The Implications of the Tent Protests for the Third Sector in Israel

by Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman

Anyone trying to understand why Israel does not have a fundraising culture needs to look no further than the tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. I know that the demonstrations are not about charity and non-profit life. But the events of these past weeks offer some vital insights into the future of the Third Sector and philanthropy in Israel.

On the most obvious level, what Israelis are saying is that they simply cannot make ends meet. I don’t know how much American Jews fully grasp the appalling status of Israelis salaries. The average monthly salary in Israel is somewhere in the range of $2000-2500 gross. Even two people working full time with those salaries, with say two or three small children and an average mortgage of $1500-2000 a month, will have a lot of difficulty meeting expenses. The newspapers these past few weeks have been filled with stories of people – highly educated, well-trained, and hard working people holding good jobs – whose living expenses are simply higher than their income. Sure, everyone has different ways to cut costs – moving to a moshav, bicycling to work, no afterschool lessons for the kids, second-hand clothes and books, never going out to eat or even ordering pizza, no cable, no second car, certainly no cleaning help and probably no gym membership, and definitely no family vacations to Europe. Instead, there is a lot of overdraft – some 80% of Israelis are living in overdraft, according to some estimates – and definitely no savings.

Understand this: no savings. When the Madoff scandal broke and his victims complained about having their life savings wiped out, many Israelis on the street could be heard saying, “Rich people’s problems”. Or, put differently, “What is this ‘life savings’ creature that you speak of?” Israelis don’t do life savings. Many don’t do pension plans either, or college funds, or kids’ savings plans, or IRAs or anything like that. Why? Because to save money, one has to actually have money to save, and Israelis who aren’t sure if they will be able to cover the makolet bill this month are not exactly putting savings plans on the top of their agendas.

So before any conversation can take place about why Israelis aren’t more forthcoming in their support of amutot, we must look at Rothschild and remember this. If a person is living month to month, has not long-term plan and no six-month cushion, and meanwhile has to choose between sending her child to music lessons or supporting an amuta for needy children, we can understand why it may be a difficult decision. Or worse – if a family has 30,000 NIS in overdraft, they probably shouldn’t be approached for donations to even the worthiest cause.

More than that, though, I think that the tent protests are raising a much deeper issue about the role of the Third Sector in Israel in general. The public is crying out that they expect to be looked after by the State. The Jewish State. Israel was built on values of socialism, in the ashes of the Holocaust and generations of Jewish oppression. There is a profound assumption in Israel that the government is the arm of the Jewish People, a kind of institutionalized kehilla, the father figure for all Jews who can know that their landsmen have their back. Health, education, and basic sustenance, the crowd is screaming out, are the responsibilities of the government. Personally, I think it’s a deep-seated, subconscious Jewish Peoplehood thing. Somewhere in our collective consciousness, we believe that the Jews are a single entity with a deeply embedded value of mutual responsibility.

The question that emerges is, why should there even be a third sector in Israel? Why should there be 45,000 amutot filling in the gaps that the government has left open? Why should hospitals have entire wings named after donors? Why should schools have amutot for collecting funds for Jewish identity programming? Shouldn’t all schools and all hospitals have everything that they need? Shouldn’t the government be ensuring that there are enough ambulances and computers in classrooms for everyone? Isn’t that what it means to be a Jewish state?

It’s also worth remembering, that the entire culture of philanthropy is an outgrowth of capitalism. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and their colleagues who became the first philanthropists, were robber barons who made their fortunes off the backs of the people, thanks to an absence of government interference and regulation. Certainly their money was used to do some wonderful things over the years, but this is thanks to a system which planted the seeds for some of the most severe social inequalities in the Western world.

So when we consider the significance of creating a culture of philanthropy in Israel, we should remember that here, too, whatever excess wealth exists that may be used for philanthropic purposes is likely built on the dark side of capitalism, in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Hi-tech exits may abound, but somehow workers in those take-over companies are still having trouble paying their bills. That capitalist ethic, the same one that may just make an Israeli culture of philanthropy possible, is also part of the great evil that is at the core of the current demonstrations.

