Mollie Gerver

CEO in Jewish Agency: Don’t Volunteer in Africa

Dr. Misha Galperin, the president and CEO of international development for The Jewish Agency for Israel, is worried about securing Jewish continuity.  One solution is to encourage Jewish service learning programs in Israel, where participants spend an extended amount of time volunteering and learning in Israel. He cites a report by Repair the World and The Jewish Agency for Israel, which found that participants in service learning programs in Israel felt a stronger sense of Jewish identity from such programs. Further, he questions those who view Jewish service learning in Israel as parochial, by citing one of the report’s findings: ‘The experience intensified participants’ commitment to making the world a better place as human beings rather than simply as Jews.’

Dr. Galperin provides a strong argument for volunteering in Israel. Yet, he concludes with the following advice: ‘You don’t have to go to Chile or Kenya to make a difference in the world. You can come home and take care of our own family.’ The headline of his piece is: ‘Come to Israel, not Africa – and Stay Awhile.’

These types of statements are precisely what make many Jews uncomfortable about engaging in the Jewish community, or engaging in activities that define them as Jews.  If being Jewish is about helping Jews before others, and if others seem more in need, and if one believes that those more in need ought to be helped first, then being Jewish seems less pertinent.

On the one hand, the fact that participants of Jewish service learning in Israel left Israel with a sense of commitment to helping the world, in general, is a powerful indicator that commitment to a people is not mutually exclusive with commitment to humanity. Yet, volunteers anywhere may be committed to ‘making the world a better place as human beings.’ The findings did not compare these findings with experiences of service learning volunteers in other countries. Further, and more important for those interested in international development, a person feeling that they are committed to making the world a better place ‘as humans rather than simply as Jews’ does not mean they actually will make the world a better place.  If actually going to Chile or Kenya will help more, then that is a very good reason not to choose to volunteer in Israel. Any discussion on  international development must touch upon the value of results, and not only commitment.

In the 2010-2011 academic year, I was a Joint-Distribution Committee (JDC) Jewish Service Corp volunteer in Rwanda.  In 2009, as a debate coach in Israel, and a coordinator for English language learning for African refugees in Jerusalem, I hoped to see if I could be of any help in another country, and learn from other educators in another country. After landing in Kigali, and heading to the Eastern Province, it soon became clear that the extreme lack of English teachers in Rwanda meant that even minimal help in English was extremely useful. One primary school teacher, whose English was almost flawless, said that he would just look for foreign volunteers and start talking to them, and soon enough he became fluent. Teachers would stop me on the road, eager to practice their English, and twenty minute conversations several times a week, combined with a few books I could lend them, lead to improvements in their English which lead to improvements in their students’ English. The amount of improvement from my twenty minute chats while walking home was probably of greater help than hours of debate coaching in Israel. In a country just now obtaining 100% food security, education is key. In a country that lacks resources and fluent English speakers to obtain this key resource, volunteering helps in ways unimaginable.

I am not sure I left Rwanda with a greater commitment to making the world a better place as a person, rather than a Jew. I am sure, however, that if someone were to tell me that I really ought to spend more time in Israel, as a Jew, rather than Rwanda, as a person, a small part of me might question why I ought to identify as a Jew.  This is not to say I do not feel Jewish: as a Jewish-American who lived in Israel from age fourteen to twenty-four, spending my formative years there in high school, the army, university, and work, I feel that what happens in Israel is important, and what happens to Jews is important. This is not something I can control; just as I care about my cousin getting married and my nephew taking his first steps, the cognitive energy I put into caring about Israel and Jews is greater, whether I like it or not. Yet, ‘Not Africa,’ is precisely the type of slogan that makes me question the values which many Jews say they are committed to, and which makes me question why I should care about affiliation if affiliation is based on these values. If I had not lived in Israel, I would not be thinking of whether I ought to care; I would perhaps just not care.

Going ‘home’ rather than ‘Africa’ paints a simplistic view of home and an exotic view of Africa which, for many Jews, is home.  The juxtaposition of ‘home’ versus ‘Africa’ is the type of divisive language that pushes some Jews away from affiliation with Jews and the Jewish state.  Not only does this language suggest that Jews are more important, when many Jews don’t feel or want to feel more important, but it raises questions about the type of policies that arise from viewing Israel and Jews as more important. The recent deportation of thousands of Sudanese in Israel, and the continuing threat of a mass deportation of Eritrean refugees in Israel, already raises questions about some of the values that nationalist political camps in Israel espouse to.  Such deportations are wrong not because Israel is not a Jewish home; such deportations are wrong because feeling a part of one’s home is compatible with feeling part of humanity. It is this feeling of being part of humanity that often necessitates going to countries that are not quite home, but are a type of extended family. In many ways, this is precisely the message that Dr. Galperin hopes to promote. Yet, by asking that Jews go to Israel and not another country, this message of compatibility between peoplehood and humanity is weakened, thus weakening the ties of many Jews with Israel.

Perhaps helping one’s ‘own family’ first does have its merits and, if Jews feel that Israeli is like family, they should get to know Israel more and help Israel more. Since the dawn of man and woman, philosophers have been debating the moral obligations one has to one’s community, oneself, and to strangers one has never met. If you need to choose between saving the life of your own family member over the life of a stranger, most would solidly agree that you are permitted – and perhaps obligated – to save you own family member first. Therefore, taking ‘care of our own family’ is not necessarily a problematic value. The problem arises, however, when ‘taking care of our own family’ is viewed as mutually exclusive with engaging with the wider world. The headline ‘Come to Israel, Not Africa’ encompasses this mutual exclusivity.  More worryingly, the problem arises when one’s religion or people is viewed as one’s only family. For those who view humanity as a type of extended family, ‘coming home’ to Israel, and not going to volunteer or work in another country, feels offensive. It feels parochial and insular, even if participants in service learning programs in Israel do not feel parochial or insular.

Dr. Galperin is an accomplished scholar, a thoughtful leader, and himself an immigrant who understands the complexity of being Jewish. His comments portray the benefits of a nuanced understanding of Israel, and how the sense of commitment for Israel, despite the complexity that is only apparent from living in Israel, can translate into a greater commitment to helping humanity, in general. Yet, ‘Not Africa’ is the type of slogan that lacks the type of nuance that Dr. Galperin hopes to promote within Israel, and which makes some Jews question the value of Jewish continuity.

About the Author
Mollie Gerver is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics where she researches the repatriation and resettlement of African migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Israel.