Global Agenda: Wanted: Giver barons

Jewish tycoons always had a more philanthropic bent than their gentile peers.

August 18, 2006 00:29
3 minute read.
edmond rothschild 88

edmond rothschild 88. (photo credit: )


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Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller and the other mega-tycoons who rose to prominence in late 19th century America were not renowned for being pleasant, friendly people. Their appealing sobriquet, "the Robber Barons," was hard-earned and justly awarded. But, having amassed their huge fortunes in whatever way they did and, perhaps in recognition of the ineluctable fact that even they would not be able to take the money with them, they determined to use some of their wealth for leaving their marks on posterity. Hence the foundations, museums and other cultural and educational institutions that carry their names, down to the present. Jewish tycoons always had a more philanthropic bent than their gentile peers. In modern times, this phenomenon has been researched and quantified, but it was ever thus. The Jews had their own barons in the 19th century - in the case of European-born ones, real barons with real titles - the most famous being the Rothschilds and Baron Hirsch. Each of these - as well as Moshe Montefiore, who made do with a mere knighthood - were renowned across the Jewish world for their philanthropic endeavours. They certainly left their mark in Palestine, as attested to by the numerous neighborhoods, villages, parks and other landmarks that bear their names today. The rise of the "nanny state" in the 20th century reduced the need - and probably also the motivation - for this kind of large-scale philanthropy. Nowadays, rich people tend to have university chairs and hospital wings in their names but they don't get to the level of neighborhoods, let alone towns. The "nanny state" is crumbling, not just in Israel but everywhere. In Israel, however, the process has been more abrupt than in most European-style countries (which Israel still is), for a variety of reasons we can skip over. The bottom line is that, today, after the Lebanon war, the Israeli government is facing the need to spend a great deal of money very quickly. The needs it has to address are, first and foremost, those of the armed forces - everything from equipment to developing new weapons; civil defense - where large numbers of shelters have to be refurbished and even more must be built from scratch; welfare for various categories of the needy; and then the matter of rebuilding the towns, villages, forests and parks of the North. In line with Israeli tradition in times of emergency, the government has turned to Diaspora Jewry to help out. This is instinctive, but correct. There is clearly an enormous willingness on the part of Jews around the world to help out, and the most practical thing most of them can do is to donate money. Most Israelis would say that it is also their moral obligation to do so. One thing is unquestionable: Diaspora Jewry has the resources necessary for the task at hand. That's why the numbers being bandied around - $300 million, or even the supposedly dramatic target of $1 billion - are exceedingly modest, compared to the staggering, unprecedented level of wealth of the main communities in the English-speaking Diaspora, although those of Western Europe are no less well-endowed in per capita terms. However, many people are reluctant to give to the general campaign that the Israeli schnor mechanism is putting into operation - and rightly so. The standard complaints about not knowing where the money is going or what it will be used for, and of "cumbersome bureaucracies," are often polite cover-stories for suspicions of ingrained inefficiency and even outright corruption in various forms. Furthermore, in today's capitalist America and Britain, many rich Jews are overtly opposed on quasi-ideological grounds to giving more than token amounts to government-run projects. What is needed, therefore, is to break the mold - both in Israel and in the Jewish world generally. Let's revert to the 19th century model and allow, nay encourage, those Jewish multi-billionaires who are prepared to make the commitment, to undertake philanthropic projects whereby they take direct responsibility for building or rebuilding - at their own expense and to uniform standards - streets, neighborhoods, villages or entire towns in the North of Israel. The government will have to do only two things in this process: implement immediately the reforms in the planning process that will enable anything of this nature to happen and provide the wider infrastructure needed - transport, utilities, etc. All the vested interests in the existing Israel-Diaspora establishment will vehemently oppose this approach. But money talks and big money shouts so, if the offer were made, it might create its own dynamic. After all, the struggle between Israel and Lebanon is also about whose friends and co-religionists are the more generous and effective in their support.

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