Is Support for Israel a Luxury?

by David Roth and Ardie Geldman

Together with much of the world’s economy, the Jewish world is a financial mess. Along with others it endured last spring’s sub-prime mortgage meltdown, lived through the autumn failures of financial giants Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. where many major supporters of Jewish and Israeli causes lost jobs, and emerged only to confront the winter’s coups de grâce, the shocking and embarrassing $50 billion Madoff scandal.


…Some quarter of a million people live in Jewish households in New York City with incomes under 150% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines according to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

…The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit has been offering housing assistance to Jewish families to help stave off the threat of foreclosure for over a year.

…Around the country, Jewish day schools and high schools are coping with dropping enrollment, more requests for financial assistance and reduced fundraising dollars.

…Extrapolating from a 2004 Jewish Federation report, at least a quarter of the Jewish families of Los Angeles currently live on approximately $20,000 annually.

Given these and other similarly sobering data about Jews in the United States (as well as in other Western countries), is it possible for Diaspora Jews to continue their financial support to Israel? Has the Jewish world suddenly been thrust into a new stage of history whose rules, imposed by a reality different from the one we knew and took for granted for so long, are different?

The head of Israel’s NADAV Fund, business magnate Leonid Nevzlin, said the following to YNet News at the 2009 Herzliya Conference, where he chaired a panel that discussed the recent findings of a survey of American and Israeli Jews carried out by The Jewish Peoplehood Index Project: “The old treaty – by which financial, political and moral support is given [by Diaspora Jews] in exchange for [Israel] being a source of pride and a safe haven in the case of anti-Semitic violence in the future – is rapidly becoming invalid.” Bob Dylan would agree, “The times they are a’changin.”

The findings, to which Nevzlin was responding, indicate that “while both groups highly value one another, they also lack basic knowledge about their fellow community.” In times of extreme economic distress, such as now, what becomes of the philanthropic relationship, already waning, between many Diaspora Jews and Israel, a relationship that precedes the birth of the modern Jewish state? How resilient is this relationship and how compelling?

Our Tradition asks, “To whose needs do we attend first, the poor of our city, or the poor of Eretz Yisrael?” Opposing opinions compete within the texts, and the topic remains unsettled and a basis for contention to this day. Its practical implications are still relevant and are debated annually in the boardroom of every Jewish communal fund in the world. The outcome varies from community to community, depending on a complex variety of considerations.

Individual Jews, on the other hand, are more likely to base such a decision on some subjective ratio between their personal attachment to Israel and their discretionary income.

At both the communal and the individual level, we are in the midst, perhaps just at the beginning, of an unprecedented cutback of overseas philanthropic support for Israel (the key word being “unprecedented”).

Naturally, this decline could not have come at a worse time. In December 2008, 17,000 Israelis joined the ranks of the unemployed. In January, 2009, this number increased by an additional 20,000. By the end of 2009 a total of one quarter of a million Israelis are expected to be unemployed. Just as in North America and Jewish communities elsewhere, the unanticipated and steep decline in philanthropic revenue will force some Israeli nonprofits to close their doors. Others, in an effort to reach new levels of efficiency, may unintentionally jeopardize the fulfillment of their mission. Largely and ironically due to the current crisis, new funding opportunities for some Israeli non-profits may open up following the recent Federation Leadership Institute in Palm Beach, Fl.

Overall, both Jewish individual and institutional funders must now reassess the distribution of charitable dollars between local and overseas causes. Cutting Israel out altogether, at least temporarily, may appear as an option to some. This strikes us as imprudent for a variety of reasons, first and foremost is the uniquely conflated Israel-Diaspora relationship.  It is to the mutual benefit of Israel and Jews the world over to sustain this relationship against all economic odds. Not only are the communities interdependent in many areas, today they must also stand united in the face of a new historical wave of world-wide anti-Semitism. This became obvious during Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza, and will certainly repeat itself in and around the Second UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (or Durban Review Conference) scheduled to take place in May 2009 in Geneva.

Leonid Nevzlin is correct that the old treaty is rapidly becoming invalid. But though the complex Israel-Diaspora relationship may be evolving, philanthropy still has a meaningful role to play.  Not only must philanthropy be preserved for its own sake, but also because of its ability to interlace Jews throughout the world. Philanthropic support for programs and projects in Israel builds bridges between peoples and communities.  It encourages Israeli and Diaspora Jews to know and understand each other better and strengthens Jewish life overall. Many who can still recall that era have said they cannot remember the times being this bad since the Great Depression. Notwithstanding the times, the Jewish world cannot bear the cost of marginalizing philanthropic support for Israel.

logoDavid Roth and Ardie Geldman are philanthropic consultants with Donor Associates in Israel, Ltd. and regular contributors to eJewish Philanthropy.