Monday, April 28, 2003

The Grass and the Money are Greener Elsewhere

We should not be surprised that, as a recent study has shown, a declining share of charitable giving by Jews is going to other than Jewish causes. Philanthropy inevitably goes the way of all American Jewish flesh, so that as advanced assimilation takes a heavy toll in undermining commitment and identity, it also results in Jews who have abandoned their ties to our community spreading their wealth elsewhere. If there is a surprise in our pattern of philanthropy, it is that despite so much loss, our communal institutions and causes continue to attract as much support as they do.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey suggested that Jews are not an especially charitable people, an against-the-grain conclusion that has apparently been supported by several other studies. Several years ago, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, regarded as an authoritative source, reported that few major gifts were being given by Jews. That report was errant, which is true of every other study that I have seen of American Jewish philanthropy, including several conducted by scholars who have done good work. Their defect is that nearly total reliance is placed on a limited range of public sources, the upshot being that much of our charitable giving – including bequests – is omitted.

Much the same can be said about the Forbes heavily-promoted annual report of America’s 400 wealthiest, an exercise that is essentially a gimmick to attract readers and advertisers and which relies inordinately on the value of stock holdings of public companies, excluding other primary sources of wealth such as real estate and ownership of private companies.

I believe that Jews continue to be blessed with a powerful charitable instinct, a conclusion that obviously is shared by top officials, notably development officers, at major eleemosynary institutions such as hospitals, universities and museums who routinely target Jews as prospective big givers. Despite the extraordinary behavioral changes brought about by assimilation, this instinct has survived among Jews, often in a transmuted form. Instead of being parochial in their philanthropy, increasingly American Jews respond to fundraising appeals that are entirely secular and outside the pale of our communal activity.

Lest it be thought that this assessment of Jewish philanthropy arises from an excess of ethnocentrism, I hasten to add that there are other religious groups whose adherents give abundantly to charity.

Even when intermarriage rates were low and the sense of Jewish identity was far stronger than it now is, there was a pronounced turn towards secularism in our philanthropy, in good measure because wealthy Jews tend to be more assimilated. In the heyday of the Federation world – the generation after the Holocaust – major Jewish philanthropy had a distinctive universalistic bent, the specific aim being to include charitable activities that, in the main, assisted persons who were not Jewish.

More recently, as the accumulation of wealth rose into the stratosphere, the super-rich in our community were no longer content with the nominal philanthropic channels and they established private foundations that reflected their priorities. Importantly, this development has turned out to be immensely salutary from a Jewish standpoint because it has resulted in sharp increases in intra-communal charity, although strangely these figures usually do not appear in the reports of American Jewish philanthropy.

As key Jewish leaders whose status is largely predicated on their affluence have increased their contributions to Jewish causes, more than a few have also sought outlets for their philanthropy that are away from Jewish life. As notable examples, the Tisch name is affixed to what once was the University Hospital of NYU, while also at NYU there is the Steinhardt School of Education. There are numerous other illustrations of this trend in the New York area and around the country. Naming opportunities at major universities, hospitals and cultural centers come with large price tags. When the bait is taken, the ensuing gift is apt to be quite large. Michael Steinhardt and the Tisch’s are not incidental Jewish machers. They are right at the top of the communal totem pole and their actions are telling.

There is no single explanation for this philanthropic dualism, although one factor is the determination of some of our involved super-rich to be important players outside of Jewish affairs. This should not be surprising since their business activity has little or nothing to do with Jewish life. Likely, they feel an obligation to give back to the society that has been good to them (and Jews) by contributing to the arts or medicine or education or other enterprises that meet important social needs.

It is also likely that ego gratification comes into play, which is to say that charity partakes of the same emotions and drives that impel much else in human behavior. An argument can be made that, in fact, ego is a more potent force in philanthropy than in other social activities. Especially among Jews who have all but abandoned any residual Jewish ties there is a desire – some may call it a compulsion – to be accepted by high society or the better people and their philanthropy pays the entrance fee.

There may also be the feeling that the compass of Jewish life is too narrow to satisfy people who are, after all, powerful because of their wealth. It’s true that at the Presidents Conference (of some) Major American Jewish Organizations there are fabulously wealthy people who covet the chairman’s position. That is a special situation because it brings entry to the White House and other high places. Elsewhere in organized Jewish life, macherdom is a dreary world populated by mediocrities whose time is consumed by mostly meaningless exercises. Why should our biggest big shots want to place all of their philanthropic bets on this world?

It remains that for all of the outward flow of our philanthropic funds, when we tally what is taken in by Jewish causes, here and in Israel, the sum is truly impressive. Our tradition of tzedakah remains strong.

Friday, April 11, 2003

The Martyr

There are different paths to martyrdom, all ending in death. Rachel Corrie’s path was in front of an Israeli bulldozer that was about to demolish a home in Gaza. She had put herself directly in harm’s way and therefore bears responsibility for her own death. She may have wanted it that way because it is a requisite of martyrdom that those who meet this fate are in some measure responsible for the outcome.

Whether the bulldozer operator acted with deliberate intent to harm or kill is an issue that can be debated but not decided. It’s hard to believe that he did not see the woman in his path and it’s hard to believe that he wanted to kill. It turns out that the widely-circulated picture of Rachel Corrie with a bullhorn and wearing a fluorescent orange jacket that presumably was taken before she was crushed to death was, in fact, taken earlier that day.

When the circumstances surrounding a tragedy are in dispute, judges and juries may decide and editorialists and others may offer opinions. In the end, the truth remains elusive.

When wars are fought, there are split-second decisions and miscalculations that result in the death of innocent people. In Iraq, Russia has claimed that a U.S. fighter plane knowingly fired on a vehicle transporting diplomats out of Baghdad and journalists have claimed that an American tank deliberately shelled the Palestine Hotel, fully aware that the place housed journalists. In these instances, as well as Rachel Corrie’s, we can never ascertain the full story. Those who offer their opinions believe what they want to believe, not because the facts point conclusively in that direction but because ideology or another commitment compels them to take a particular position.

All that we can know with certainty about Rachel Corrie’s last moments is that her share in bringing about the tragedy is significantly above the level of contributory negligence. Human shields cannot discount the prospect of being killed and while we must not rejoice over the horrible death suffered by someone who was hostile to Israel, it is also true that her family’s grief is the result of her actions.

Whether her story amounts to martyrdom is a question that is likely to be decided by public relations and not by any moral compass. As a rule, those who are elevated to martyrdom have an eye for the camera or a public display. There are many who bravely go to their death for a just cause away from the arena or camera or someone writing it all down for posterity. They are no less heroic on account of their anonymity, yet as a practical matter, they are ineligible for designation as martyrs.

Whatever history’s judgment, I do not accept the notion that Rachel Corrie’s actions were heroic. It has been said that she acted out of humanitarian ideals, which I am certain is how she felt about what she was doing in the Middle East. Unfortunately, she was a selective humanitarian, a status that is shared by too many who announce that they are on the side of peace or human dignity or other noble causes.

Admittedly, we are all selective in that part of us which may be noble, as we need to be in view of the long list of just causes that can be enlisted in. I cannot claim that my espousal of the rights of others is as passionately felt as my devotion to the rights of Jews and I imagine that much the same can be said of those who have other nationality, religious or ethnic identities. The selective humanitarians I have in mind act out of more universalistic motives and yet their field of activity is narrow, invariably in support of a tarnished cause and against those who while they are certainly flawed are not evil.

The New York Times reprised Deborah Sontag for a Magazine Section back-page piece on Rachel Corrie. It was called “One Last Sit-In.” Despite the title, we are not provided with any examples of activism other than volunteer service as a human shield in the Middle East. Of the 150+ members of the United Nations, at least half are routinely engaged in serious violations of human rights and more than a few have deliberately killed innocent civilians in numbers that dwarf the loss of Palestinian life in the Intifada. This does not make the loss of life any last painful, but it does make Rachel Corrie and the organization in which she was involved selective humanitarians.

There was even selectivity within her limited field of concern, for there is no evidence that suicide bombings, terrorism or the death of Israeli citizens ran at all counter to her humanitarian impulses. She came to a single hotspot and took one side in that conflict and while, as Ms. Sontag writes, “in Lebanon, women began naming their babies after Rachel Corrie,” her sole mission was to oppose Israel.

It’s trite to ask why the humanitarian human shields have a propensity to pop up in Ramallah to protect Yasir Arafat and in Gaza to protect Hamas and never in Iran, Iraq, the Congo, Columbia, Rwanda, Serbia and any of the other places where they can demonstrate their commitment to peace, hatred of oppression, empathy for the oppressed. Their pattern of activism is not accidental and I doubt that it springs solely from concern for Palestinians. The emotional compound that inspires their choices includes powerful strands of anti-Israel feelings.

