When humanitarian crisis strikes around the world, the ensuing dilemmas that Israel and the Jewish People face highlight a central issue in the discussion of Jewish Peoplehood. Social ills such as poverty and homelessness, as well as global crises such as the recent genocide in Darfur, challenge the Jewish community to stand up and assist fellow human beings. However, there are two competing responses to this humanitarian challenge: one is that the value of kindness is paramount, and should be extended to non-Jews, and the second is that kindness only belongs "in-house."
This debate, which has occupied Jewish leaders -- religious and political -- for centuries if not millennia, reflects two competing notions about the Divine mission of the Jewish People. Although the precept of "ani'ei irkha" (that the poor of your city comes first) has widespread acceptance within the Jewish community, it is arguably a fallacious misrepresentation of core Jewish values, masking stronger historical support for a Jewish duty to engage in global humanitarian assistance. The original usage of the phrase "ani'ei irkha" refers to a specific form of economic triage, when one only has enough money to lend a single person and has to make difficult choices. While acknowledging that life sometimes presents thorny problems, the original text was perhaps never intended to suggest that one should completely avoid assisting non- Jewish poor people. Unfortunately, that is how the precept is often interpreted today. This troubling interpretation has become an underlying if unspoken element of some versions of Jewish Peoplehood which view the goal of Peoplehood as bolstering an insular fortitude rather than exploring a moralethical stance vis-a-vis the rest of the world.