A Historian Condemns Jewish Philanthropy as an Undemocratic Engine of Capitalism

July 27 2021

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.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish History, American Jewry, Capitalism, Philanthropy

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy