History of Jewish philanthropy / New Works in the Field

The Entanglements of Jewish Philanthropy and Liberal Statecraft: A Review of Berman’s The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex

Editors’ Note: Over the next few weeks, HistPhil will feature several reviews of Lila Corwin Berman’s recently published The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex (Princeton University Press, 2020). Ben Ratskoff offers the first of these below. Lily Geismer follows with a review here.

The climax of Lila Corwin Berman’s new monograph is the infamous fall of American Jewish market maker Bernie Madoff in 2008. Following the public exposure of his $50 billion-plus Ponzi scheme, major Jewish donors, foundations, federations, and non-profits faced losses that totaled somewhere between $600 million and $2.5 billion. How exactly did Jewish philanthropic organizations become so thoroughly—and so ominously—entangled with the financial world of short sales, futures, and tranches? This is the question Berman answers in The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: The History of a Multibillion-Dollar Institution. From the legal incorporation of synagogues in the mid-nineteenth century up through the hardening of a philanthropic “complex” subsidized by the state and unified by a commitment to capital growth in the late twentieth century, Berman shapes the histories of United States tax law, wealth accumulation, and Jewish associations into an intricate narrative that is as captivating as it is revealing. Tracing the historical formation of American Jewish philanthropic structures, Berman illuminates US Jewish history’s “ever-shifting entanglement” with the liberal state, disclosing how these structures, which are often taken for granted in US Jewish life today, constitutively reflect the US state’s ongoing reconfigurations of capitalism and democracy.  

Berman’s detailed attention to the role of the state in the history of American Jewish philanthropy makes an unlikely intervention. Berman notes that US Jewish history “rests on a foundational claim that Jews as individuals gained full and unmitigated citizenship rights in the United States,” and historians therefore “maintain that Jews as a collective have not experienced state-based regulation.” In other words, Jewish access to citizenship rights (access largely derivative of racial whiteness) and the lack of putatively illiberal, discriminatory policies toward Jews largely made the US state’s role in Jewish history analytically invisible. However, Berman’s history details the legal, bureaucratic, financial, and political processes through which US Jews as a group were subjected to state regulation and discipline. Berman’s approach does not narrate philanthropy’s role in the everyday lives of Jews in the United States, nor does it provide an exhaustive survey of philanthropic organizations. Rather, she focuses on the nexus of Jewish philanthropic leadership and the state, approaching philanthropy as a mode of governance through which the state “empowered private interests to define and serve the public good.” In doing so, Berman reveals that American Jewish philanthropy was (and is) a product and instrument of the state as much if not more as it is a particularly Jewish enterprise. That is, the development of a robust network of private Jewish philanthropists, local Jewish Federations, and family foundations such as Crown and Schusterman was and remains constitutively implicated in liberal statecraft.

Berman challenges both identitarian frames that define American Jewish philanthropy with recourse to depoliticized notions of culture as well as exceptionalist narratives of Jewish history that reproduce the US state’s own exceptionalist claims to unrivaled freedom and prosperity. The little historical scholarship on American Jewish philanthropy that existed before Berman’s book typically told a triumphant story of American pluralism and liberalism. Arguing that free association, free expression, and freedom from state interference made American Jewish philanthropy, and the Jewish lives it supported, an unrivaled success, these historians naturalized and evaded attending to the liberal state’s regulatory power. That is, the wealth accumulated and distributed by American Jewish philanthropic organizations was understood as confirmation of the exceptional freedom Jews experienced in the United States. Additionally, these historians characterized American Jewish philanthropy simultaneously as a seamless expression of “timeless Jewish values” and evidence of the “exceptional synthesis” of these Jewish values with those of US liberalism. In contrast, Berman’s history of American Jewish philanthropy demonstrates that liberal inclusion and emancipation in the United States did not free Jews from state regulation as much as, through processes of legal recognition and taxation, it subjected them to new regulatory discipline. And the attribution of philanthropic success to Jewish culture and identity only obfuscates such a political and material reality. Yet while Berman trenchantly critiques a number of epistemological shibboleths of US Jewish history, the book also seems to hearken back to Jewish historian Salo Baron’s foundational critique of the “lachrymose conception” of pre-emancipated Jewish history. By interrogating the structures of capitalist democracy that ensnared Jewish life in the United States, Berman extends Baron’s work by critiquing US Jewish history’s triumphalist conception of liberalism.  

The book is structured by seven historical concepts that represent the multidimensional development and consolidation of an American Jewish philanthropic complex across the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries. Berman opens with “Associations” and “Regulations,” demonstrating how the emergent legal framework of the association in the nineteenth century enabled the US government to regulate and tax collective groups while also providing a path for state recognition of these groups. Associations made Jewish collectives visible to the state, offering protection and benefits in exchange for regulation and resource extraction. The associational framework therefore gave rise to communal institutions that were charitable to their communities, on the one hand, and representatives of these communities to the state, on the other. Mutual aid and benevolent societies were gradually coordinated into a federation system that consolidated fund-raising while focusing more attention on accumulating capital and navigating the shifting bureaucratic and legal web of state scrutiny.

