According to the publisher’s summary, The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex, by the historian Lila Corwin Berman, sheds light on the “complicated reality of changing and uneasy relationships among philanthropy, democracy, and capitalism,” and concludes that Jewish philanthropies have come to reflect “the state’s growing investment in capitalism against democratic interests.” Felicia Herman argues that the book both leaves out important parts of the history it aims to illuminate—inter alia the role of women in developing Jewish volunteer and charitable organizations—but also misunderstands the ways these institutions operate:
In Berman’s telling, Jewish philanthropy is just as scary: a system designed primarily to accumulate philanthropic capital; to invest it in financial markets; to avoid taxation on it; and then to use these growing sums to coerce Jews and Americans to follow mainly right-leaning political agendas, [that is]: philanthropy is just another institution of alleged privilege that must be dismantled in the name of justice. . . In Berman’s framework, “capitalism” and “democracy” sit at opposite poles, pulling on philanthropy from either side.
[In truth], the challenges and opportunities of [American] Jewish life led Jews to create a unique, complicated, simultaneously harmonious and conflicted philanthropic ecosystem, one that empowered millions of givers, of all socioeconomic backgrounds, to support tens of thousands of organizations, domestically and abroad. Whether voluntarily, out of a sense of commandedness, or because of peer pressure or pride, American Jews built a philanthropic and communal infrastructure with no parallel in Jewish history.
The history of American Jewish philanthropy is not only a story about the wealthy. It is about all of us: Hadassah ladies, synagogue and JCC trustees, Federation donors, b’nai mitzvah kids with tzedakah projects, Jewish National Fund tree-planters, and so much more.
In a book that makes the important argument that the Jewish engagement with the American state has not received enough attention, Berman nevertheless relates the history of this engagement in a way that takes Jewish behaviors so out of context as to make them seem unique—even dangerously so. . . . This approach leaves the impression that American Jews, whether acting under Jewish auspices or not, operate in ways that pose a unique threat to America.