What if the Diaspora demanded something in return for the financial aid they deliver each and every year to Israeli society?
The worst fire in the history of the State of Israel is behind us and the process of assessing needs and rebuilding has begun. Residents have returned to their homes, the emergency command headquarters at the University of Haifa has been dismantled and the immediate crisis has passed.
In between the recriminations, the government has begun a needs assessment. And so have most players in the global Jewish world.
As of today, 44 have lost their lives in the fire – 36 Israel Prison Service members, police officers and fire service members and one teen-age fire volunteer.
According to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), 25,000 were evacuated, homes were lost and more than 12,500 acres of forests destroyed. JNF foresters estimate over 5 million trees were burned.
“The extent of the burnt area is comparable in size to 40% of Jerusalem or no less than 7,142 football fields,” stated a JNF fundraising announcement.
Early damage numbers are 1 billion shekels. The Government of Israel will surely supply a part. And, as so often in the past, the government will also be dependent on the Diaspora for needed financial support.
They will not be disappointed. Even as the fires still burned out of control, Jewish institutions funded by monies from abroad came through for the State of Israel.
Organizations such as the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee were on the ground from the beginning – offering assistance, in addition to their regular day to day projects, in a myriad of ways. With schools about to close for Chanukah break, the Jewish Agency organized activities and outings for youth in areas beyond the reach of the fire, and included students from Daliat-el-Carmel and Issawiya, two Druze villages that were also threatened.
The Joint paid close attention to the region’s vulnerable populations, including the elderly, disabled and youth at risk, focusing on immediate rehabilitation programs, including psycho-social support, to the affected populations. World ORT made alternative arrangements for children evacuated from Tirat HaCarmel’s psychiatric hospital to continue their distance learning through a website operated by Kadima Mada, its operational arm in Israel.
The Jewish National Fund began fire restoration efforts, including erosion prevention and clearing of debris.
An anonymous Brooklyn donor provided $13 million in aid as a direct gift to the Government.
And the list goes on. Once again, the Diaspora community is coming together, raising emergency funds, to assist Israel in the maintaining of the State.
Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time for the Diaspora to insist on a quid pro quo.
There are many issues here in Israel that have a direct influence on Jewish life around the world. We’re not talking about defense or security related issues, nor foreign policy. I am referring to distinctly Jewish issues. As an example: the right to marry as a Jew. While Israel sometimes does bow to outside pressure on diplomatic issues, on issues such as these, the Jewish state continues to act in a unilateral, unacceptable manner.
This past summer, legislation was initiated in the Knesset that would have ushered in change to the conversion laws. The uproar in the Diaspora was immediate. One of the leading voices for, at the minimum, maintaining the status quo, came from the Jewish Federations of North America – whose actions contributed to the pending legislation being tabled. The system is a significant fundraiser and funnel for monies coming to Israel.
What if they demanded something in return for this financial aid they deliver each and every year to Israeli society?
Since long before the State was established, Diaspora communities have unhesitatingly provided billions of dollars of capital to acquire and cultivate the land, equip the military during the War for Independence, support social service projects in the 21st century and more.
However, in recent years, the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora has become increasingly conflictual. Some of the conflict is driven by the peace process; more by the myriad of issues surrounding “who is a Jew” and religious pluralism.
Some segments of Israeli society feel the county no longer needs outside money as Israel is not a charity case. And others, including Prime Minister Netanayu and Kadima head Tzipi Livni, have expressed that it is time to restructure our relationship with the Diaspora as full partners in moving the State forward.
Full partners means you work together, consult and compromise on issues directly related to the well-being of both. Full partners means all parties, including the Haredi political ones, will need to act in unison and, for once, show a spirit of kal Yisrael on issues that effect us all.
The Jewish world can no longer afford to have these issues defined by the closed mentality that currently exists among certain segments here in Israel. As Lynn Schusterman so eloquently stated last week relative to the proposed change in the conversion laws, “Should the proposed conversion law go into effect, I fear it would send a dangerous, exclusionary and wholly unacceptable message to many: that there is only one “official” brand of Judaism.”
Unfortunately, the Haredi establishment already expects complete veto power on each and every aspect of state and religion. Nothing short of a major change in the dynamic of the Jewish world is likely to upset that apple cart.
But the Diaspora has a powerful weapon at its disposal – the significant and continuing funding it provides to Israel – thereby relieving the State of funding many initiatives themselves. One result, successive governments find it all to easy to give in to the pressures from extremist parties on issues that have a direct effect on not only Israel, but also the Diaspora.
Maybe the time has come for those providing this meaningful philanthropy to begin closing the purse; to begin applying pressure where they can.
I am not suggesting emergency funds should not be disbursed to those in need, or for other necessary social services. But perhaps, some of the more discretionary funding from communal organizations should be frozen for 2011. A radical idea? Yes, decidedly so.
But I’m guessing the Israeli political establishment blinks first.
Dan Brown is the founder of eJewishPhilanthropy.com.
A version of this article appears in The Jerusalem Report (January 3, 2011).