In early 1991, days before the United States’ January 15 deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, an Israeli newspaper commented that war must be coming because Israelis are being nice to each other.
Hamas’ attack on Israel’s south has restored a global sense of Jewish solidarity. From the wide scale volunteerism across the Jewish sectors in Israel, to the hosting of families from the south by families in the center and north, to non-Israeli Jews offering financial and political support, it has revived a long held practice of Jews assisting other Jews in time of need, across geographic and internal divides, without central authority.
The Bible itself held the Israelites communally responsible. In the biblical story of the conquering of Canaan, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh were required to contribute fighters despite their desire to remain east of the Jordan River. The Bible lists numerous rules to assist the marginalized. The idea of communal responsibility is perhaps best represented by the statement in the Babylonian Talmud Shavuot 39a, “the entire Jewish people are considered guarantors for one another.”
Dating back to antiquity, in peacetime, Jews assisted other Jews across borders. During the Second Temple Period, Jews across the provinces of the Roman Empire contributed a temple tax. After the temple was destroyed, Jews supported the Nasi, the prince, the designated representative of the broader community, and later supported the yeshivas in Babylon. But it is in time of need where the Jewish willingness to assist those in dire straits is truly notable.
In the Middle Ages, the community of Alexandria kept a dedicated fund for ransoming captives taken by pirates. Abraham ibn Daud’s Sefer HaQabbala tells a story of four rabbis collecting for the yeshivas in Babylon who were taken captive by pirates and each redeemed by different communities in North Africa. The Yeven Metzulah record of the Chmielnicki Uprising tells of 20,000 Jews being saved by the Jewish communities of Constantinople, Salonika and Venice.
Jews helped those who were expelled from their homelands. After the Alhambra Decree ordering the expulsion or conversion of Spain’s Jews, when Jews were forced to sell their assets at fire sale prices, robbed by the crews of vessels meant to bring them to safety or oppressed at their ports of disembarkation, per the account of an Italian Jew, the Jews of Northern Africa were very charitable to the expelled, and at Naples, the Jews gave the new arrivals food and arranged their dispersal to other communities and even Marranos there lent them money without interest. More than a century later, Jews who had lived as crypto-Jews were re-absorbed by the communities of Amsterdam and Hamburg.
In more recent centuries, Jews have helped raise awareness and bring political pressure to bear on behalf of Jews facing injustices around the globe. The 1840 Damascus Blood Libel accusations galvanized the nascent American Jewish community and marked a watershed moment in Jewish engagement in political affairs, leading to the founding of the B’nai Brith organization. The Kishinev Pogrom in 1903 drew attention to the maltreatment of Jews in the Russian Empire and the Beilis Trial brought Jewish support from Europe and the United States on behalf of the accused.
The willingness to help other Jews has crossed internal divides. During the First Crusade, the Karaite Jewish community of Ashkelon helped arrange for the rescue of Jewish captives and books, including the Aleppo Codex that is today housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, taken by Raymond of Toulouse. With the waves of mass immigration to the United States in 1881-1921 by Jews fleeing Eastern and Central Europe, Reform Jews in the United States helped the more traditional Eastern European Jews settle by providing assistance, including language instruction and job training, and even saved the Jewish Theological Seminary as an institution better designed to cater to the more traditionally inclined new Jewish immigrants. The American Joint Distribution Committee, originally established to provide aid to Jews in Palestine but then in Europe and later elsewhere, was a joint project of the Reform associated American Jewish Relief Committee, the Orthodox affiliated Central Relief Committee and the socialist People’s Relief Committee.
This historical aid was given despite structural barriers for assistance. It was provided without compulsion, with no central governing authority and a limited ability to tax. It was delivered across borders and linguistic barriers. It was only motivated by as sense of common purpose and peoplehood.
May this historical value, exemplified today, continue to be a source of strength and comfort in the difficult days ahead.