America’s Philanthropic Priorities are Hurting Israel’s Nonprofit Sector

If you were an American Jew you’d think that Israel’s civil society is made up of Masa, Ethiopian absorption, and the many social programs that The Jewish Agency and JDC operate in Israel.

by Jonathan Ben-Dor

When American Jews donate to Israel, they generally do it by supporting their local Jewish Federation, which in turn supports two strategic partners – The Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). These two organizations operate hundreds of programs in Israel, and impact the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people.

But Israel has over 30,000 different nonprofit organizations. Why is it that only two organizations receive the bulk of American philanthropy? And what kind of damage is this doing to Israel?

Israel’s 30,000 nonprofit organizations produce 5.5% of Israel’s GDP and employ 13.2% of our workforce. They are active in education, health, welfare, social services, and all areas of civil society. These nonprofit organizations are powerful sources of inspiration for millions of Israelis, and are our principal means, as citizens, for creating change in our country.

If you were an American Jew, however, you’d think that Israel’s civil society is made up of Masa, Ethiopian absorption, and the many social programs that The Jewish Agency and JDC operate in Israel. That’s because Jewish Federations mainly promote the activities of the organizations that they partner with. And these are overwhelmingly Jewish Agency and JDC programs.

This is bad for Israel, and bad for America.

The Jewish Agency and JDC are just two of tens of thousands of nonprofit organizations that make up Israeli civil society. And yet these two organizations receive the vast majority of the funding sent from Federated American Jewry to Israel. There have been many arguments about the effectiveness of this funding, and whether these organizations are providing value for money in the work that they do in Israel. I’d rather sidestep this legitimate conversation and present a simple fact: Because Jewish Federations send most of their Israel-funding to these two organizations, 98% of nonprofit organizations in Israel will never receive a dollar of support from North American Jewry.

This is bad for Israel. Tens of thousands of nonprofit organizations in Israel are chronically underfunded. Every week I am exposed to dozens of organizations who have had to reduce their activities or close their organizations because of a shortfall in donations. And yet when they turn to American Jewish communities for help and support, the answer is often: “Our funding goes to The Jewish Agency and JDC”.

This is also bad for America. Surveys show that American Jews, while increasingly disconnected from their communities and their religion, overwhelmingly connect to their Jewishness by identifying with Israel (70%, according to the PEW survey) and through a sense of Jewish pride (94% of Jews report being proud to be Jewish). Israel’s tens of thousands of social causes are tremendous sources of pride for Israelis: whether in treating victims of earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, to treating the sick and needy in Israel, to promoting Arab-Jewish relations, to rebuilding our forests and communities after fires and wars – these are the works of the 400,000 employees and millions of volunteers who make up our civil society.

Young people in America should be connected to and engage with these causes, making our work, and theirs, a source of pride and of Jewish identity. Unfortunately, Jewish communities are not giving our young people this opportunity.

Four years ago, I founded IsraelGives.org to show the world the works of Israel’s 30,000 nonprofit organizations. Since then, millions of visitors and 150,000 donors have donated to over 890 nonprofit organizations. I don’t know if it’s a source of pride, or should be a shock, that our humble website is currently supporting more organizations that the entire Jewish Federation system of North America. At the very least, it should be a call to all American Jewish leaders to expand their support throughout Israel’s civil society. 30,000 nonprofit organizations can do a lot of good in Israel, if they only had the funds.

Jonathan Ben-Dor is the founder and director of IsraelGives, which helps over 1,200 Israeli nonprofit organizations to fundraise online.