April 14, 2024
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Do Non-Israeli Jews Have a Say in Israeli Politics?

Judaism has a rich and storied tradition of philanthropy. As people of moral spirit, we venerate acts of charity and personal generosity. Avraham—the founder of our people—demonstrated his generosity and his gemilut chasadim by enthusiastically welcoming three complete strangers into his home, days after undergoing excruciating surgery. Charity and chesed became part of our collective Jewish legacy. The Gemara in Yevamot cautions us to inspect the Jewish pedigree of a miserly person who doesn’t display sympathy or kindness. If that person were Jewish, they would, obviously, be more generous and openhearted. Charity and tzedaka lie at the heart of Jewish identity.

In addition to providing charity for individuals, Jews have always donated to large and great projects. Our philanthropic tradition began in the desert as we assembled the Mishkan. Hashem had already performed numerous jaw-dropping miracles and could easily have deposited a heavenly Temple in the desert. Yet, He preferred that we donate the various materials and personally perform the labor necessary for His Temple. Work and labor was ennobling and purged us of the moral decay caused by the worship of the egel. More importantly though, donating to this great cause would transform us into agents of this divine project, granting us personal shares in the house of Hashem. Through our philanthropy, we become more invested in important projects and idealistic missions. Philanthropy affords grants to personal agency.

Ironically, our long-suffering exile reinforced the centrality of Jewish philanthropy. Constantly living as outsiders in foreign lands, we rarely received local governmental funding for religious services. We were forced to provide our own communal and religious needs through internal contributions. This codependency created tighter and more durable communities and, additionally, networked Jews across the diaspora, as often, wealthier communities supported poorer ones. As Jewish donations crisscrossed the globe, scattered Jewish communities remained united.

The Haluka System

Gradually, as we began to return to our homeland, philanthropy was channeled to Jews living under the harsh and unforgiving financial conditions in Palestine. In the late 18th and 19th century, Jewish immigration to Israel slowly expanded, and a process of financial support—known as the chaluka system—became institutionalized. In almost every European Jewish city, funds were collected for the old yishuv (generally referring to Jews who immigrated prior to the 1880s) who had little financial means to support themselves.

The chaluka system figured prominently in the notorious incarceration of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. Living in Liadi, in White Russia, Rav Shneur Zalman—the first rebbe—supervised the collection and allocation of funds to chasidim in Palestine, which was then governed by the Ottoman empire, the sworn enemies of the Russian monarchy. He was arrested and imprisoned on trumped up charges of treason, for transferring currency to an enemy of the state. These charges were exaggerated by opponents of chasidism, who incited local Russian authorities against the rebbe. After 53 days of imprisonment—on the 19th of Kislev—the rebbe was liberated from prison, transforming this day into the major holiday of chasidut. For a hundred and fifty years—beginning with the late 18th century—the chaluka system was an integral part of Jewish communal life in Europe.

This distribution system became far more complicated in the 19th century, in the aftermath of the financial collapse during World War I. Financially challenged Eastern European Jewish communities struggled to support an ever-growing Jewish population in Palestine. The chaluka system was first conceived in the late 18th century to support select Jewish pilgrims who had abandoned the “good life” in Europe, for a noble life of holiness and hardship in the land of our ancestors. By the early twentieth century, the Jewish population in Palestine had expanded, and not everyone was living a holy life worthy of financial support from mother communities in Europe. The chaluka allocations slowly dwindled, coming to a complete and abrupt halt during the Holocaust.

In the desert, Jewish philanthropy had raised a Mishkan for Hashem. Thousands of years later, in the leadup to the modern state, Jewish philanthropy provided a platform for the first returning Jews. Jewish philanthropy would have a further say in shaping Jewish destiny.

Philanthropy and the Modern State of Israel

As the state of Israel was declared, Jewish philanthropy quickly shifted gears. A newly-formed nation—financially fledgling and militarily challenged—required substantial material support. Though much of this support flowed from foreign governments, much came from personal philanthropic donations of Jews pouring in from across the globe. The twentieth century witnessed the greatest philanthropic project in the history of mankind. Jewish money helped build our national infrastructure, advance our communities and restore our natural landscapes and forests. Jewish return to Israel became a global Jewish project.

Aliyah to Israel has always been a complex equation. Those who live in Israel don’t always appreciate how difficult it can be. Not everyone can pick up and immediately relocate to Israel. Jewish philanthropy provided a means for Jews who don’t yet live in our national homeland to still be a part of this grand project of national regeneration. We wait for every Jew to return home, but until that day—and given the fact that not every Jew has returned—we acknowledge the power of philanthropy to allow membership in this lofty historical project.

Newark, Amsterdam and Gush

I teach in a hesder yeshiva in Gush Etzion with a majestic campus which includes marble floors, a vaulted ceiling in a regal beit midrash, a campus surrounded by rolling gardens and a stately waterfall at its entrance. Aesthetically outstanding, its beauty reflects the grandeur of our religion.

Our beautiful campus was constructed in the mid-1970s with funds donated by the Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey, which had recently closed its doors. After closing its synagogue, the community donated its leftover funds to a fledgling yeshiva in the West Bank, operating out of an old Jordanian army barrack. Often, as I stroll through the magnificent campus —financed by an American Jewish community of the previous generation—I reflect upon the marvel of Jewish continuity.

Additionally, our spacious library contains a section of older books donated by a 400-year old Dutch Jewish community, which was unable to survive after the Holocaust. As I leaf through the 500-year old sefarim in this collection, I ponder the different roads of Jewish history. All roads lead home. Modern Jewish philanthropy for the state of Israel has empowered Jews across the globe to be part of the reawakening of history. It has also preserved the memories of past Jewish communities in our ancient homeland.

Partners Have a Voice

This partnership between Israel and Jews who live outside our country raises a very delicate and complex question. Should non-Israeli Jews enjoy a voice in determining Israeli politics and policies? Many Israelis chafe at the notion that our democracy should be compromised by opinions of non-voting and non-army serving citizens. But, that is just the point: we aren’t a pureblooded democracy, but a historical project built upon democratic foundations. Every Jew is expected to participate in this project and every Jew the right to voice their opinion about our joint project. It is certainly true that non-residents may not appreciate the more nuanced factors which should govern our policy decisions. For a non-Israeli, issues in Israel always seem more black and white and more binary. Residents of Israel have a finer appreciation of the subtle complexities of our situation and their positions tend to be more balanced and judicious. However, fundamentally, every Jew is part of this process, and their philanthropy gives them a seat at the table of history. We are in this together.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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