We are not likely to get the full story of Rachel Corrie’s death. We do know that her life was marked by anti-Israel sentiments. This is sufficient reason to question her alleged martyrdom.

Monday, April 07, 2003


They have descended on us like a plague, those rickety Department of Corrections look-alike Access-A-Ride busses that presumably transport the disabled as they add to traffic congestion and gasoline consumption. There are hundreds of them – or so it seems – and invariably they are empty or nearly empty. Three passengers would be a crowd. Perhaps there will be more riders, as others figure out what it takes to become eligible for a service whose time has not come. Apart from being incredibly expensive – it costs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority $58 for each one-way ride – Access-A-Ride is inefficient and the likelihood is that the disabled will continue to fend for themselves, as they have in the past.

This project is the silly offspring of the notion that government is obliged to meet the needs of nearly every group that has an issue to trumpet. Laws mandating equal access for the disabled are predicated on the questionable view that facilities that neutrally serve the vast majority of people who are not disabled are inherently discriminatory against the disabled unless special means of access are provided, irrespective of the cost or whether the remedy is effective. Under this standard, subways are on their face instrumentalities of discrimination; hence we have been blessed or saddled with Access-A-Ride.

Concern for the disabled, which is certainly virtuous and a social obligation, is translated into an expensive activity that at the end of the day scarcely removes the burden of disability. It is telling that few disabled persons take advantage of Access-A-Ride and that in the main the few passengers are persons who are not disabled but who have found a way to get on the bus. Could it be that for most truly disabled people the solution that is being offered is no solution at all because it is not convenient or comfortable?

When organized groups clamor for a governmental benefit, politicians respond lemming-like because that’s what politicians have been conditioned to do. Pandering is in their blood, the essence of their culture. They just can’t say no, even when what is being asked of them won’t be of much help or is too expensive. They enact laws, an exercise that essentially passes the buck and the cost to others. They believe that in order to get elected they need to respond favorably to every small organized clique. Put otherwise, politicians care more about the demands of one-hundred people who get together than the pressing needs of thousands of anonymous faces in the crowd.

The assumption is that it’s no sweat off anyone’s back to cater to group demands when funding comes from tax revenue and no one can claim that he or she is footing the bill. It matters little that public funds are not limited and that priorities need to be set, so that favoritism in one direction inevitably means that other needs will not be met. Invariably, this means that those who are less organized and also the most needy get the short end of the stick.

At times, the cost of a benefit is directly borne by others. Access-A-Ride funding comes out of the budget of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority which has just imposed huge fare increases that will be a burden to many passengers, specifically including a large number of the working poor. The MTA claims that it has a huge operating deficit, some of which results from Access-A-Ride. Even more can be attributed to senior citizen discounts, one of an expanding number of perks offered to those, including this writer, whose eligibility is based on nothing other than that they have reached the not ripe old age of 65.

There is a popular view that to be a senior citizen is to be a member of a multi-million member group of discriminated against persons. As a consequence, those who are over 65 deserve every governmental benefit and protection that they can lobby for. There is, in fact, age discrimination and it can be ugly, notably in employment, although efforts to correct it have resulted in serious collateral damage, as in the devastation wreaked in the ranks of young Ph.D.s who cannot find employment in academia (except perhaps as adjuncts) because old fogies insist on staying on.

However one looks at this issue, there is a considerable body of reliable social statistics showing that seniors are far better off than younger people. Those who doubt this should just consider the cost of housing for the young or the cost of raising a family. In the event, there is no good reason why commuters who are under 65 should help subsidize the fare of those who are above that age.

America is awash in claims of victimization and entitlement. Nearly every status – ethnicity, gender, age, etc. – gives rise to charges of mistreatment and demands for remedial action by government that usually come with big dollar signs attached. Since we all have multiple statuses, victimization claims exceed by far the total population.

There are obviously people with genuine needs who rightfully merit governmental attention and assistance, including the poor, young people who are in distress and the physically and mentally ill. As other groups have pressed their demands, the legitimate needs of the most needy are increasingly being short-changed because attention and resources are being diverted to causes that are popular or trendy. Unless we get out of the victimization/entitlement trap, the situation of our most needy is likely to become more precarious.

These days, governments everywhere face huge deficits. Inevitably, there are budgetary cuts, as well as increased taxes and fees, including the 50 cents per ride fare hike. As one admittedly modest way of closing at least New York’s massive budgetary gap, can we at least hope that the gas-guzzling, traffic-clogging Access-A-Ride monstrosities will be scrapped?