The following is a transcript of Episode 104 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone, and welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute, which for the first time is being recorded live today in front of a real studio audience at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
We’re here today as part of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America’s community leadership program, a week-long study retreat for lay and professional leaders in the Jewish community. This week, we’re studying aspirational Zionisms in our classrooms and in our Beit Midrash, and in our courtyard, and on buses around Israel. And if that sounds like your kind of vacation, then you are our kind of people. And we hope that if you’re listening, maybe you’ll consider joining us next year in Jerusalem.
One of the reasons that liberal American Jews sometimes get caricatured and mocked is because of the trope of our obsession with Tikkun Olam. American Jews in this narrative, uh, appropriated an esoteric, rabbinic, and mystical idea and turned it into a mealy-mouthed expression of liberal altruism, and then declared it to be the essence of Judaism.
The Tikkun Olam Jew says the caricature is a Universalist, trying to repair not just their own community, but the whole world. The Tikkun Olam Jew doesn’t necessarily adhere to the traditional norms of Jewish identity behaviors and practices, Torah and the commandments for instance, but instead thinks that Jewishness can be summarized by just trying to be a good person. And so forth.
American Jews get subject to this caricature and criticism oftentimes by non-liberal Jews and by Israelis. And it’s a kind of trump card about the thinness of American Jewish identity. And I’ve always found two aspects of this caricature a little strange.
Look, any denomination or sub-community of Jews can have their commitments caricatured. And I’m sure there’s always a kernel of truth in it. And that should be true for liberal American Jews as well. But if you are gonna be caricatured, I can think of a lot worse things than passionate altruism. Like, wow, what an insult you’re making fun of us for having a Judaism that actually wants to fix the world.
Isn’t that better than a Judaism that could be caricatured for caring more about fixed traditions, more than people? Or a Judaism that could be caricatured for living in the past? So let’s say it’s true that Tikkun Olam Jews are obsessed with justice and righteousness as the essential characteristics of Judaism, like other people who may have been obsessed with that, Abraham in Genesis 18, in fact, God also. What exactly is the problem?
But it’s especially vexing to hear this caricature when it comes from folks who view the commitment to the universal as an inherent betrayal of the particular, when American Jews are criticized for caring too much about the world.
You see, since the early days of Zionism, its leaders and its thinkers, were conflicted about the very question about whether the state of Israel was supposed to be a project of normalcy or of exceptionalism. And many Zionist thinkers argued explicitly that the Jewish state would only be measured by whether it redounded with goodness for all the peoples of the earth.
These thinkers included among others, Theodore Herzl, who was picking up on Judaism’s messianic impulse to make the case that we don’t need merely need a state in order to be safe and secure, but in order to carry out our mission to do no less than to repair the world. So put differently, there’s always been a serious thread in Zionism since it’s very beginning that would say that the answer to the question of why Israel is to create the single largest platform for Tikkun Olam that the Jewish people have ever had.
But where, I suppose there’s a kernel of truth in this critique of American Jews, is that it feels increasingly, from many American Jews, that a passion for global and universal concerns runs counter to a passion for particularistic Jewish concerns.
Honestly, I’ve never felt that this needed to be the case. I always understood Jewish universalism and Jewish particularism as interdependent on one another. You need one in order to be able to commit to the other as opposed to being in tension with each other. But it is very clear that that’s a growing minority view.
It gives fuel to those who argue that the American Jewish fixation with Tikkun Olam is problematic because it comes at the cost of other significant Jewish concerns, like Zionism or the plight of one’s fellow Jews, being the obvious examples.
So today we’re gonna explore this intersection, how the Jewish people balance universal and particular needs, but I wanna focus, especially on how and whether the Jewish people’s involvement on the world stage again, perhaps the biggest possible framework for the fulfillment of our fundamental obligation that we not remain indifferent, it’s not a side show of the conversation on Zionism, it might be essential to a real conversation about what Zionism’s supposed to be, when we’re talking about a Jewish people, a Jewish state, that’s part of the family of nations and that possesses real material power.
It’s also a huge question for American Jews at a time when we live in an American Jewish community that has acquired unprecedented levels of influence, affluence, power, and privilege. So what do we wanna do with all of this? All caricature aside, who do we, as the Jewish people want to be in the world? And what is the extent of our global responsibility?
I’m delighted to be joined today by Dyonna Ginsburg. Dyonna is the CEO of OLAM, a network of Jewish and Israeli organizations working in the fields of global service, international development, and humanitarian aid. Dyonna has been working in service learning and social justice for a long time and was named, I’m making this up, one of Israel’s 50 most inspiring women by Nashim magazine in 2015.
Um. I’ve known Dyonna a long time, since we were in college together. Uh, and this year Hartman North America partnered with OLAM to try to produce new Torah in our research center, thinking about this very topic, how Israel and Zionism can serve as a platform for thinking about Jewish global responsibility.
