Tikkun's Questions on Jewish Social Responsibility

Tikkun, September/October 1997 | Go to article overview

Tikkun's Questions on Jewish Social Responsibility


As we face the High Holy Day season we are interested in our communal responsibility for Jews who are acting in ethically or environmentally destructive ways in their business lives.

Do we as a community have a responsibility to confront or publicly challenge this behavior? Does it matter whether they are actively affiliated with the Jewish community or not? Should we use a higher standard of responsibility if these people are donors to the Jewish community? What if they have used the money earned in businesses which are acting in ethically questionable ways to purchase positions of influence in the Jewish world-by becoming the indispensable benefactors of Jewish institutions? For example, we have the case this past year of Edgar Bronfman 's Seagram's liquor company announcing that it is going to break the decadesold policy of liquor companies voluntarily refraining from buying advertising on television to influence teenagers to drink hard liquor As it turned out, the television companies refused to sell the advertising time, but the intent was clear, and arguably would have resulted in more automobile accidents and more alcohol abuse. Yet Edgar Bronfman's money was decisive in obtaining for him the position of chair of the World Jewish Congress, and he is one of the most widely quoted leaders in the Jewish world today. To the rest of the world, Bronfman's actions are seen as quintessential expressions of what the Jewish world does, so should we be surprised if the rest of the world responds by believing that "the Jews are trying to spread more involvement with alcohol"? More relevant, do we as Jews have an even greater responsibility for the business practices of those who are speaking in our name, shaping our communal life, or in other ways acting as our representatives? Does the issue change if part of the monies earned in unethical businesses is then donated to our community for use in ethical ways? Suppose, for example, that the tobacco company executive donates part of his profits to supporting a lung-cancer clinic? Or Bronfman supports a detox program for alcoholics? Or the Jewish community uses the monies donated for some other good purpose?

What are the boundaries of this responsibility? For example, some might argue that we have responsibility for what our leaders or representatives are doing in their public lives in the economy or in politics but not for their private lives (e.g. whether they are having extramarital affairs). If we do take responsibility for other Jews or for Jewish leaders, and feel the right to confront them, what are the dimensions or limits of that responsibility?

EDITH AND HENRY EVERETT

New York-based philanthropists

There is no such thing as Business Ethics, Legal Ethics, etc. There is just ETHICS. A human being is, basically, ethical or not ethical. This outlook dominates every activity in which he or she is involved.

Too, we witness that most people regard ethics as relative; they discuss ethics as negotiable, flexible, and malleable. We also note with frustration the almost universal equation of what is legal with what is moral. It is almost impossible to dispel this notion. This is particularly true of those who wish to rationalize the appointment of tobacco tycoons to presidencies and chairmen of charitable organizations. Slavery,Jim Crow, and other societal disasters have been (and are) legal. One recent example is the appointment of James Tish to the presidency of the Jewish Federation of New York. Tish is also president and CEO of the Loews Corporation which owns the Lorilland tobacco company.

We have actively criticized varieties of religious and charitable organizations for honoring those who prey upon society We oppose those who elevate polluters, slumlords, and owners of substandard nursing homes, as examples. As a paradigm, we have paid the most attention to the genuflection of these organizations to the celebrity, power, and money of tobacco industry executives. …

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