Home / Opinions / LocalRSS Feed
Dont expect tzedakah to change the minds of haters
January 28th, 2005
After the tsunami devastated the coasts of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, the response of the civilized world has been overwhelming.
And as is always the case, American Jews and Israelis are responding with contributions out of proportion to their numbers. American Jewish charities stopped what they were doing and started to divert resources to the region.
Israel was quick to offer aid and expertise to the affected countries. Planeloads of supplies were sent and, despite some initial misunderstandings with some of the recipients, they have generally been welcomed.
All of which has led some to wonder whether this heartfelt expression of sympathy will alter the general image of the U.S. and Israel as the big and little Satans of modern times.
The answer is, of course, not very likely. If there is anything history teaches us about philanthropic actions from one country toward another, it is that there is nothing most people resent quite as much as being helped.
So why should Israelis expect anything more than Americans get? The saga of U.S. foreign relations after World War II is more or less the history of European and Third World ingratitude for sacrifices made by Americans.
In the last 60 years, American blood and treasure destroyed the two greatest tyrannies in human history. American aid rebuilt Europe. American power ensured that Stalins evil empire did not prevail in the Cold War.
But as you may have noticed, that has not engendered a great deal of love from those Europeans who are only too happy to enjoy life on a continent free of Nazism and Communism. Nor did decades of foreign aid to the Third World do much to make Americans liked there either.
Israel had a similar experience. In the first decades of its history, at a time when Israel was itself dirt poor, it still expended a not-inconsiderable portion of its budget on aid to countries in Africa, which became the beneficiaries of Israeli expertise in agriculture.
But when push came to shove in 1967 and 1973, and the Arab world attempted to extinguish Israel, did any of Israels African friends rush to its aid?
Instead, virtually every African country cut off ties with the Israelis rather than offend the Arabs who dominated Third World politics and held a near-monopoly on precious oil.
So are Americans dumb for giving to countries like Indonesia that have reacted ungraciously? Are Israelis freiers (Hebrew for suckers) for sending a planeload of aid to a country like Indonesia that doesnt even recognize the Jewish state?
Some of us are willing to say as much. Those Jews who remember a world standing by silently as millions of Jews were slaughtered often find it hard to get worked up about bad things happening to countries where Jews arent welcome.
But when it comes to helping those in need, my answer, and the answer of most Americans and Israelis, is still emphatic endorsement of aiding victims, no matter what they believe.
While we would be pleased if help for Muslims caused some in that part of the world to rethink their lunatic visions, I dont think most of us really care whether they like us or not.
Thats because despite neo-Marxist conspiracy theories that see everything both countries do as part of an evil plot most of us view acts of charity as moral imperatives, not foreign policy.
So forget about the tsunami broadening the coalition against terror or even creating an opening for diplomatic contacts with Israel. A planeload of food and medicine will help the sick and hungry, but it cant overcome decades of hate.
In the Jewish tradition, charitable acts, which we call tzedakah, are not options but religious obligations. Were not supposed to help those in need because we think theyll be grateful. We do it because its the right thing to do. The same spirit seems to animate the approach of most non-Jewish Americans.
Critic Edward Alexander once quipped that universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.
The same can be said of most Americans. That tendency can be infuriating because some of us forget that we are also supposed to worry about our own needs, as well as those of others.
But part of the greatness of our civilization lies in our willingness to help the stranger.
Though there are times when were asked to pay a high price for our philanthropic instincts, I doubt that many of us would have it any other way.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.