All this leaves us in a bit of a bind. We want social equality, and we want it to come first and foremost from the government. But the third sector, filling in the holes, is undeniably reliant on Israel’s nouveau riche, the Great Israeli Gatsbies, the beneficiaries of Israel’s deregulation and cursed process of privatization, the ones who Israel is relying on to take actions based on conscience and social accountability, actions that are arguably crucial if that third sector is to flourish.

I get a headache just thinking about these issues, and about some of the difficult choices that educated, employed, hard-working people have to make in Israel. Maybe other Israelis have headaches too. Maybe that’s why so many are running to Tel Aviv and sleeping in tents. I can certainly sympathize. It may just be easier than normal Israeli life.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a writer, researcher, educator and consultant. You can read about her not-for-profit work at

image courtesy Itzuvit

Update August 7th:

from The Jerusalem Post:

Protest draws 300,000 in largest show of force yet

The nationwide social justice movement protest reached new heights on Saturday night, as an estimated 300,000 people took part in demonstrations across the country.

Tel Aviv was again the center of the protests, with more than 200,000 people taking part in a rally along the length of Rehov Kaplan in the center of the city, in one of the largest demonstrations in the history of the state.

from Amir Mizroch – Forecast Highs:

From Tunisia to Tel-Aviv

But just what are these protests about? What kind of practical effects will they have? Will they have any political ramifications? People are saying that Prime Minister Netanyahu cannot ignore these protests, that he must do something to address the outcry. Well, he might not be able to ignore it, but will Bibi be able to change anything?

Here’s a scary thought:

What if this government can’t give the protesters what they want? And what if the next government can’t either. And the next one after that? What happens then? What if no government can muster enough political strength to force the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce and national service because the ultra-Orthodox parties are already too strong, and no coalition can survive without them? But this is only one part of the equation. Besides getting the one million or so ultra-Orthodox to start paying their own way, what government can hope to take on Israel’s tycoon-class? The men and women who make up about 16 families and who control about 60% of the economy are not going to go down without a fight. What if they threaten to bring down Israel’s economy if they are harmed in any way, causing hundreds of thousands of people to lose their jobs, while their masters move their businesses abroad? And what about bringing down housing costs? Is it really so simple to flood the market with new buildings to bring down the price of housing?

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  1. says

    Wow. Where to start in responding to my friend Elana’s piece. There is barely a “fact” or statement above that I agree with — and going line by line countering Elana would be too tedious for everyone involved.

    But let me just ask her one question, if as she says “capitalist ethic…is … part of the great evil,” than what is she proposing?

  2. says

    I do not see eye-to-eye with Elana’s conclusions, especially with her polarized good-vs-evil view of Capitalism. I also disagree with the assumption that personal financial challenges are an excuse for Israel’s terrible lack of a culture of philanthropy. Having said that, I do think that the opening description of the financial woes of the middle class is spot on!

  3. Joyce Schriebman says

    This article is worth a deeper look than Jacob Ner-David’s quick dismissal suggests. While an argument can be made that American philanthropic roots precede Carnegie and Rockefeller (de Tocqueville observed the spirit of American altruism a century earlier), the author is correct in connecting the dots between capitalistic wealth and philanthropic giving.

    The missing piece, however, is the distinction between philanthropic doing and philanthropic giving. Ben Franklin loaned books. Carnegie built libraries. Franklin created volunteer fire departments. Insurance companies made money off fire brigades. Perhaps the lesson for Israel is to establish a third sector through action rather than economics. In the same way the American nonprofit sector was an outgrowth of church efforts to take care of the poor, infirmed and orphaned, maybe Israel can lay the foundation for third sector success through existing Israeli institutions, neighbor helping neighbor, rather than mega-donors.

  4. says

    I did not intend my sparse comment above to be intended as a “quick dismissal.” I respect Elana way too much to dismiss her words — just the opposite. While I definitely will seek out Elana to do a havruta over her statements I think more beneficial for this wider audience is for her to offer an alternative narrative. She has a headache from our current reality — so suggest a different one.