And I’ll add just on a personal level, I don’t say this lightly, but Dyonna is really a leading light of the Jewish people, both in terms of the work that you do, Dyonna, as well as how you show up in the world. So thanks for being on this show and thanks for being in our Beit Midrash.
And I wanna start with the stakes of this work that you do. Maybe you could start by describing the scope of OLAM’s work, why you do it. And then we can talk about what it means for Zionism and for the state of Israel to be engaged in this project of, uh, of global development.
Dyonna: Sure. Um, so OLAM, as Yehuda mentioned, is a network of over 65 Jewish and Israeli organizations that work in low-income countries, primarily in Africa, Asia, and Latin America meeting the needs of the world’s most vulnerable. OLAM serves as a convener of these organizations, ensuring that they’re showing up as their best possible selves, and also amplifies their work in the Jewish community.
Approximately half of our partner organizations are headquartered here in Israel, which makes us a unique space in which Israelis, North American Jews, and Jews from around the world who are engaged in this work are in deep relationship, collaborating, and working together.
I’ll share a little bit about myself, and how this fits into some of the questions you talked about. So for me, my journey into this work comes from a place of deep particularism. I grew up in New York. My father is a rabbi of a congregation, a traditional conservative congregation. My mother is in Israeli, grew up on a kibbutz in the heart of Israel, and I grew up in a family that was deeply Zionist and also deeply committed to meeting Jewish needs.
And it is for that reason that I moved to Israel straight out of college, initially working in the field of Jewish education, but very early on, rolled up my sleeves and got involved in domestic social change issues here. I came to Israel, not because I thought that Israel was perfect, but because I knew that it wasn’t and I wanted to get involved.
Now, initially my focus was on local work here in Israel. And one of the questions that really engaged me early on, having grown up in America and asking, primarily, questions along the lines of what was my obligation as a minority population to other minority populations within American society here, the question was very different and it was about what is my obligation as a Jewish majority to minority populations living in our midst. And like you said, Yehuda, what is our obligation as a nation-state to other nation-states around the world.
And it was through my domestic work here that I became exposed to Israelis doing work around the world. I was approached by a group of funders who were interested in setting up OLAM. And initially for me, it felt like a values leap, even though it was a venn diagram of everything I’d been interested in to date: Israel, the Jewish people, social justice, um, my knee-jerk reaction was always to work in my own backyard.
And I grappled with whether I would take this position early on. And it was an awareness of the fact that the lines between local and global, particularly when it comes to a sovereign nation-state, are much blurrier than first meets the eye, that attracted me to the work, um, at OLAM.
Yehuda: So let me go right to that, to the question that you’ve already raised. And I’m always conflicted whenever I do this show that some of you listen to, whether to start with easy questions and they move to hard ones. Um, but I, I kind of prefer just to go to the hardest question first. So that’s what I’m gonna do now.
Um, So there’s an essay that I’ve quoted here in the Hartman Beit Midrash a bunch of times called the Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems. It’s an essay by Courtney Martin, strongly recommend. I keep going back to it and reading it. Um, and the argument that she makes is that there is a fixation, especially by people in the West, of global problems that are very far from home um, for two reasons.
One is other people’s problems far away feel easier to solve than my problems close to home. Um, and, and the, and, and especially, other people’s problems far away feel technical, when the major problems that we have to face are adaptive.
An example she gives is there is a huge stack of patents one can find in Western patent offices for water problems of Sub-Saharan African villages. And of course they never fully get adopted because the truth is the challenges are not really like build a better well. It’s actually change behaviors, cultures, norms, it’s climate change. There’s a whole bunch of forces at work that are much bigger.
So I’ve always felt, is that a rebuke and why, and what’s happening psychologically that a person says I’m sitting in my neighborhood and what the problem I wanna fix is really far away. I have no access to it, but the problem I really should be working on is like the public school down my block. But the minute I start thinking about what I have to do to fix that public school, it’s like a huge headache.
I’d probably have to run for school board and then I’d have to deal with this and change the local government and federal government and attitudes and education and so on and so forth. So I wanna talk a, I wanna hear a little bit about what it means to, there are so many local problems in Israel. There are Israeli problems and there’s like a humanitarian crisis on the border. So what does it mean for you and for Israelis to be thinking about global problems that are far away, as opposed to the urgent and much harder problems to fix that are, that are local?
Dyonna: I love that question because I think the critique is an important one and I am the first to say that Israel has many local challenges and the state of Israel and Israeli citizens can and should be doing more to address those.
But part of why I love that question is cuz I also think that, um, it’s an opportunity to bridge the gap between the perception of Israel’s work around the world and the actual reality. And I wanna talk about three, um, sort of assumptions that might go into that question that I wanna chip away at. The first is that Israel is doing a tremendous amount around the world that is diverting attention away from local domestic issues.
