Give and Take: Thinking Anew About Giving to Israel

by Chaim Landau

PT9_farmerWell before the founding of the State of Israel, Jews in the Diaspora were sending money to support a variety of causes in the Land of Israel. The simple model, however, of Diaspora Jews as donors and Israeli Jews as recipients, has become outdated. It is no longer axiomatic for many young Diaspora Jews that they need to send money to a successful country whose fate seems to have little impact on their own lives. Money invested in Israel, whether by the individual or the Jewish community as a whole, must benefit both donor and recipient, and needs to be seen as part of a holistic two-way relationship. Such philanthropy, instead of being divorced from Jewish life in the Diaspora, needs to enhance and contribute to it.

The money that Diaspora Jews sent to Israel throughout the years was indispensible in absorbing millions of immigrants, building up the State’s infrastructure, and maintaining an army capable of defending Israel. What these donors received in return was pride in Israel’s very existence: its military victories, developing infrastructure, and vigorous and thriving society. They could feel themselves a part of the Jewish people, and active partners in building up the Jewish State, even if they did not reside there themselves.

Yet Israel’s current condition is not the same as in its early years when it was undeveloped and unstable, and American Jewry has its own pressing needs. Jewish education in the Diaspora is still a luxury for many. In November 2007, Ha’aretz reported that the Jewish poverty rate was higher in the U.S. than in Israel. In the wake of the Madoff scandal and the economic crisis, philanthropic dollars are scarcer than ever before. In this context Diaspora Jews want to be sure that they are receiving a good return on money that is being sent to Israel, especially in light of increasing needs at home.

Furthermore, according to prominent sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman in their study “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel,” the attachment of Diaspora Jews to Israel is decreasing with each generation. If donors give money to causes which they are passionate about, then the future of Diaspora donations to Israel is in great peril. Young Diaspora Jews will not send money to an Israel they feel apathetic about, which has no connection to their identity, or – worse yet – which embarrasses them.

A few forward-thinking Israeli figures have recognized this changed situation. In the 1990s, well before Taglit-Birthright Israel’s existence, then government minister Yossi Beilin spoke of the need for U.S. Jews to send their children, and not their money, to Israel. More recently, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called for a paradigm shift, questioning why Diaspora Jews send money to a strong and economically vibrant Israel while they have increasingly important needs at home. The old way – Diaspora Jews writing a check and simply taking pride in Israel’s very existence – is no longer viable.

Models of Giving to Israel

Increasing needs and scarcer resources at home have not deterred Diaspora Jews from continuing to send money to Israel. For these donors, sending money to Israel still retains special significance. More thought, however, must be given to the return that the donors receive from their donations. Ideally this would be in the form of enhancing donors’ Jewish experiences, especially when it involves making Jewish Diaspora life richer and more attractive. The following are three examples of organizations that bring Diaspora Jewish money to Israel and offer something palpable to their donors in return.

Partnership 2000 twins Jewish Diaspora communities with Israeli communities, allowing Diaspora Jews to be active partners in giving. The Boston-Haifa partnership is a prime example of that two-way relationship, creating living bridges and strengthening the social fabric of both communities. In addition to monetary donations, the partnerships yield such advantages as people-to-people networking, volunteering on city projects, Shabbat hospitality, and collaborative fieldwork. The donating community receives, in return, a more intimate and personal connection with an Israeli community and its residents. Some young Israelis from these communities are deferring their army service for a year in order to spend time living and volunteering in their twin Diaspora community. During that time, they are able to enrich the Diaspora community they are visiting, for example by teaching about Tu Bishvat, an important ecological holiday in Israel of which many Diaspora Jews are not even aware. While Israeli communities may not be sending money to build community centers or support after-school programs in the Diaspora, Partnership 2000 allows them to enrich and support Diaspora communities in other ways, making it a two-way relationship.

Meir Panim is Israel’s largest supplementary welfare services agency, providing food and social services to Israel’s impoverished residents. By allowing donors not only to contribute money but also their time and skills, Meir Panim enables them to become active partners in a meaningful way. Whether volunteering on a weekly basis or for two hours during a trip to Israel, Meir Panim tries to involve donors on multiple levels. According to Aliza Solomon of Meir Panim’s resource development team, this strategy reflects a philanthropic culture whereby donors do not just cut a check and suffice with a receipt. Donors want to see the real impact of their donations, and in return to be given a chance to be involved in the giving process.

The New Israel Fund (NIF) focuses on strengthening civil society and promoting democracy, tolerance, and social justice in Israel. For young liberal Jews who are concerned with human and civil rights, the NIF represents an outlet where one’s donations can benefit all of Israel’s citizens, Jew and Arab alike. According to CEO Larry Garber, the NIF represents a “vehicle for progressive Jews,” by introducing a discourse relating to social change and civil society in Israel instead of the usual focus on physical security. The donors’ return is that they see an Israel where religious pluralist values and civil and human rights are fought for, the environment is sustained, and Jewish-Arab equality and coexistence is promoted.

Moving Forward

These examples are just some of the options in making philanthropy to Israel a two-way relationship where donors benefit as well. Some donors may seek a more direct connection with the beneficiary as Partnership 2000 offers. Others may want the chance to play a more active role as Meir Panim allows for, and some may want the chance to donate to causes that have traditionally not been on the radar, as with the NIF. The common element is that donors feel that they are receiving something meaningful in return.

All this, however, is still predicated upon Diaspora Jews caring about Israel, and in that sense, Cohen and Kelman’s study is very disconcerting. Diaspora Jewish leadership, before sending money to Israel, must make provisions for their own communities’ needs. Diaspora Jews must worry about themselves and make sure that emerging generations have the benefit and opportunity of an attractive Jewish education, experience, and identity. Israel should play an important role in making that happen, but support for Israel cannot be seen as a substitute for what must happen at home. If anything, support for Israel can only be the consequence of a strong Jewish identity and a commitment to the Jewish people.

The added value of donating to Israel is that it enables Diaspora Jews to meaningfully connect in a variety of ways. The greatest return that Israel needs to give its Diaspora Jewish donors is the tools and inspiration for a successful and vibrant Jewish life around the world. In this sense, it will not be Diaspora Jews giving to Israel, but rather the relationship will become more of a two-way street. This in turn will help ensure that Diaspora Jews, especially younger ones, share a passion for Israel and, in using their resources (financial or otherwise), make it a better place.

Chaim Landau is an American-Israeli Middle East analyst who lives in Jerusalem, works part-time at Shatil, and has previously worked as a Legacy Heritage Fellow. He jsut completed the PresenTense Summer Institute 09 developing Perspectives Israel, which aims to educate about the complexity of the challenges facing Israel from a wide variety of viewpoints within the Israeli-Jewish spectrum.

image: Valley of Pioneers book cover – German-Jewish-Palestinian graphic artist Franz Krausz

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Philanthropy issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.