Revisiting philanthropic priorities after Oct. 7

“What proportion of members’ giving is Jewish?” 

This was my question for the then-president of Jewish Funders Network at a meeting in Melbourne, Australia, in 2004 that would be the genesis of Australian Jewish Funders, a local sister organization of JFN.

Everyone in the room knew I was asking about giving to Jewish causes, but the president deftly sidestepped my point. 

“Our members give as an expression of their Jewishness,” he answered.

The debate about whether Jewish funders should prioritize Jewish causes has only been going on for a couple thousand years. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 71a, drawing on Exodus 22:24) lays out the guidelines if one is approached for a loan: Jew before gentile, poor before rich and your own city before another place. It concludes with the well-known adage that the poor people in your own city take precedence. 

Of course, decisions are rarely that binary. Furthermore, that was an era of Jews living in hostile environments, without the rule of law and basic rights that we now take for granted. In modern Western democracies, we are integrated with wider society and enjoy the same rights as other citizens.

One argument, which we can term particularist, is that we should prioritize Jewish causes because non-Jewish funders don’t generally give to Jewish causes. Our own charities need far more of our support than they would ever get from sources outside the community.

The other, universalist argument is often guided by the mission of tikkun olam — to repair the world, be global citizens, look after the stranger and the refugee (because we were strangers and refugees) and generally make the world a better place. For some, this puts advocating for the rights of minority and indigenous communities above supporting Jews and/or Israel.

Again, this is not a binary decision. We do indeed give as an expression of our Jewishness, and that means very different things to different Jews. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks noted that straddling the line between particularism and universalism is the quintessential Jewish challenge.

When it comes to life as a Diaspora Jew, other factors come into play. Many of us live a life highly integrated with the secular world, whether professionally or personally or both. We are largely accepted as equals. Some giving is in part motivated by the desire for acceptance: Jewish names proudly adorn the walls of hospitals and universities, and Jews actively supporting the arts is surely a sign that we are a genuine part of society. 

For decades, Jewish funders have developed and adapted their approach to giving in line with their values and purpose as individuals, as families and as Jews. 

And then, on Oct. 7, everything changed.

Since the brazen and barbaric attack on Israel by Hamas, and Israel’s necessary response, we have seen a surge of antisemitism around the globe. The shouts of “f–k the Jews” and worse at a demonstration at the Sydney Opera House on Oct. 9 – before Israel had even framed its military response – clearly show that these views about Jews and our state are not a function of what Israel does. Later that month, the arts community in Melbourne hosted a workshop that produced banners with antisemitic and anti-Israel slurs as a crafts project. The wave of pro-Palestinian protests that feature antisemitic and anti-Israel messaging, as well as general antisemitic incidents have left many Jews not feeling safe walking the street in their own home cities; and many university campuses, despite the generosity of Jewish donors, are no longer safe for Jewish students. 

The worst part? It is unlikely that anyone suddenly changed their views of Jews and Israel after Oct. 7; rather, they are now unafraid to say publicly what they really thought of us all along. That really hurts. It also serves as a reality check about what our so-called integrated life in wider society really was before Oct. 7.

Jews are wondering about their future in some parts of the world. Interest in aliyah from Europe and the U.S. has surged. Students are considering alternatives to the prized places in Ivy League universities.

With all of this in mind, it’s time for Jewish philanthropists to revisit allocations and strategy. Our idyllic views on Jews being accepted in the Diaspora may be fantasy. While some organizations in wider society have affirmed their support for Israel, others that we have supported so generously have turned their backs on us. How should we deal with them, and how should we adjust our approach to giving moving forward? How can we be more strategic about our giving?

One approach is to turn inward and focus on what our own people need ahead of others — to move our dial toward particularism. This might translate to increased allocation to Israel, whose needs for support have increased dramatically, as well as strengthening the Diaspora communities where we live.

Another approach — and these are not mutually exclusive — is to audit the organizations we currently support and stress test our values alignment. 

In Australia we have seen a number of Jewish supporters resign from board and committee positions in the wake of anti-Israel activism within those organizations. How many other such situations are on the verge of erupting? Looking at the organization’s mission and values doesn’t tell the whole story. More comprehensive due diligence should extend to key personnel, board and committee members and executives who may use their roles to further a personal agenda. We have seen this in Australia as a number of local councils have proposed ostensibly pro-Palestinian support motions that are littered with antisemitic tropes. Foreign policy is not within the remit of local government in Australia. This is coming from activist council members.

Asking people about their views about Israel and the conflict can be too direct; what I am proposing requires a softer touch and some nuance to determine what people really think about the issues. Hunting through years of someone’s social media feed is overkill, but browsing to get a sense of the things that are important to them can be very telling.

Scenario testing is another tool funders and nonprofits can use, and it can often be straightforward: Organization X did Y, and Z happened — how might you deal with such a situation? A more subtle form would be to ask loaded questions of individuals to test what they think of incidents that have occurred elsewhere. One of the best tests of an organization’s and individual’s values is exploring the boundaries — what they would not do or support because of their values. This serves as a test of their commitment to said values and what they mean in practice.

Good philanthropy isn’t about writing checks; it’s about using our resources to connect with the world around us in a meaningful way that brings meaningful change. Doing it well keeps getting harder. To paraphrase Hillel (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14), if we do not support our own, who will? But if we only support our own, what are we? And if not now, when?

David Werdiger is a family enterprise adviser, with a focus on intergenerational wealth and family governance, as well as a business strategist, technology entrepreneur and speaker.