A Challenge to Israel’s Elite

by Shimon Arbel

Three years ago, Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates formed the “Giving Pledge”, enlisting America’s billionaires to commit a majority of their wealth to nonprofit institutions either during their lifetime or following their demise.

Over 100 billionaires have signed on to the “Giving Pledge” since its initiation. The signatories include a significant number of highly identified American Jews known for their great generosity toward institutions both in the United States and Israel.

The initial focus of the initiative was on the wealthiest families and individuals in the United States. Since the start of this year, the “Giving Pledge” has expanded globally starting with twelve non-U.S. signatories from eight different countries representing over $10 billion of charitable commitment. Each new signatory is seen as an important personal example to others in his/her respective country.

Israelis have every reason to be proud that the country is today a first-world member of the OECD and has reached a level of development and sophistication whereby it is possible to succeed and prosper in the “start-up nation”. Israel has weathered the past few years better than many other western countries with a growing economy, stable currency, strong private sector, rising standard of living, and relatively low unemployment.

This year, Forbes listed thirteen Israelis as among the world’s billionaires, and last year, Merrill Lynch reported that there are more than 10,000 individuals in Israel whose annual income exceeds $1 million.

The time is now for Israel’s wealthiest individuals and families to step up to the “Giving Pledge” challenge. The mass call for “social justice” that began on the streets of Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011, and which resonated in the recent general election, conveyed an expectation that Israel’s elite must contribute more to ensure a just society. Commitments to the “Giving Pledge” by Israel’s most privileged would represent an important statement attesting to the success of Israel while giving back to the society and economy that enabled these individuals and families to achieve.

The time is also now for those great U.S. Jewish philanthropists who have committed to the “Pledge” and are themselves strongly supportive of Jewish life and Israel to challenge their Israeli counterparts to match their generosity. Indeed, those same Jews may argue, if the wealthiest of Israelis do not support their own institutions, why should a Jew living overseas be called upon to do so, especially as many of their own local institutions are in need.

Israel has many outstanding institutions, organizations, and causes that are worthy of Diaspora Jewish support. However the new Zionism will be defined, it must certainly include a higher level of philanthropy among Israelis. This is a challenge which Israel’s wealthiest citizens can and must meet both for the benefit of all Israel and as an important role model to those in the Diaspora whom Israeli institutions canvass for philanthropic support.

Shimon Arbel is the Director of Institutional Advancement at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem.