American Jews must invest in Israeli initiatives, progressive philanthropist says - interview

82-year-old Jewish philanthropist Robert Price also confided that he and his colleagues may have not invested enough in Jewish education.

 Robert Price. (photo credit: Courtesy of The Jerusalem Foundation)
Robert Price.
(photo credit: Courtesy of The Jerusalem Foundation)

American Jews should invest in Israeli initiatives despite the political situation here, prominent progressive Jewish philanthropist Robert Price told The Jerusalem Post.

The 82-year-old also confided that he and his colleagues may have not invested enough in Jewish education, since many of his own descendants intermarried and don’t see themselves as part of the Jewish community.

“My perception is that young, secular Jewish people in the United States have become really distanced from Israel,” the mega-American businessman and philanthropist said during a recent visit to Israel. “I wanted them [young-secular Jews] to know that Jews who are progressive and believe in democracy and pluralism can have a place in advancing those causes in Israel.”

Robert, son of the late Sol Price, lives in San Diego, as do his three children. Sol, who died in 2009, was the founder of FedMart, Price Club (which merged into Costco) and PriceSmart, and was considered a pioneer of the “warehouse store” retail model. Robert Price and his wife, Allison, run The Price Philanthropies Foundation, which primarily funds nonprofits in San Diego County, with a focus on the City Heights neighborhood. They also established another small foundation that supports specific projects in Israel focusing on the Arab-Israeli community in east Jerusalem through the Jerusalem Foundation.

Making his voice heard 

Price explained in the interview that he doesn’t normally talk to the press, but since the situation in Israel has been so sensitive and toxic because of the discourse surrounding the judicial reforms, he wanted to make his voice heard in the US among the Jewish community.

 Israeli protesters gather at Haifa's Intel building to demonstrate against the judicial reforms on March 9, 2023.  (credit: YOAV ETIEL/WALLA!) Israeli protesters gather at Haifa's Intel building to demonstrate against the judicial reforms on March 9, 2023. (credit: YOAV ETIEL/WALLA!)

“Others can join” the investment in initiatives, because “I really believe that if young secular Jews are not given some idea of Israel as a special, democratic, pluralistic society, they are going to be further and further [away].”

Price explained that the work they do through the Jerusalem Foundation is “to promote Arab causes and women’s causes,” and these are causes that progressive Jews can relate to.

For instance, “we just made a donation for the new sports center in [east Jerusalem’s] Beit Hanina of $600,000.... We also have a partnership with the Grinspoon Foundation and the Education Ministry, where we offer PJ Library books for free in Arabic for Arab children, as well as Jewish children. We’ve been investing about $400,000 annually on this beautiful initiative.”

He explained that his father “got involved with Tel Aviv University in 1995 and gave scholarships for Arabs to attend law school.”

Asked why he invests more in Arab-Israeli causes rather than Jewish causes, Price said that as he thinks about Israel’s future along with “my own values… of what makes Israel special for me is that it’s a moralistic society; Arabs are a part of this society. They haven’t been given equal treatment over the years and whatever we can do to promote some kind of advancement for Arabs, particularly the children and women, will be good for Israel.”

Commitment and loyalty to Israel 

Asked if he heard any of his fellow Jewish-American philanthropists considering stopping funds for Israel because of the judicial reforms, he said he hasn’t heard that type of rhetoric.

“Most of the people I know in San Diego or in the philanthropic community are concerned, but there is such a sense of commitment and loyalty to Israel; you don’t walk away when things are difficult. You hang in there and you try to do what you can to be supportive. I think that’s what most of my friends will say.

“But,” he added, “the younger generation has other issues, not because of [the reforms], but it gets tied [in with] other issues taking place in the US. Palestinian rights activists and other campus groups that are very vocal against Israel are sometimes very vocal against Jewish students. It’s a big concern; some of those Jewish students begin to think that Israel is not the kind of country that represents their values.”

Asked if he agreed with these values, he said he thinks “Israel is a complicated place, as is the US. Humans are complicated – what you have to do is keep fighting for what you believe in and what is right. You’re not going to win all the battles, but you don’t walk away.”

When presented with data that show that the younger generations of Jewish philanthropists in North America are more focused on America and less on Jewish causes, he said that is precisely why “I wanted to be heard in the Jewish media, because I want to really try to do whatever we can to educate people about how you can be involved with Israel in a way that represents values that are consistent with liberal progressive values of young people.”

Asked about the assimilation of secular American Jews, Price pointed at his granddaughters seated at a table a few meters from him.

“These girls here, their father is Christian,” he said, adding that he thinks that “the chances of any [Jewish] continuity there [in the US] are remote.”

He added that his son “married a woman who’s not Jewish; a lovely person,” yet that “I don’t expect there to be a lot of continuity there either.” The only Jewish continuity he said he would count on would be through his daughter, who is married and lives a Modern-Orthodox lifestyle that is engaged in Jewish life.

How can others make sure that there’ll be more Jewish continuity in North America among secular Jews?

“I think it’s difficult. I don’t prioritize it. Jewish identity is important because of Israel; [as is] having people who are more progressive in the Jewish community continue to support Israel. But my own personal feeling is that there will always be Jewish people, it may not be my children and it may not be my grandchildren. That I can’t control.

“Maybe I haven’t done enough,” he added. “I haven’t done enough, but I don’t know what else I could do and how important it is. That’s the question.”

In the history of the Jewish people, he said, it “probably [was] not very important… There have been ups and downs, but the Jewish people survive. So if I’m not being as proactive about that, will it really make a difference? I don’t know.”

The Jewish people survived, but there were always those who didn’t continue being part of it.

“I think it’s a good argument. I agree with that,” Price said “Maybe I’m not fighting hard enough. I tried to do it through example, rather than through words, but maybe I’m not doing enough,” Price said.

“This is a good discussion and you’re making me think,” he concluded.