In reality, that’s far from the case. There is, um, a longstanding UN target for developed countries of which Israel is one. The calls upon countries to devote 0.7% of their gross national income to support lower income countries around the world. That comes from a deep sense that part of the responsibility of more economically developed countries is to, um, share resources and help others in the family of nations along.
Israel’s work is far short of that 0.7% benchmark it’s actually 0.07%. And when you pull the curtain away, from what that 0.07% is, it’s actually mostly work that’s done regionally and locally in Jordan, in West Bank, in Gaza, related to water, desertification, um, agriculture, women’s empowerment, et cetera. I have been in spaces with Israeli government appointees and employees who have said that they are embarrassed to show up in international forums and talk about this number because there is an assumption in this standard that it is actually meant for those far away. And Israel is doing almost all of that locally. S
o, you know, here, the question is not why is Israel doing so much? But why are we not meeting standards? It, in 2010 Israel entered the OECD, which is basically the, the club of the 38 countries that are wealthiest and most developed. And there too, there are standards.
And unfortunately Israel is consistently ranked as the lowest in terms of money that it gives to countries around the world. So I think a reality check is important, but the second piece that I think is really important here is an understanding of, um, sovereignty and the promise and potential of sovereignty.
Because when I hear that question, one of the things that I hear is an understanding of sovereignty that’s mostly focused on domestic policy at the expense of foreign policy and within foreign policy, that’s mostly focused on defense. Whereas nowadays, people talk about three Ds within foreign policy, that’s defense, diplomacy, and development. All of which are intertwined.
And so if we wanna talk about aspirational, Zionism, and what it means to be part of a family of nations, there are certain expectations that are being set in terms of how governments, countries, sovereign states are supposed to balance those. And so I think that critique on an individual level is a serious critique, but on a nation state level, the question is really reversed and it’s about how Israel can live up to some of the international standards and its own core values in this regard. Um, and the meaning of a true nation state.
Yehuda: In other words, what you’re suggesting is that the very act of catching up to being within what should be like the normal standards for countries of Israel’s size and economy is not in order to position Israel as acting in some way exceptional. It’s actually trying to get to normal.
Like, all we need to do is bridge the gap between how any normal state should act and Israel is falling short of what it should be in order to commit resources to that challenge. Is that?
Dyonna: A hundred percent. Um, if you look at how most foreign ministries function, at least in the west, most militaries function, at least in the west, almost all of them have a branch devoted to international development or humanitarian aid, which Israel does.
But this is not about, um, Israel being exceptional. It is about bridging the gap to normalcy in this regard.
Yehuda: Is part of the reason, I would love for your hypotheses as why Israel falls short in terms of it’s committed resources to international development. But as part, I mean, I would seem as a novice to this, that part of it may be there’s a humanitarian crisis on Israel’s Southern border.
Um, it’s called Gaza. Uh, the more that Israel would play in, in international human humanitarian development, it opens up, it exposes itself to the accusation of like, you can’t really be a player over here if you’re not doing this over here. Is that part of the variable or you think that it’s something deeper or something else in Israeli society that’s blocking Israel from being a bigger player?
Dyonna: I think it’s a couple of things. I think that’s part of it, but the story goes back much further to Israel’s early days when Israel was actually a leader in this field. So the current situation is far short of what we were in the 1950s and 1960s. So when I came to OLAM, I was exposed to this chapter in Israel’s early years that I had not known before working in the domestic social change world here in Israel.
And that is that within the first decade of Israel’s existence as a fledgling state, in 1953, Israel sent its first IDF humanitarian aid mission to help, um, in an earthquake in Greece, uh, where a thousand people were killed. And in 1957, 1958, Israel had, um, set up a branch within the foreign ministry that was devoted to international development.
By 1964, Israel actually had double the number of international development practitioners um than the OECD average at the time. And the unit within Israel’s farm industry, Mashav, that dealt with international development cooperation was the single largest unit in the foreign ministry.
To me, that story is mind boggling and deeply inspiring because I think of the first 10 years of Israel’s existence, two wars, numerous border skirmishes, Israel doubled its population in the first three years, refugees from Arab lands fleeing oppression and from the Holocaust. My mother, who is Israeli remembers the time where there was a state imposed food ration system of 1600 calories a day.
It was against that backdrop, that Israel set up this international development unit, no one would’ve blamed the fledgling state and the Jewish people less than 15 years after the Holocaust, if all we had focused on was ourselves and the fact that we were able to be outward focused at that time to me is deeply inspiring.
Now what’s interesting about it is that when you read Ben Gurion’s writings, Golda Meir’s ratings, who were critical at that time, they talk about the fact that they had a wide variety of considerations, political, economic security, but also moral aspirations to me though, there’s actually something deeply psychological here.
