Understanding American Jewish Philanthropy

Book review of The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex by Lila Corwin Berman

Sam Bahour
9 min readOct 20, 2020

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Throughout history, the American Jewish community has had a lot to be rightfully proud of. Their dedication to Jewish communal life, their commitment to education, their organizing and lobbying skills, and their sustained investment in Jewish-focused media outlets, are just a few. Much of the individual and institutional successes across a myriad of domains can be attributed to what seems to outsiders as an abundance of funds, at times thought to be retrieved from a bottomless pit.

If you are like me, you are always seeking funding support for one project or another. In my case, very rarely are the projects my own. Fundraising is hard work, regardless of its purpose. Fundraise long enough and you start to learn that it is an industry, like most other domains, but very few people have the wherewithal and persistence to dig deep into the black box of how the mechanics of fundraising developed and exists in today’s world. Professor and Author Lila Corwin Berman clearly does not fit that description. She just released a book titled, The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: The History of a Multibillion-Dollar Institution, which is a fascinating read.

The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex
By Lila Corwin Berman
Princeton University Press, 2020, 280 pp, $42.00

I picked up this book with four distinct interests in mind. First, as an American citizen, I genuinely want to understand how this relatively small Jewish minority in the US came to wield so much financial power, particularly as it relates to the realm of politics. Second, as a Palestinian living under Israeli military occupation, I continually seek to educate myself on why and how the American Jewish community blindly supports the worst that Israel has to offer, such as the internationally-condemned and blatantly illegal settlement enterprise, just to name one. Third, as someone active in civil society who has a role in both grant-making organizations, such as the Open Society Foundations, as well as in efforts that require significant fundraising, such as Just Vision’s new “Untitled Free Speech” documentary, I’m always seeking how this funding industry works…

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