Israeli Society Through the Lens of the GA

by Elana Sztokman

The menu of the upcoming General Assembly is positively thrilling. The program is suffused with new faces, young leaders and creative energies. Academics, artists and activists are coming to converse about Jewish life and the Jewish future, each with his or her individual ideas and skills that together form an invigorating potpourri of movement and vitality. It is sure to inspire and leave participants with bright ideas and the motivation to continue working and building on behalf of the Jewish people.

Mixed in with awe and excitement, though, is a twinge of jealousy. I wish the Israeli community had this kind of apparatus for supporting creative communal activism. It seems to me that one of the unexpected consequences of Jewish national sovereignty has been the loss of a Jewish organized community.

If Diaspora Jewry relies primarily on its own resources for sustaining Jewish life, Israeli Jewry tends to rely on the government for that kind of overarching support. In Israel, Jewish social services mean the Ministry of Welfare and Jewish education means the Ministry of Education. All eyes turn first toward municipalities and cabinet positions to determine how the Jews of Israel will fare, and not-for-profits merely fill in the rest.

Indeed, Israel’s third sector, numbering some 45,000 organizations, or amutot, effectively fills in many of the gaps left by the government. Every amuta describes itself as solving a problem, and more often than not these are problems created by governmental failings: inadequate education, welfare or health care; inadequate provisions for the elderly or the poor; inadequate services for the downtrodden or marginalized; or corruption in governmental policies that leave groups suffering, like converts, foreign workers or agunot. The third sector is effectively filling in for failed political leadership and flawed budgeting.

This model is not realistic or sustainable, and it ignores 2,000 years of Jewish ingenuity. This third sector lacks the communal infrastructure as well as the funding to be the kind of tour de force that it is in North America. This is due to several key factors. Low salaries combined with a socialist culture leaves many people disempowered, unmotivated and seemingly unable to have real influence. Moreover, Jewish hegemony has eliminated the urgency of Jewish communal and cultural survival. What we are left with is a very un-Zionistic situation in which Jewish creativity seems to be thriving more in North America than in Israel.

That is not to say that there aren’t some amazing, dynamic visionary activists in Israel. On the contrary, Israeli organizations are working tirelessly, creatively and in some cases brilliantly to heal a wide range of social ills – but they are working with minimal support and infrastructure. In short, Israeli amutot function without the equivalent of a Jewish federations system, without much of a selection of family foundations and without an event like the GA to remind them that they are valued, and that’s a shame.

The GA gives me one more dream to aspire to in the ongoing development of Israeli society.

Elana Sztokman is a researcher and consultant on Jewish education, community and gender issues.