, you are free to disagree with me, but for those who believe there is a need for the State of Israel, there is certainly a moral obligation to share responsibility for it.

There are many misconceptions about Israel, one of which is that its robust economy is on a par with western countries. Well, one in four Israeli children are currently living below the poverty line, not an encouraging statistic for the future of the Jewish people. Moreover, one should consider that the poverty line in Israel is considerably lower than in England for instance, so that poverty on or just below the poverty line in Israel is far deeper than that in England. We must also factor-in the high toll of Israel’s security costs on the Israeli economy. While understanding that a secure Israel means a secure Jewish homeland for all of us, we must also understand the limits this imposes on the Israeli Government’s ability to allocate funds to social areas.

I certainly agree with Prof. Marker’s statement that governments are far more effective than philanthropy in solving major issues such as hunger. But it is also true that no country in the free world today is wealthy enough to completely support major social areas, such as education, for instance. As a result, philanthropy is encouraged to make up the differential between social ‘need’ and what the State can provide. I know Prof. Marker will agree here, as I once heard him emphasize this point at a workshop I attended of his. He also mentioned that private philanthropy is now rising as a significant percentage of social services all over the free world. If this holds true for the rest of the world, how much more so for Israel, a country that also has to contend with sizable security costs. I really can not see why Israel should be singled out for different treatment. As to Israeli philanthropists, while I welcome and encourage the development of Israeli philanthropy, it in no way absolves us of our own responsibility towards Israel. And Israeli philanthropists can not and should not be expected to shoulder the burden of responsibility alone.

As I opened my response to Richard Marker with Tikun Olam, I would like to end by pointing out the significant contribution of Israel itself in this area. Most recently, the IDF medical rescue delegation to Haiti drew much international praise and respect. I would like to mention here that Dr. Yitzhak, Israel’s first oleh from Ethiopia to become a doctor, was a member of that delegation. He has spoken movingly of his debt to Diaspora philanthropy (namely KH- UIA contributors), for enabling him to fulfill his dream and make such an important humanitarian contribution as an Israeli.

There is one point that I would like to end on, where Prof. Marker and I are in complete agreement: that it is ridiculous for philanthropic organizations to bemoan lack of funding and blame potential funders of not fulfilling their obligations! It is up to us to make a compelling case. And that brings me back to the importance of educating the younger generation of world Jewry. This area has recently become very central to Jewish Agency work and is supported by Keren Hayeod – UIA, which I am proud to head.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Prof. Richard Marker for his extensive effectual work in assisting, advising and developing Jewish philanthropic organizations and causes.

Johanna Arbib Perugia is the Chair of Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal’s World Board of Trustees.