It’s an inversion of Maslow’s hierarchy. For those who are familiar, the bottom is physiological needs and the top is self actualization. And normally in educational philosophy, we think about the fact that people first need to meet their physiological needs and only move up that ladder until self-actualization.
In this case, I actually think that Ben Gurion and Golda along with strategic self-interest, understood that for a deeply traumatized people where the world had turned our back on us, the only option was to engage and not to retreat. And that in order for us to achieve self actualization as a people we needed to be involved in that.
Now the story gets a lot more complicated. And this is the answer to your question. Come along 1973, the Yom Kippur War. Under pressure from the Arab states, 20 African countries that Israel had invested heavily in, in the 1960s, cut off ties with Israel. And Israel’s political leadership view that as a massive betrayal and slash the budget of Mashav basically overnight. You can see graphs, it’s very high and then it goes way down.
And the way the governments work is that they function by inertia. So whatever was on the budget the year before continues the budget the year pass, and it has never recovered. And so I think there is this piece about Israel was a leader in this regard, a sense of being betrayed by the world and never fully recovering.
Yehuda: I mean, there’s a, there’s a powerful irony about that because the whole point of altruism, the whole point of global development is that it’s not a quid pro quo. It’s not, I’m doing this, I’m banking this when you have an earthquake for the time when I need it, when I have an earthquake, the whole point is you do it because you’re a citizen as part of the family of nations.
So the notion that you would punish punitively those who don’t stand with you politically means that you’re not even thinking about it correctly as what a nation-states’ obligation is to the family of nations.
Dyonna: Which is basically what Golda Meir says in her own autobiography ridden in 1973, after the Yom Kippur war and after this happened. And she says that one of her deepest regrets is that the political leadership, others at the time did not understand that.
Yehuda: Hm. So one of the things that’s the, the, the statistic that you shared, which I only learned about from you, like 11 minutes before this podcast on, um, Israel being last, uh, among, um, among economically advantageous nations, in terms of global development work, percentage wise. The reason why that’s like strange to me, and there’s a lot of ways in which how you experience Israel in the American Jewish community is a fun house.
We did a whole episode with Michael Koplow on that, what you act, what’s actually going on totally doesn’t mirror the conversation about Israel in the American Jewish community is, you know, I get like Jewish me. I consume Jewish media. In our house, one, there’s a newspaper that shows up in our house for about morning, a Jewish publication. I have no idea how they got my address.
Uh, and every single time Israel does something in the international community, sends relief to Haiti, sends earthquake support, helps out Syrian refugees. We hear, uh, a ton about it, and it creates not only a myth that might be widespread in the American Jewish community about Israel’s success on this front. It is a Nachas machine for American Jews. It’s the thing that American Jews love to see, um, see play out, but it also introduces this other layer of suspicion.
Which is Israel has a, let’s say spotty reputation in the international community. Um, it is a country that has a few strong allies and many, um, many, uh, many enemies in the international community.
And because of its own human rights reputation domestically, it’s not viewed positively. And so one of the angles that’s assumed is the reason these stories get out there is because the reason why Israel does humanitarian work is for the purposes of hasbara, it’s to be able to position or spin itself, um, to be seen in, in a particular way.
I want you to unpack that a little bit. Why what you’re doing is not that, or maybe is also a little bit, cause to care about your state’s reputation is not a bad thing for its citizens. It’s not inherently a bad thing, but, but not only is it a challenge for us who are trying to watch this story, but it also starts intersecting with other moral concerns about global development, like the white savior complex, those who are over there, come over here and then feel really good and wanna show everybody what they’ve accomplished.
So maybe you could unpack some of those dynamics of what it is to watch this internationally versus try to actually do this work here domestically.
Dyonna: Um, so one way of looking at that is the difference between Israel and Israelis. In that vacuum that was created when the state slashed its budget, um, Israeli NGOs, nonprofit organizations stepped into that gap.
And so what you’re seeing often is Israeli nonprofit organizations that are not funded by the government. And also what you are often seeing is in disaster situations Israel is many, many times the first one to respond. It is the first responder. It is almost always the nonprofits who are the first responder.
And in certain cases, when there is significant political will, pressure, et cetera, like Ukraine right now, you’ll see a field hospital. This was the first civilian, but you’ll see IDF field hospitals in the past. Um, so it is true that there are Israelis doing great work around the world. And they’re often the first to respond in a disaster situation, but it is often not the state. The state comes a little bit later.
Uh, in terms of Israelis who are doing that work. I think you have a wide variety of motivations. There are some who quite literally wear Israel on their sleeve. I was not in Ukraine and bordering regions. Um, but at, in the early days of the crisis, there are at least 30 Israeli groups on the ground.
