Defining Charity

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While Palestinians continue to battle each other for control of Gaza, another battle involving Hamas is taking place on American soil.

In my hometown of Richardson, Texas (a suburb of Dallas), seven leaders of the Holy Land Foundation are on trial for allegedly sending more than $12 million to support Hamas, over more than a decade. The defendants say they were simply sending aid to distressed brethren.

What interests me most about this case is not the question of funding a terrorist group, but what legal experts have pointed out as the crucial question on which the case rests–defining traditional Islamic charity.

Islam itself comprises five main tenants or pillars:

  • Iman, faith
  • Salah, prayer
  • Zakah, charity
  • Sawm, fasting
  • Hajj, pilgrimage

Some scholars will argue that jihad, personal sacrifice, is a sixth pilar.

Zakah works similarly to old forms of tzedakah (they both come from the same etymological root). People contribute to communal charity funds that then allocate money to those in need. Giving is mandatory. Traditionally the amount given is a percentage of one’s earning, a tithe.

The Holy Land Foundation gave money to zakats, funds, that were allegedly controlled by Hamas. Prosecutors themselves agree that the money did go to needy Palestinians. The problem, however, is that this freed up other funds for Hamas to use in its campagin of terrorism.

“Defense attorneys are expected to argue that the zakat committees that Holy Land sent money to, supposedly in violation of U.S. law prohibiting support of a designated terrorist organization, are not even on the government’s list of banned entities. They are legitimate charity committees, registered with Palestinian governments, attorneys have said.” (MORE)

There have been times in U.S. history when giving to Israeli causes was considered suspicious. While we have moved past that era, I believe that the results of this trial will have a lasting effect on those who support causes in the Middle East, both legitimate and not. How it will affect philanthropy remains to be seen.

Posted on August 1, 2007

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