2019-07-22 | JIMENA in the Press

Disagreements and Decisions: Natan’s 2019-2020 Grants

July 21, 2019  |  By Felicia Herman

Change My Mind: How We Make Decisions

In my ongoing effort to try to understand the dismaying and hurtful divisiveness of our current cultural and political moment, I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, a masterful analysis of a vast amount of scientific literature on how people form moral judgements and “why good people are divided by politics and religion.”

I wasn’t expecting – though I also wasn’t surprised by – Haidt’s argument that groups made up of people with diverse viewpoints are more effective and rational decision-makers than individuals:

We must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason…each individual reasoner is good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons…[and] particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play.  But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. (105)  

This has been exactly my experience at Natan (the giving circle I’ve been privileged to be part of for over 16 years) – as well as in the collaborative process that we used to engage dozens of stakeholders in co-designing Amplifier, the now-independent network of giving circles inspired by Jewish values that Natan launched in 2014 with funding from the Schusterman Foundation, and in a similar process that Amplifier and four other American giving circle networks are leading to design backbone infrastructure for American giving circles, with funding from the Gates Foundation and several others.  

We’ve learned a lot at Natan over this past year of grantmaking, as we always do, but I have to say that as the world seems more and more divided, with more demonization of the Other (as opposed to good, old-fashioned civil disagreement), it feels more important to me than ever that Natan and other giving circles are places where a community of people who care about each other come together to do good in the world together, not ignoring their differences but literally strengthened by their differences.  Although there’s much that differentiates the people in these circles, they come together over what they have in common, build trusting and affectionate bonds with each other, and are thus able to use their diverse perspectives not as wedges that divide, but as assets that strengthen group thinking. 

Viewpoint diversity was baked into Natan’s DNA from the start, and is in fact what drew me to the organization in the first place: I loved that each time someone around a grantmaking table spoke, they changed my mind.  Natan’s members are all over the map politically (progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans); they have widely different Jewish backgrounds and current Jewish practices; they are in different personal situations; they work in different industries; and some are raising their children and/or volunteering full-time.  They bring widely different experiences and perspectives to their decision-making.  

We didn’t set out to create this – we just built a community and a culture that is warm and connected, and that welcomes curiosity, learning and debate.  We also intentionally try to flatten relationships between our members (ie “funders”), grantees, and other nonprofits, further diversifying perspectives and strengthening our thinking by helping the different “sides” to understand the other and to learn from their different experiences.    

The philanthropic sector has long understood the power of collective giving – through giving circles, donor collaboratives, teen and women’s foundations, etc.  But while we’ve analyzed the additional leverage, efficiency, and impact that collective giving can have, I’m not sure we’ve fully appreciated how much wiser, more connected, and more human this kind of giving can be than individual giving or more transactional fundraising.  There is tremendous, inherent, but often unarticulated value in the connections between people and across perspectives that these kinds of initiatives create.  Even groups that visually look homogeneous – because most people are one race, religion, gender – can actually be deeply diverse in other ways, and this heterogeneity, however it manifests itself, can be a core strength.

As public discourse seems to devolve further every day into polarization and demonization, I’ve come to believe even more strongly in the importance of creating more sites where people can come together, be curious, learn from each other and from subject-area experts and practitioners, change each other’s minds, and collectively make wise and intentional choices together about the change they want to see in the world.  We need more places in our communities where we can break down silos, welcome disagreements, test and examine new ideas, take risks, and change our minds. We’re blessed to be doing this at Natan year after year, and we or the good people at Amplifier would be happy to talk to anyone about it who wants to learn more.


What We’re Supporting

As they usually do, Natan’s grant committees took a portfolio approach to their grantmaking over this past year, believing in building diverse fields of initiatives, often working in concert with each other, to test out new approaches and to bring new vision to old challenges.  The unifying thread between all of our committees, as always, was a willingness to take prudent risks, to fund innovative ideas and invest in talented leadership, to support general operating expenses whenever possible, and to “go first” in providing institutional support for emerging organizations.     
What follows is a summary of our 2019-2020 grants; for more information on all of the grantees, see the Natan website.

Confronting Antisemitism

In its third year of operations, Natan’s Confronting Antisemitism committee continued its strategy of supporting a variety of approaches to addressing antisemitism in all of its modern manifestations – from “the left” and “the right,” in different sectors of society, and targeting different audiences, both Jewish and not.  About ⅔ of the committee’s grantmaking over time has been focused on combating the demonization and delegitimization of Israel, which we believe strongly is a complicated, extensive, and existentially dangerous form of contemporary antisemitism. Many of our grantees work in different ways to present a nuanced, realistic understanding of Israel as “a real place on the planet Earth,” as journalist Matti Friedman has memorably said – not the mythological, idealized or demonized, place of newspaper headlines and politicized shouting matches.  We’re not in the least bit afraid of criticism of Israel – in fact, all of our grants in Israel are investments in solving Israel’s core challenges.  (Meeting with Israeli grant applicants is just hearing criticism of Israel all day long, in a way.)  However, we want to understand and shine a light on that murky area where criticizing Israel becomes antisemitism.  In essence we’re following Natan Sharansky’s “3D” test of antisemitism: when criticism of Israel delegitimizes or demonizes it, or holds the country to double standards relative to other countries.     

This year we’re proud to again support A Wider Bridge (LGBTQ), Academic Engagement Network (campus), Creative Community for Peace (entertainment industry), and Fuente Latina (Spanish-language media), and to add Zioness (political activism) to this area of the portfolio.  Each of these organizations is working in a different sector to provide nuanced information about and connections to Israel, and to counter the increasingly prevalent notion that progressivism and Zionism are incompatible.  When this idea emerges – on campuses, in LGBTQ spaces, in political activism, in the media, or elsewhere – it tends to reflect ignorance about what Zionism actually is, about Israel’s past and present, about Jewish history, and about the unique historical and geopolitical contexts that fundamentally differentiate Israel from the liberal, Western countries in which this idea tends to emerge.  

Although no discussion of contemporary antisemitism can be divorced from conversations about Israel, the committee is also proud to support organizations that are tackling more traditional and recognizable forms of antisemitism based in ignorance and stereotypes about – and sometimes animus toward – Jews.  We’re supporting Asylum Arts to bring British Jewish artists together to discuss Jewish identity in the context of current British antisemitism and anti-Israelism; the replication of the JCRC of St. Louis’s Student to Student program, which brings pluralist teams of Jewish teens to speak to their peers about Judaism and Jewish life; renewing our grant for Jimena’s Arab Outreach Initiative, which is using the internet to bring the untold – and mistold – history of Jews of the Middle East and North Africa to millions of Arabic speakers around the world; Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom’s new efforts to bring Jewish and Muslim teenage girls together to connect and fight hatred; and the Western States Center’s efforts to educate prominent US progressive leaders about antisemitism in all of its forms. WSC is the first non-Jewish American organization that Natan has supported. We’ve learned a lot from its visionary Executive Director, Eric Ward, who has argued that antisemitism forms the foundation and fuel of white nationalism and is a core threat to inclusive democracy.