The Israel Prize, the Jewish state’s highest civilian honor, is awarded each year on Independence Day to individuals and, occasionally, institutions that have made outstanding contributions to Israeli society. Each year’s award list a snapshot in time of Israel’s self-image, its sense at that moment in history of what it thinks it should be.
This year, for the first time ever, the Israel Prize will be awarded to a Diaspora Jewish institution, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The award panel singled out the committee’s Israel branch, JDC-Israel, to receive the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State of Israel. “Since its founding, JDC-Israel has been involved in developing services for populations in need during times of peace and times of crisis,” the panel wrote.
The award to the Joint is one of several selections this year that, seen together, show a society yearning to recapture an embattled dream of innocence and idealism. Most tellingly, the prize for music will go to Gevatron, a beloved troupe of singing farmers from Kibbutz Geva who keep alive the pioneering culture of Israel’s youth, from the days of “Tzena Tzena.” The prize for literature and culture goes to our colleague and sometime contributor Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot, universally known as Israel’s most influential journalist, who has written with passion and compassion for four decades about prime ministers and foot soldiers, settlers, peaceniks and greengrocers.
Perhaps most important, a lifetime achievement award will go to Alice Shalvi, the octogenarian pioneer of religious education for girls who has become the living symbol of Jewish feminism and its worldwide, uphill struggle.
But of all these, none makes a bolder statement than the award to the Joint Distribution Committee. Formed in 1916, the Joint has been for nearly a century the embodiment of American Jewry’s dedication to rescue and relief of suffering fellow Jews around the world. Its original purpose was to coordinate the distribution of aid to European Jewish communities devastated by World War I. Three separate relief campaigns had been launched, by labor unions, Orthodox synagogues and the wealthy German Jews of “Our Crowd.” The Joint was meant to be a single mechanism for getting the aid most efficiently to the war zone; its uniquely American genius was to work with and through the community’s existing factions, rather than trying to erase them or force them into one tent. The joint-distribution idea worked so brilliantly that within a decade the three relief campaigns had agreed to combine their fundraising efforts, as well, creating the nucleus for what would eventually become the United Jewish Appeal.
Over the generations, the Joint’s structure and mission have evolved with the changing fortunes of the Jewish people. During the 1920s, it helped Russian Jewish communities ravaged by revolution and civil war. In the 1930s, it became a lifeline for Jews under Nazism. After the war, it assumed the monumental task of running displaced persons camps, caring for millions of Holocaust survivors awaiting new lives.
After 1948, the Joint’s work was overshadowed by the vastly more dramatic tasks of its UJA partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel. While the Jewish Agency built a new state and absorbed a million refugees, the Joint continued quietly feeding the forgotten Jews left behind in a hundred towns from Casablanca to Shanghai. In time, too, the Joint began operating in Israel, seeking out neglected constituencies that fell between the cracks of Israel’s political system: children at risk, long-term unemployed, struggling Ethiopian youth. Free of politics and run by American management rules, JDC-Israel has become the standard-setter for Israel’s fast-growing not-for-profit sector.
In recognizing the Joint, Israel honors not only its social service sector but also its overlooked partnership with the Jewish Diaspora. We can all take pride in the Joint’s achievement — and ours.