And people talk about the fact that when people were crossing the border, the first thing that they saw was an Israeli flag by an Israeli nonprofit. So there are some nonprofits like that, that wear their Israelis on their sleeve and see part of their mission as a hasbarah mission. There are others that have Israel in their name, but dpn’t literally wave the Israeli flag. And then there are others who, um, see themselves as humanitarian organizations with no Israel peace around their work.
Why those stories get covered in the American Jewish press is a question that I think should really be directed at the American Jewish community.
And I will say that I was on a call with the foreign ministry in the early days of the Ukraine crisis that could only be called hamish, where it was a group of people. And they were basically saying, how can we get this story out there about what Israelis are doing in the world? And it was far from a well oiled PR machine.
Now, do I think that yes, governments do some of this humanitarian work because it positions them as positive actors in the world? For sure. And I see that as one of many things that go into this work, but I think that fundamentally for the lion’s share of Israelis who are doing this work and Israeli’s own development, um, department unit, Mashav within the foreign ministry, they see their roles as fundamentally meeting the needs of people, um, who are, are facing significant trauma.
Yehuda: So there’s a very normal and natural thing that we try to use some notion of ethics of proximity, to try to understand and create access to something that’s going wrong. And that, that becomes the easiest lane for us to connect to. So I spoke about this early on in the Ukraine crisis on this podcast of like, yeah, it was helpful to me to know that there were Masorti synagogues in the Ukraine that needed help. And it was like really easy for our Conservative-affiliated synagogue to say, that’s the project that we’re gonna support.
The state of Israel has a whole other layer to this because part of the mission, right, the mission of this place is to absorb Jews from around the world to be, to keep its doors open if and when Jews from around the world want to come here. And maybe even ideologically Zionism is premised on the belief, well, we try not to talk about in polite company that Zionism doesn’t really believe in the enduring integrity of diaspora.
So when these Jewish communities come crashing down, it’s not just, come on in the doors are open. It’s a little bit of come on in, the doors are open. And what took you so long? And we told you so. So the state of Israel has that part of it, ideologically of its natural response is gonna want to be about absorbing Jews and taking care of Jews. And you’re suggesting actually it has to figure out how to transcend that and do something quite different.
Can you talk about how that plays out with the Ukraine crisis? Because it became a public story of Israel controlling refugee populations for coming in who weren’t Jewish and then ultimately that that broke, but because part of the job is no you’re supposed to kind of not care about the fact that you could, in some ways, benefit population wise from a population that’s coming in, um, or ideologically benefit.
What you’re supposed to do is show up, provide resources to refugees in need and figure out a way for them to get back to their homes.
Dyonna: So I think what we saw playing itself out in the, the Ukraine crisis, which is still going on, um, is how different government ministries were responding to this crisis in different ways, not always in concert.
So the, the ministry of interior has a very particular agenda, which is, you know, related to Jewish demographics and who can become a citizen. And who do we open our doors to? Whereas the development arm that was doing part of the work related to the field hospital and other things in Ukraine has a very different mandate.
And so what you see is different parts of the government in tension, and sometimes working in a coordinated fashion with one another. I think people often tend to think of governments as working the way that the West Wing or more nefarious House of Cards works. But inter ministerial cooperation is unbelievably challenging and there was zigzagging going on, um, around the field hospital, between the ministry of health and the ministry of foreign affairs.
And often then you have this patch where quilt of a response to a crisis where in this particular instance, what was happening abroad was Israel leaning into its humanitarian universalist piece. And what was happening domestically was Israel leaning into its deep particularism and you saw that play itself out, um, in a way of tension.
And I’ll just add one other thing that I think was interesting is, um, these three Ds of defense, diplomacy and development for a lot of the Israeli NGOs, I think some of the individuals involved may have been critical in terms of Israel’s policy, in terms of not taking a more public stand when it came to the crisis in Ukraine or when it came to domestically and saw their work as an alternative or a response.
But in terms a lot of the individuals I know, they deeply appreciated the, the conundrum that Israel found itself in and their humanitarian work came from a place of saying, if the state can’t do it, that does not obviate us as citizens from a responsibility to meet the needs of those who are suffering.
And so there is a very interesting interplay there between an appreciation for the complexities of what a state has to deal with, but private citizens or individual non-profits that are not government funded can sort of lean into that universal humanitarian piece.
Yehuda: Okay. So I’m curious, there’s a third leg of this story that oftentimes relates to Israeli NGOs.
You’re talking about like there’s the government that’s Israel, there are Israelis represented with Israeli NGOs, and then there’s always a third leg of that story, which is diaspora Jewish philanthropy as being a part of this story. Now I have my own ambivalent, ambivalent and complicated relationship to American Jewish philanthropy, connected to Israeli organization doing social change.