In “Property” and “Taxation,” Berman demonstrates the mid-century shift in Jewish communal wealth and property priorities toward future-facing endowments. This shift was accompanied by ongoing Jewish investment in determining the interpretation and application of tax codes governing philanthropy. The federal government’s massive expansion into social welfare and economic planning during the Great Depression threatened to render many Jewish associations obsolete. The Jewish Federation system was the product of a reformist state that balanced capitalism and democracy by outsourcing social services and redistributive policies to private associations. Once the state expanded into these spheres, Jewish leaders began to consider Jewish wealth best accumulated, saved, and invested rather than immediately distributed. In turn, the state recognition of Jewish communal institutions was more and more defined by the tax-related interests of philanthropic capital.     

This recognition in the realm of tax law, which was part of broader shifts in state regulation and was not at all exclusive to Jewish communities and their philanthropic structures, leads to Berman’s crucial notion of “depoliticized politics.” This notion becomes key in the next chapter, “Politics,” which describes how US lawmakers determined the precise and narrow definitions of political behavior enforced through tax policy. These definitions ultimately enabled American Jewish philanthropic institutions to continue to influence policies that would permit them to benefit from state enrichment (in the form of tax exemption) while nonetheless appearing as apolitical organizations representative of a Jewish consensus. In other words, at the same time that these institutions aligned their interests with those of the state, they portrayed themselves as the natural representatives of the “grass roots” concerns of US Jews. The result, detailed expertly in the next chapter on “Finance and Identity,” was the increasing conflation of capital accumulation and growth with the goal of enriching Jewish identity. Berman delivers a fascinating argument that illustrates how a surplus of philanthropic capital—accumulated through greater Jewish access to wealth (again, racial whiteness cannot be overlooked here), increasing obsolescence of Jewish social welfare, and the financialized and financializing logics of statecraft—essentially colonized and capitalized “identity.” Adding an important historical chapter to contemporary debates over identity politics—notwithstanding the Combahee River Collective’s explicitly anti-capitalist formulation of the term in 1977—Berman shows how a concept from midcentury psychological and sociological theory (“identity”) provided a solution for valuing and earmarking philanthropic funds. The line between fund-raising—reproducing philanthropic capital—and building Jewish “identity” became increasingly indistinguishable as Jewish “identity” itself was subordinated to, and measured and projected by, capital growth. The fascinating culmination of such an identity politics is none other than the Birthright program, conceived by hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt and scion of the Seagram liquor empire Charles Bronfman to offer every young Jew a free trip to Israel. Berman compellingly argues that the creation of the Birthright program itself reflects “a Jewish philanthropic complex so tightly constructed as to make it credible that a singular Jewish people would finance an identity-producing but politically neutral trip to Israel.”  

The final two chapters, “The Market” and “The Complex,” chart how Reaganite market fundamentalism further enriched and empowered Jewish philanthropic institutions and led to the consolidation of a financialized “complex” that mirrored the United States’ late twentieth century political economy: “wildly uneven distribution of capital,” dependence on fewer and fewer private entities, and increasing private power over public good. While the majority of the book illustrates the state’s constant struggle to balance the interests of democracy and capitalism, in these final chapters the interests of capitalism overtake those of democracy as American Jewish philanthropy—and American philanthropy in general—clearly prioritized the investment and reproduction of philanthropic funds over any former redistributive logic. The aim of American Jewish philanthropy resolved into the tautology of simply creating value and funding priorities increasingly shrunk down to “Jewish continuity programs,” circuiting together the reproduction of capital and the (typically heterosexual) reproduction of Jews. Berman suggests that recent high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent Jewish philanthropists, such as Michael Steinhardt, confirm these philanthropists’ investment in the sexuality of women as a form of capital to be measured and valued—for the public good and for private gain.

These allegations hardly produced a systemic soul-searching within the American Jewish philanthropic complex. As Berman points out, the panicked response to the allegations largely repeated the Jewish institutional leadership’s response to Bernie Madoff’s malfeasance in 2008. Then, outlandish condemnations and demonizations were made of Madoff the individual, considering him an outlier—even though his fraudulent behavior was largely enabled by the overall combination of Reaganite faith in unrestricted capital growth and the increasing opacity of financial investment transactions that defined turn-of-the-century capitalism. In other words, Madoff’s colossal theft might have been interpreted as a signal of the bankruptcy of an investment system that privileged, subsidized, and enriched the wealthy at the expense of the public good. Instead, it was taken as an opportunity for Jewish institutional leadership to reinforce its ability to accumulate capital.

