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  • The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex in the Age of Trump
  • Lila Corwin Berman (bio)

In the past, I have concluded a lecture about American Jewish philanthropy with a plea for a reinvigorated public: "Where are the people?" If listeners have stuck with me this far, through my explanations of tax-law reform in the late 1960s and of the emergence of new financial vehicles for holding and investing philanthropic capital, then they know just where I am going. Tax policy, investment and endowment practices, and financial language have empowered the philanthropic sector, and especially its biggest donors, to act with only the most perfunctory regard for the public. And yet, dollar for dollar, the state and the public subsidize American philanthropy through tax deductions and exemptions. So instead of feeling cowed by altruism, I tell my listeners, you should feel empowered as an owner of American philanthropy to demand transparency and speak out when you think it is not doing the right thing.

Living today in a country that elected Donald Trump to its highest public office, I worry that my call for the public to take back some of the power it has granted to the philanthropic sector may be misguided and even dangerous. My pre-Trump understanding of the historical formation of the American public and philanthropy (and the Jewish subsector of each) may be inadequate in this new era of Trump. Below, I sketch the frameworks that have guided my research into Jewish philanthropy and explain how Trump's election has caused me to reassess them. Most important, I question whether the critical [End Page 193] apparatus I have embraced to understand philanthropic practices as reinforcing state-assisted inequality has a place in Trump's America, where the state could grow so large and all-powerful or shrink so far into nonexistence that we will long for the imperfections of the twentieth-century American state.

Others may relate to my new habit of constantly marking things as pre-Trump or post-Trump. Such stark divisions of time are flawed heuristics. Still, I find it difficult to think about my own research any other way. Thus, even as I cannot avoid framing this essay around the turning point of Trump's election, I suggest we work to undermine such chronological neatness. In the end, we should not cede control over time—that is, over our fundamental narratives of ourselves—to Trump.


Pre-Trump, I had developed the following understanding of the historical formation of the American Jewish public and its political economy in relation to the American state: The American Jewish public takes its form from the "associational" realm of American political organization. Nineteenth-century religious disestablishment laws, passed state by state, played a fundamental role in defining associations as state-maintained structures to connect a diversity of collectives to the workings of the state. States crafted incorporation laws to regulate the shape of corporate, that is, associational, life. In addition to incorporation law, tax policies enabled states to discipline and encourage associationalism. For example, states offered religious groups property-tax exemptions in return for their adherence to state-mandated forms. These regulatory practices extended into multiple domains of American life, as benevolent societies, fraternal organizations, educational agencies, and others incorporated and benefited from property-tax exemptions in return for their service to the public good.1

A contract between the state and its many associations rests at the base of American pluralism and provides one of the foundations of American democracy. The practices of state-based associationalism have enabled our country to aspire to support a diversity of institutions and regulate them only in form and not in substance. Courts of law have relied upon such an understanding of the relationship between the state and its associations to defend freedom of conscience within institutions so long as they abide by the structures of the state.

At the same time, the state's chosen method of exercising power in associational life through tax expenditures has calcified certain [End Page 194] patterns of inequality.2 Because states and eventually the federal government used taxation as its primary means of regulating associational life, the shortcomings of tax code became...


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