Dignity First: Wisdom on Disaster Response in the Torah and Today

Just Thought is a series of essays from AJWS applying Jewish wisdom to the pursuit of tikkun olam today. Drawing upon Jewish history, Torah sources and the latest headlines, we plumb pressing questions about human rights and global justice from a Jewish perspective through monthly essays by noted scholars, activists and AJWS staff.

I was recently talking to Sam Wolthuis, Director of Humanitarian Response at AJWS, about the food crisis taking place in East Africa today, which has unfortunately receded from the headlines. With a slight quiver in her voice, Sam turned to me and said, “I cannot believe that people are still dying of starvation in 2017.”

Today, humanitarian response at AJWS includes supporting communities recovering from the earthquake in Mexico City, aiding the Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing in Burma, and responding to the East Africa crisis. That disaster—which has devastated South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and other countries—was caused by the worst drought in 60 years, combined with ongoing violent conflict over land, power and resources. Drought in the north and east regions of Kenya has left 3.4 million people in need of food aid and clean water. In South Sudan, half of the population—approximately 6 million people—continues to face a hunger crisis, even though the rains and seasonal flooding have finally arrived after several parched years. And over two million refugees—82% of them women and children—have fled from South Sudan to Uganda in the past year alone.

When we hear about such a crisis, many of us have an impulse to send food from the U.S. directly to those who need it. But Sam explained that it’s not that simple. While there are times when sending food saves lives, this practice can also hinder the recipients’ ability to rebuild their economy and independence.

With this in mind, AJWS is sending direct cash assistance to local grassroots organizations who distribute the funds to vulnerable populations so that they can buy food, medicine and other things they need. This allows people to make their own choices about their needs and engage in the recovery process with dignity. As Sam explained:

“Cash transfer gives people back some of the choice and control they often lose in a crisis. It allows them to determine what they need most, rather than having the humanitarian system determine their needs. It also stimulates local economies, supports local agriculture, helps build trust between the affected communities and humanitarian aid workers, and enables the response to be more efficient and effective.”

Hearing about this, I instantly thought of a section of the Talmud in which the sages teach: when we help someone get back on their feet after they’ve lost their wealth or possessions, we are obligated to provide for the standard of life that they were used to before the calamity. For example: someone accustomed to riding a horse with a servant running before it must be given a horse and servant; someone accustomed to dinners of fatty meat and wine must be given those luxuries.1

This is a startling conclusion—that we must return wealth to the rich—but the principle it is teaching is profound. The Talmud is as concerned for the person’s dignity as it is for their basic needs. People facing hardship are not mere victims who need only basic needs met; they’re complex human beings feeling profound trauma for all they have lost. In recognizing that deprivation is a relative experience, the Talmud tasks us with focusing on the individual and what it will take to return their basic dignity, which loss so often threatens to strip away.

Anita Cheria, an expert on disaster response, explains the importance of focusing on dignity:

“Even during disasters, people are acutely conscious of their dignity. The constant refrain—from the earthquake in Gujarat to the South Asian Tsunami—was that ‘we are not beggars.’ The mountains of affluent middle-class ‘donated’ clothing discarded by the victims on the streets of the affected towns and villages confirm that assertion. Even in the midst of despair, they did not want second-hand clothing. They were disaster affected, but they were not beggars. They did not want charity, but they wanted support to become self-sufficient again.”2

In keeping with our mission to support human rights and end poverty in the developing world, at AJWS we have adopted a “rights-based approach” to our disaster response and relief work. By supporting recovery efforts led by local people who know how to best assist their own communities, deploy donated funds, and protect human rights, we reaffirm the dignity of every person affected by disasters.

We also prioritize support for local grassroots groups that work to meet the unique needs of historically oppressed or overlooked communities, including women, ethnic minorities, indigenous groups, LGBTI people, people living with disabilities, the elderly and people living in remote areas.

Cheria explains that a rights-based approach to disaster response ensures that “the response is not biased, the relief is not exclusionary, the rehabilitation is inclusive and the reconstruction is equitable.”3 These are the basic building blocks of preserving dignity in a crisis.

Elizabeth Ferris of the Brookings Institute echoes the idea that “people shouldn’t lose their basic human rights when a disaster occurs.”4 According to Ferris, this means thinking about those affected by the disaster as people, not bundles of need. It requires asking them what would be sustaining in this moment, and addressing their human dignity, not just their need for food or shelter. This means making sure families can stay together as a unit; making sure aid isn’t distributed in ways that create or perpetuate discrimination; ensuring that when marginal groups flee from disasters they can reclaim their homes and land when they return; and ensuring that everyone has access to work that will allow them to support themselves and flourish as they recover.

This is an expression of the highest rung on Maimonides’s “ladder of charity,”5 which lays out a spectrum of aid that ranges from giving resentfully to providing the opportunity for someone to support themselves. In a rights-based approach to disaster response, whether responding to food insecurity in East Africa or the plight of the Rohingya in Burma, we look to support the whole person and to help communities become more resilient, more self-sufficient, and better prepared in case tragedy strikes again. This ensures that human dignity is always at the top of our list of priorities as we come to the aid of those in greatest need.

1 See Ketubot 67b. See parallel texts in Sifrei Devarim 116, and codification in Mishne Torah, Gifts to the Poor 7:3 and Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 250:1.
Anita Cheria, “A Human Rights Approach to Disasters” http://openspace.org.in/disaster
3 Cheria, “A Human Rights Approach to Disasters”
4 Elizabeth Ferris, “A Human Rights-Based Approach and District Disaster Management Plans” https://www.brookings.edu/articles/a-human-rights-based-approach-and-district-disaster-management-plans/
Mishne Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14

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