    If that alternate reality is tweaking the system (e.g. forcing the haredim to work, serve in the army) than I humbly call upon her to retract her statements about capitalism. If Elana is suggesting a radical shift to a completely different economic and political framework, that is a completely different conversation. I for one have seen with my own eyes the best and worst of capitalist and socialist/communist societies, I prefer capitalist any day of the week.

  5. Elana Sztokman says

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    A few responses:
    * Joyce’s suggestion about doing rather than giving — totally agree, and i think that it exists already in Israel, in some places in very powerful ways. Great paradigm, worth talking about more

    * Jonny’s point that grass roots giving should be encouraged nonetheless, that middle class people should not so readily cite overdraft as a reason not to give — i agree, but it’s an uphill battle, and more importantly an understanding of this reality should come before any fundraising campaigns

    * Re: my black and white conclusions — i’m not entirely sure what my own conclusions are, actually. i still spend my professional life promoting not-for-profit work in various forms. But i think that anyone doing fundraising comes up against this economic polarization, the feeling of all the poor activists in the field begging for funding from the wealthy…And, I also do think that the way privatization has been implemented in many cases is extremely problematic (see for example the Eretz Acheret issue on the subject of privatization of prisons — i’m a chassid of Bambi Sheleg on this point). That said, i accept the point that it’s not all black and white, and I agree that capitalism has some merits. but not without regulation and strong social/moral vision

    * Jacob — as a fellow columbia grad, i’m sure you and I can both come up with lots of alternatives to capitalism..(dalton anyone?) it’s an argument that is way beyond this discussion….. but i can understand that your own experiences with capitalism in the years since graduation are probably very different than mine. happy to hear more.


  6. says

    Just a quick correction, I did not attend Columbia, my life partner Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David did…I attended City College of New York, few blocks uptown from Columbia, but a completely different world, which shapes much of my thinking. I also have a law degree from Georgetown University. In terms of alternatives, just want to quote from my friend Daniel Lubetsky, who first taught me the expression “not-only-for-profit” to explain his own start-ups.

  7. elana.sztokman says

    as for tweaking versus throwing out, i think there are a lot of ways to tweak, and i’m not talking about haredim. i think there needs to be first and foremost regulation of salaries. situations in which directors of companies are making 100 times more than the secretaries is just not okay.

    i think in general, more focus of the tent protests should be on salaries rather than on housing prices. because housing prices really do go to issues of capitalism and supply and demand, whereas salaries are simply a matter of regulation that is informed by social needs.

    but of course, every time there is movement in the knesset towards salary regulations, there is opposition and all kinds of threats from the heads of those 16 companies that control 60% of Israel’s wealth…

    The REAL obstacle to making economic changes with a social consciousness is in my opinion the system of government in which there is no direct representation and therefore the legislators continue to be answerable to the party leaders rather than to the people. that is at the core of the problem — it explains why 300,000 people in the square can have zero impact on a knesset vote, as we saw last week. because the lawmakers don’t have to answer to the voters in any direct way. but they do have to answer to the party leaders, who are of course answerable to the tycoons….

    really, that’s where i would like to see regulation happening, forcing business leaders to be more accountable, limiting relationships between government and big business, giving more actual power to the voters. That’s where change has to happen, in my opinion….

    also — legislation for philanthropy would also be good. creating systems and tax incentives for enabling people to set up foundations. it doesn’t exist yet in israel. if people had tax incentives for creating foundations — along with disincentives for excessive salary gaps — then we might see the development of a real culture of philanthropy.

    but these are just some ideas for the ‘tweaking’, and i’m not the purist…. i’m happy to do ‘hevruta’ on this as well, and i deeply appreciate the gestures of respect :-)

  8. elana.sztokman says

    Also — the “great evil” that i refered to is not capitalism but excessive social inequality. Where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Where the only ones to benefit from Israel’s so-called great economy are the top 1% of society and/or politically connected. That’s the great evil. And what I suggested was that capitalism enables that to happen, and that we have to look at ways to curb the impact of that process.