This method of course correction is not unique to liberalism’s financial and philanthropic sectors and suggests interesting ways Berman’s research might bridge with other critical interrogations of Jewish history and liberalism. For example, dominant approaches to Holocaust memory and anti-antisemitism in the United States—more or less cosigned, and at times directed, by Jewish federations, foundations, and educational institutions—also reflect an evasion of structural failures. Just as, as Berman argues, “American and American Jewish history have long been oriented around a narrative of progress,” Nazism is typically characterized as a pathological aberration from the otherwise rational and rosy march of liberal progress in the West. And just as Madoff, or Steinhardt, are characterized as outliers, so too antisemitism—and racism in general—are often attributed to aberrant individuals plagued with “prejudice” or “hate.” Berman’s book suggests that these ideological postures are perhaps grounded in, or reinforced by, the political and material entanglement of US Jewish institutions with the liberal state. Why would crises, collapses, and ongoing contradictions register as constitutive flaws of liberal capitalism when these institutions’ very existence depends upon liberal capitalism’s self-aggrandizing narrative of progress and freedom?

Therefore, while the subject matter of Berman’s book may seem parochial, it has far-reaching implications and raises urgent questions that extend well beyond the world of American Jewish philanthropy itself. Her skillful and perceptive demonstration of American Jewish philanthropy’s development offers a case study of how philanthropy in general developed in tandem with the US state, both resolving contradictions between democracy and capitalism and producing new ones. One is left wondering if “progressive” organizations and activists funded by moneyed elites can possibly create a dent in this system. At the same time, for those implicated in the world of American Jewish philanthropy, Berman challenges them to consider how their fundraising and capital growth priorities may cloud or overdetermine their adjudication of Jewish identity and culture. And if, as Berman argues, the constitution of the Jewish Federation system reflects the overwhelming embrace of a reformist program both committed to democracy and invested in capitalism, how then might this system be implicated in the ongoing maintenance of racial capitalism?

Similarly, Berman exposes the complex web of capitalist interests and statecraft that are masked by identitarian romanticization, offering a warning of how a reductive recourse to identity and culture (“Jewish values”) can conceal structural positioning vis-a-vis the state and capital or sentimentalize capital investment. A chart Berman shares from the JLens Investor Network, for example, shows how ideas and words drawn from Jewish tradition (“Six pillars of Judaism’s framework of mitzvot”) are used to ornament—and perhaps ‘depoliticize’— investor advocacy priorities. This chart comes in Berman’s concluding chapter on “Reform,” which offers “three snapshots” of those working to reform American Jewish philanthropy within the confines of US democracy and capitalism. This denouement felt somewhat deflated, if only because Berman had by this point delivered such a devastating, systemic critique of the trifecta of democracy, capitalism, and philanthropy. How can this system possibly be reformed without large-scale reforms in political economy? And what kinds of non-reformist alternatives are there?

The book also raises a number of questions that will require research beyond Berman’s stated scope. Setting out to challenge exceptionalist accounts of US Jewish history, the book nonetheless remains more or less temporally and spatially restricted to the United States (with some consideration of the state of Israel’s role therein). More work is needed to comparatively consider the historical development of US Jewish institutions and state relationships with the myriad political and economic arrangements with which Jews and Jewish communities engaged with the state before the constitution of the United States. For example, how did traditional Ashkenazi and Sephardic structures of mutual aid and redistribution influence the associational forms developed in the United States? And, given that Jewish people and Jewishness itself far exceed the borders of the liberal nation-state, a transnational historical frame is necessary to integrate Berman’s expert examination with Jewish histories elsewhere. Berman argues that the history of the American Jewish philanthropic complex is “a very specific story” about how the US state “repositioned Jewish communal institutions into state actors.” Yet the long and ongoing state regulation of Jewish communal institutions in, say, France—and their increasingly deputized role in wars against so-called “Islamist extremism”—suggest there is a transnational story to tell about Jewish history and liberal statecraft. France seems especially ripe for comparison given that Jewish collectives have been long subjected to state discipline and regulation (i.e. the Consistoire Central Israélite de France) yet associationalism remains anathema to Republican ideologies of universalism and nationalism. 

The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex signals a critical reorientation for Jewish Studies as a whole, contributing to a renewed confrontation with liberal statecraft. The first step in such a confrontation, as Berman’s masterful research demonstrates, is the illumination of the liberal state itself. In our era of what the late Mark Fisher named “capitalist realism”—the overwhelming sense that the given political and economic system has no alternative—Berman denaturalizes the liberal state and thereby Jewish integration within it. Such a confrontation complicates public discourse vis-a-vis US Jews, which increasingly emphasizes the evils of illiberal antisemitism. But such a confrontation is necessary as the increasing inability of liberal democracy to curb and reduce capitalist inequality—and all of its intertwined ecological, racial, and medical effects—become increasingly impossible to ignore.

-Ben Ratskoff

Ben Ratskoff is a scholar, writer, and teacher based in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Jewish Studies Quarterly and Studies in American Jewish Literature as well as in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Truthout, and Jewish Currents. He is founder and editor-in-chief of the online publication PROTOCOLS.

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