You can see, we raise money from North American Jews to do work of social change here in Israel. You see names on classrooms, there are still some open. Um, there that, and that’s been a part of Zionism from the beginning. Like you go, and every park bench in the country, every, every hospital bench is Diaspora Jews building this country because the organizing principle is the state of Israel is a project of the Jewish people world wide.
But then what you’re describing is part of what it means to be a citizen of a state is to then take responsibility with your own resources, whether as an NGO or whether as a citizen of state, to make sure that that state shows up a certain way in the world. So what’s going on when those organizations particularly are basically routing dollars from diaspora Jews to show up elsewhere in the world.
Does that, does that feel wonky?
Dyonna: Yeah. There are a couple of things. One is, um, OLAM does its biannual study of our partners and I believe it was back in 2017. We asked a question related to funding sources and for our Israeli headquartered NGOs at the time 97% of their funding of the philanthropic dollars that they raised, um, came from outside of Israel, not from within Israel.
At the time, there was a structural issue. Israeli entities that were doing the majority of their work abroad could not qualify for the equivalent of 501C3 status in Israel. So you have the combination of a less developed philanthropic culture in general, and a structural challenge for these nonprofits to raise money.
There have been lobbying efforts for a long time. And several years after that study, um, Israel successfully created legislation to recognize those nonprofits that were working abroad as having the equivalent of 501C3 status. And when we did our next survey, I don’t remember the figures offhand, but you did see an increase in, um, Israeli based philanthropy going to these entities.
One other piece of data. Uh, back in 2013, Hebrew U’s center for the study of philanthropy looked at global giving patterns in Israel as compared to other countries. And what they discovered at the time in 2013 was that 1% of Israelis gave to global issues. Whether that is like a hurricane somewhere around the world, or to meet the needs of elderly Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union. 1% of Israelis.
They also discovered that when you take the aggregate of all philanthropic dollars raised in Israel at the time, 0.1% went to global causes as compared to 5%, um, in the US and Belgium ranked the top. It was 48%. Now when the researchers at Hebrew U were asked to surmise why that would be the case, what they had said was that Israelis still see ourselves as the beneficiary of the world’s largess, in particular, the global Jewish community and in particular, the American Jewish community. And not yet the contributors.
Now that study was done in 2013. That was three years after Israel entered the OECD the, the group of the world’s wealthiest countries. And my understanding of it is what, at that point in time, Israeli saw our prosperity as being precarious. We were still operating from a mindset of scarcity as opposed to abundance. I think we may be seeing a watershed moment here in Ukraine.
Anecdotally, our Israeli partners have reported a huge spike in donations. We actually saw this. Israel did not have a coordinated, centralized, fundraising campaign the way that the American Jewish community has when a crisis strikes. And it was 11 days after the crisis that the foreign ministry set up, reacting to this sort of influx of interest to donate, set up a coordination center to do that.
One of our partners, the largest Israeli humanitarian aid organization has shared with me that the amount of money that they raised from Israelis in the crisis in Ukraine is more than all the crises they’ve respond to responded to in the last 20 years of their existence.
Yehuda: It’s such a tricky example. I mean, they literally, what, rockets were falling 20 feet from Babi Yar. So it’s not to, I wish it was a better example for the purpose of separating from the universal in particular.
Dyonna: Ah, I hear you. I see it as a bridge to empathy. And I see the work of organizations like OLAM and our partners who are working in Israel to connect those dots.
Right, because if you think about 2013 and the fact that only 1% we’re giving to global clauses, including the Holocaust survivors who are living in Babi Yar, and you hear what happened in the last several months, maybe it’s a Jewish peoplehood story. Maybe it’s, you know, a Tikkun Olam story. We don’t yet know.
But I do think this may be an inflection point in terms of owning our wealth and understanding what that means. We are that much further away, it is true, Israel has deep gaps between rich and poor. But we are a country that is now among the world’s wealthiest, and, and fit into that, you know, those standards.
Yehuda: I want to talk about a different question that, that pertains to the American Jewish community as well. And it’s one I feel very close to, which is the kinds of topics that you talk about.
You didn’t, you don’t use the term social justice or global justice, but it’s, it’s within, if we’re talking about the family of nations, this is within the family of vocabulary. Um, in the American Jewish community, there are a set of Jewish social justice organizations as part of a rich and robust part of the Jewish communal landscape.
There are some who identify openly as liberal Zionists organizations like T’ruah and National Council of Jewish Women and Keshet. That’s a part of their identity. There are a bunch of these organizations that would describe themselves as ambivalent. And then there are a bunch that would describe themselves as openly hostile.
And it’s been pretty clear over the last number of years that there’s a growing divide between what is characterized as a commitment to global concerns and social justice in, in the American Jewish context for which Israel is, at best, inconvenient. Um, and at worst, the problem.
