Do Arab Philanthropists in Israel Exist?

By Jeffrey Solomon and Michal Steinman

“Where is the Arab money?” This is one of the most commonly asked questions when American Jewish philanthropists encounter the social and economic needs of Israel’s Arab citizens, 21% of the population. As Arab economic integration becomes a more widely recognized priority for Israel, many wonder if there are philanthropic partners for this process within its Arab society.

According to a new report by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, the answer is yes, but not in the ways we might expect. There are no Arab philanthropists in Israel with wealth on the scale of Jewish philanthropists, and little precedent for strategic giving in a traditional society that places high value on personal acts of charity, especially Zakat, the Muslim form of almsgiving. But there are successful entrepreneurs modeling and encouraging the use of philanthropy for social and economic advancement, a new generation of municipal leaders mobilizing local resources towards community improvement projects, and funding organizations raising local donations in support of social causes. All these are working hard to make Arab philanthropy a key component of the community’s development, and results are starting to show.

The economic boom of the 1990s that brought new wealth and business processes to mainstream philanthropy in Israel did not reach Arab society. Rather, as greater and more advanced opportunities became the hallmark of Israel economic growth, the more they seemed out of reach to Arab citizens, the poorest of Israel’s populations. Moreover, whereas Israel has a long history of Jewish philanthropy backing formative national projects, Arab traditions of religious and charitable giving make strategic philanthropy a departure rather than an enhancement of the norm. If such philanthropy in Israel is a young and developing field, within Israel’s Arab society it is just finding its footing.

Beyond increasing the scale of giving, which though steadily growing is still quite limited, establishing strategic philanthropy in Israel’s Arab society has required changes in thinking and approach. Less than a decade ago, founding members from the Inter-Agency Task Force met with the handful of then-leading Arab philanthropists in Israel who made their wealth in traditional industries. Their shared giving strategies were simple, helping to meet basic human needs, and grounded in the moral imperatives of their religious and social circles.

Since, philanthropic leadership has grown to mean advancing a culture that encourages community development projects, legitimizes social change initiatives, and seeks to partner with government and Jewish philanthropies to advance economic development as well as Jewish-Arab relations. Arab philanthropists are as likely to be acting as educators, role models, board members, and socially responsible employers as they are to be funding specific projects. Forward-thinking municipal and civil society leaders are setting up funding organizations for school rehabilitation, student scholarships, and health care initiatives, for example. And more NGOs have developed fundraising methods that raise awareness and draw support from Arab households.

The Task Force report details and contextualizes these activities, along with profiles of representative leaders and organizations. It is based on dozens of interviews with key players, donors, fundraisers, academics, and civil society professionals who gave generously of their time and provided access to their records. The result is a much-needed snapshot of Arab philanthropy in Israel that answers the first question about whether it exists, and opens the way for partnerships and further inquiry.

The full report, Arab Philanthropy in Israel: Insights into Strategic Giving, is available here.

Jeffrey Solomon is the former President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and a member of the executive committee of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. Michal Steinman is the Task Force Executive Director.