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Jewish Philanthropy: Buildings vs chairs

By PhilanthropyJanuary, 2024February 28th, 20245 min read

The old jokes about the Jewish spacecraft that was unable to take-off because it was weighed down by donor plaques, and the university auditorium named after the famous Jewish writer who wrote “a cheque” say a lot about how we do philanthropy: there always seems to be money for naming rights. But while Jewish family names sit proudly on buildings of non-Jewish institutions across the Western world, our enemies have been far more strategic in their giving, and we are now seeing the “success” of their approach.

The matter of naming rights in consideration for donations is, like most everything in Jewish life, subject to debate. The practice dates back to Talmudic times. Views on this come from both halachic and marketing sources, and often organizations need to walk a fine line, aiming for tasteful recognition.

While non-profits need funds both for a space to do their work (“cap ex”) and for the expenses of the work itself (“op ex”), why is it so much easier to fund the former? It has been suggested that our affinity for this comes from the desire to memorialize departed relatives, and particularly those killed in the Holocaust. This makes a building with a name on it something of a matzevah or tombstone. When it comes to donations for non-Jewish causes, it is also a push back against the time when Jews were not full members of society and our donations were not accepted. A building with your family’s name on it is a clear sign that you are an integral part of society.

But are we? What do grant recipients think about the Jewish families who generously support their work?

A poignant example comes from Australia, where many Jewish families are proud sponsors of the arts – perhaps also a show of their acceptance within broader society. But after October 7, the arts community has shown its true colors. In Melbourne, an arts and community hub hosted a banner-making workshop which included a poster that said “Free Palestine from the colonizing dumb white dogs!!” The donor list for this organization read like a who’s who list of prominent local Jewish families, some of whom have since withdrawn support.

We don’t know the motivation of individual donors for particular causes. Some give as an expression of their Jewish identity despite the causes not being uniquely Jewish; for some, it is their expression of “tikkun olam”. It may range from purely altruistic to expecting some additional benefits. But when those same institutions becomes channels for the expression of brazen antisemitism, it can come as a shock to donors.

In the meantime, Muslim states – particularly Qatar – have been throwing billions of dollars at Western universities in the form of endowed chairs to teach Middle Eastern studies, Arab and Islamic culture, and the most insidious of all – anticolonial studies (see herehereherehereherehere, *sigh*). This has been documented by think tanks nearly ten years ago, as well as more recently, and with the latest surge of campus-based antisemitism, there is more coverage. The buildings funded by Jews are being used to teach subjects sponsored by our haters, with the goal of educating a generation of haters. While we have paid for buildings, they have endowed chairs.

Perhaps the best philanthropic value for money from Arab countries has been “informal education” in the form of activist movement Students for Justice in Palestine, with a budget of under two million per year, but which transformed a generation of students into Jew-hating activists. It has been suggested that the vocal 5% at either extreme that make the most noise about issues such as the Middle East conflict, and that the remaining 90% either don’t know or don’t care. According to a SJP steering-committee member, “The idea is to appeal to people who know nothing”. By linking the Palestinian struggle to other historical episodes like apartheid in South Africa or the oppression of Native Americans, they target the 90% of people who know nothing, turning them into activists who think they know something.

The sad fact is that their philanthropic strategy has been very successful. Jewish students in Western countries are being subjected to threats and aggressive demonstrations, no longer feel safe, and are afraid to display their Jewish identity on campus.

While we like to be strategic in our philanthropy (and many grant-makers are), we have fallen short by failing to counter a strategic move against us.

The debate over whether Jewish funders should fund outside the Jewish community is a complex one. The common argument to prioritize Jewish causes – “why fund them when they won’t fund us?” – is valid only up to a point. But the argument “they are funding against us, and we need to counter attack” is a very strong one. It’s time for a rethink within Jewish philanthropy about where our priorities should sit, to widen the parameters of our giving strategy, and to be aware of the strategic goals of other philanthropic money. In the current university battleground, the endowed chairs are beating the donated buildings. We need to learn from that to ensure we win the war.

This was originally posted at [The Times of Israel].

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