So I’m curious about your kind of significant others and partners in the American Jewish community, because, you know, from 30,000 feet, you’re kind of talking the same language and doing similar work, but for you, Israel is the platform. And for some of those organizations and commitments, it’s the antithesis of that platform. So what does that feel like and what, what has to be done to, to kind of bridge that gap?
Dyonna: So for us organizationally, we’re a bit extraterritorial. The fact that I as CEO sit here in Israel is almost a coincidence and we have staff in the US and in the UK. Um, and so almost everything that I’ve discussed here now, I am talking about as a passionate and committed Israeli citizen, not necessarily as our organizational mission.
But I do think that, um, there is the opportunity for creating these big tents, even within those pockets of the American Jewish community, that Israel is so deeply problematic around shared work and shared values.
And I’ve seen it day to day. And those relationships that are built in that shared work are critical. And so I’ll give you an example. Interestingly enough, under the Netanyahu administration, there was a multiyear process. That was inter-ministerial to, for the first time ever, develop a government wide plan for Israel and international development. Up until then it had really sat in siloed ministries.
Most people would be surprised to discovered that it was a deeply collaborative plan, not just of nonprofits in Israel, but also bringing in voices from outside. And so we invited our CEOs, um, who lead American headquartered organizations. And it actually surprised me cause I had forgotten that it was such a thing. And one of them said to me, happy to sit on all these spaces. I can’t weigh in on Israeli government policy.
But what’s interesting about that story is not that that person couldn’t do that. I had forgotten that that would even be a question. And the reason why is that there are actually spaces where they’re working together day in and day out. They sit around a shared conference with representatives of Israeli agencies that are doing development work.
And so I think there is that opportunity to create some more of those spaces. Um, and you talked about the, the question of language. So yes, justice is within the, the family of language. It is not language that we at OLAM use. We talk more about international development, which is meeting long term needs of vulnerable populations or humanitarian aid, which is one off. Um, and I know that justice is deeply identified in an American context with a particular political agenda.
And I sort of wonder if we didn’t spend so much time. Talking about language, is Tikkun Olam an authentic expression or not? Is justice solely the, the purview of the far left? And if we actually talked about the human lives at stake, maybe we could bring a lot more people around. And so in terms of the work of our partners, what keeps them up at night, whether they’re Americans or Israelis or Brazilians or south Africans, is the fact that, you know, for the amounts of money that someone paid for this water bottle, you could feed a family in a vulnerable community for more than a week. That’s what keeps people up at night.
Or the fact that there are 14,000 kids. I can’t believe this, 14,000 kids who die a day under the age of five of preventable and curable diseases. That’s a travesty. And very often it’s for things that cost $5. $5. And so when we talk about local and global needs, or we talk about prioritizing tzedaka as individuals, as communities, as a state, the amount of money that could go so far is unbelievable.
And so I think that you can bring people together if we would sort of spend less time obsessing about the language and more time in the actual work.
Yehuda: This is a bigger, yeah, that’s a good, I’ll take that. I think it’s even a bigger claim than your, than, than even appears. Because it is true in the context of, um, in the American political partisan context, anything that, whether or not uses the terminology of justice, but anything, any of these family of organizations that are connected to this work, um, it shouldn’t have to be the case.
It may not be the field’s own making. These are much larger trends than we have created, but they code as left organizations. They tend to be intersectional in ways that create webs of responsibility, more to political partisan allies than necessarily serve their own objectives. And you’re pushing for something bigger.
And, and might, might, it might even be that your, what you wanna see happen would allow for all sorts of motivations to come into play, right? Like, a lot of evangelicals care about global poverty, and you would want them part of the same tent. That requires, and, and by the way, the way that you’re talking about navigating coalition politics, anybody who in this country can get shit done relative to coalition politics, inter when you use the phrase, the very elegant phrase, inter-ministerial, that is really, really hard.
And in order to do that, you have to kind of be willing to stay out of the fray of, I don’t really care what the objectives are. I care what the solutions are supposed to do. But I want to name that that’s a very, um, that is a very different move than the way that most politics are currently operating in our, in our polarized environment.
That’s true, right? I mean, that’s, what’s, that’s what you’re trying to do.
Dyonna: Yes. And, um, if there’s a thread that unites anything that I’ve ever done in my life, it is bringing people together across difference, usually in the Jewish community. That’s because my father is a conservative rabbi. I went to modern Orthodox schools. My mother was raised on a secular kibbutz. Um, my whole life was being a bridge between different places.
And that work is complicated. The and part is, I wanna acknowledge that there is a loss there, and even the decision not to use the language of justice is a loss. First of all, because the language of tzedek, justice is, is deeply Jewish. It means different things in different sources, and it doesn’t always mean what we think of today, but that language is deeply Jewish. So to lose, that would be a loss. And I also think justice thinking is important.
So Joel Westheimer, who writes about uh, citizenship education, talks about three types of citizens. Personally responsible, participatory, and justice oriented. Personally responsible is a person who donates a can to a food drive. Participatory is a person who organizes the food drive. Justice oriented is the person who asks, why are people hungry in the first place, and what are the root causes that need to be addressed?
If we take away the language of justice, we lose a critical part of thinking about issues. And particularly when it comes to the most vulnerable people around the world, there’s no doubt that big systems, macroeconomics, microeconomics are deeply impacting why they are in the situation that they are.
And so, not, a decision not to use the language of justice has its costs, but I do think that we could actually get really far if we move away from that language. And one of the things that I’ve also talked about is I actually think we should embrace a language of interests and not just of values. I think we do ourselves a disservice to not talk about interests.
A couple years ago, I was sitting in my house in the summer. There was a spread in Haaretz that talked about the year 2050 in Israel. And it said that it will get so hot that it may be physiologically impossible to be outside for more than 10 or 15 minutes.
There was just a study done by the Israel meteorological association that says that this region of the world is heating up at double the rate of the rest of the planet. Now I’d always been adjacent to the climate activists. That’s part of the family of organizations in which I travel. But it wasn’t until reading that and looking at my children and thinking about where we will be and thinking about how much I personally and our community has invested in the Zionist project that I actually said, whoa, we need to wake up.
And so for me, it, wasn’t the language of values we need to, you know, help our planet. That is important. It was what is gonna happen to your own kids. What is gonna happen to the state that you care so deeply about if we don’t do something?
And so I actually think we would accomplish much more if we would actually appeal to human interests and not just values.
Yehuda: Great. So let, and so this connects to one last question I wanna ask. And then we’ll, we’ll hear from some of the folks who are here, which is, this, where you just got is to me the critical question around the implicit depoliticization of this work. Uh, and I’m persuaded that sometimes values, sometimes, whatever tools I need to use, whatever levers I need to pull, I got it.
But like climate change is a great example. You, in the, in the United States, you can always get FEMA funded. FEMA will always get funded, but you’re never gonna be able to find major federal dollars to actually restructure New Orleans. Right. And you’re certainly not gonna get major federal dollars to ask the question of like, what’s New Orleans gonna look like in 2070, and what does architecture and planning have to be that would be fundamentally different.
The risk of depoliticization is you lose a little bit of the passion and even a little bit of the vocabulary that gets people to that place. And you wind up with raising a ton of money for FEMA. Raising a ton of money to feed the people who need to get fed and you’ve, and you haven’t been able to actually change the world, but at least you, you feel good about what you’ve done.
That’s what I’m, that’s what I fear. And I, and I think that your strategy is probably right. Enlist more Israelis, get the country to think differently about its responsibility. But I wonder whether some of the costs around getting towards more comprehensive thinking are incurred when we don’t think in terms of like, not only interests but values, which actually really motivate people to work in the world.
Dyonna: My experience is that if I compare the Israelis that I work with and the non Israelis is that they’re a lot more pragmatic in that regard and and motivated deeply by a sense of values. And yet are willing to leverage power when they need it.
And many of the nonprofit organizations that arose in that vacuum are working really hard so that the Israeli government will actually fund some of these projects and they wanna partner with the Israeli government. Whereas I think for many of the non Israeli partners, it’s a real issue as to whether you partner with the government or not.
And I think there’s a level of comfort in terms of utilizing power, utilizing the engines of state crafts to accomplish good in the world. So the last thing I meant is that I don’t wanna devalue values. I think we should amplify interests alongside values. Ultimately, I do think that the reason why Israel should be doing this work to echo what you said in your, your introduction is because this is who we are.
There’s a piece of writing that Ben Gurion wrote in the early years of the state. Every year, he wrote an essay that introduced the yearbook, which was an overview of various government activities. And it served as the equivalent of a state of the union address. He devoted several to this issue of Israel in the world. And he talks about it as a historic mission that is as necessary to Israel as it is to those we aim to help. And I think he saw both of those things as intertwined.
Golda Meir who incidentally the field hospital was named Kochav Meir, a shining star, a play on her name because she was born in Ukraine and she set up Israel’s development program. In her autobiography, she called this work the continuation of our most valued traditions and our deepest historic impulse.
In my mind, values is the foundation. But in a nation state and perhaps outside of a nation state as well, you can be doing that in tandem with other interests. And so my, my hope is that, um, we will do more and that we will do more of what we need to do locally and do more of what need to do globally. And to me, that is the definition of aspirational Zionism.
Yehuda: So with that, thank you for listening to our show this week. And special thanks to this week’s guest Dyonna Ginsburg.
Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M. Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller, Shalhevet Schwartz, Yoav Friedman, Tal Zamiri Wilner, and Michael Groomer. And with music provided by Socalled.
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