Israel’s Complicated Relationship With World Aid

In the face of international crises, nonprofit veteran says Israel needs to increase its involvement in worldwide aid.

by Sharon Udasin

One of the most gaping holes in the Israeli nonprofit sector is a strong presence in international aide arena, contributions toward causes and communities completely unrelated to Israel and world Jewry, according to Dr. Mike Naftali, who is trying to repair this dearth through his nonprofit organization Brit Olam.

“Nobody in Israel really cares about international affairs because we are so self-absorbed in our own dilemmas,” said Naftali, suggesting that government policy is perhaps most responsible for the lack of charitable investments abroad.

Naftali, a social worker by profession with three decades of experience in the Israeli nonprofit sector, is currently a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Children and Youth Studies and the chairperson of both Topaz: For the Well Being of Children and Youth (within Israel) and Brit Olam: the International Israeli-Jewish Volunteer Movement. Until recently, he was the chairperson for the National Council for Volunteerism in Israel and from 1984 through 2002 was the CEO of Elem: Youth in Distress in Israel.

Naftali founded Brit Olam in 2005, to encourage Israelis to spread their efforts to situations and people in need outside Israel, so that the Jewish state might help make a difference internationally. While Topaz has an annual budget of $2.5 million, Brit Olam currently only has $100,000, something Naftali believes is a testament to Israeli preference in supporting national, rather than international, aid projects.

“The whole idea is to take this Israeli Jewish notion of tikkun olam to help people that don’t only belong to our own culture but worldwide,” he said.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Millennium Development goals, agreed upon by 189 countries including Israel in September 2000, which, among other things, stipulates that by the year 2015 participating donor nations should be investing 0.9 percent of their gross domestic product in international “official development assistance.” This means that Israel – with a GDP of nearly $200 billion – should be investing around $1.8 billion to this sector; however, in reality, Israel is only currently investing just over $10 million to international affairs, 1% of what it is committed to, Naftali explained.

Meanwhile, he continued, the government does not include international aid donations as tax exemptions – which is a huge disincentive to businesses who would otherwise enjoy the 35% tax credit that accompanies contributions to nonprofits within Israel.

“The Israeli government doesn’t accept that as a tax deductible donation,” he said. “Government policy doesn’t recognize international aide donations.”

While Naftali recognizes that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is trying to do more in terms of international aid, such as sending a medical team to assist in Haiti, he feels there is so much more to be done. “It was a very important act in itself but that doesn’t change the big picture it all,” Naftali said. “My estimate is that for Haiti – excluding the government investment – I don’t think we recruited more than half a million dollars for Haiti.”

During the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, Naftali, who chaired Israel’s tsunami committee at the time, said that each Israeli on average only donated 10 cents to the relief efforts, at a grand total of $700,000, while each Dutchman on average donated $20 and each Norwegian $200.

“The Israeli public is very reluctant in international aid,” he said.

One of Brit Olam’s subgroups, Natan – established jointly by Naftali and Henry Elkasslasy, head of the Kibbutz Humanitarian Movement – deals directly with international disaster and has been intensively involved with the Japanese earthquake relief efforts. The group is in touch with four Japanese academic bodies and NGOs, working with them according to request and particularly helping to plan necessary psychosocial intervention.

“I am trying to push forward the fundraising,” Naftali said. “It’s irrelevant to send people at this stage. At this stage we are doing a joint assessment and joint professional planning.”

Unlike Haiti, a far less developed nation, Japan has no need for additional manpower and technology to alleviate the disaster, as they have as much as or more than any Western country could provide, according to Naftali. Instead, he favors sending over money and offering assistance in planning to agencies like Japanese NGOs that are working with affected children.

“There’s no way in the world you should send one or two social workers now for the thousands that have been affected,” he said. “At this stage it’s just about mission impossible to get out into the field.”

Brit Olam has been involved with many other projects aside from disaster relief, including, for a while, the Helping Hands Medical Fellowship, which has sent Israeli doctors and nurses to Uganda, and the Hagar and Miriam program, which lends assistance to Africa refugees and asylum seekers in Israel.

However, one of Brit Olam’s most thriving international projects is Muse Uganda, established jointly with Dr. Kizito Mario Kazule’s Nagenda International Academy of Art and Design on Lake Victoria and Tel-Hai Academic College in Israel, to establish an arts high school geared toward AIDS orphans, abandoned refugee children and disadvantaged youth in Uganda.

Why such a concentration on Uganda in particular?

“From broader perspective, if you look at what’s going on globally Africa is in really bad shape,” he said, noting that this is the only continent that hasn’t moved forward in terms of achieving OECD millennium goals, and in many aspects, has even regressed – in terms of children’s education, health and women’s rights.

“If we as an Israeli organization had to decide who to help it makes the most sense to start in Africa,” he said, stressing that Theodor Herzl had strongly believed in providing assistance to struggling African nations. “Years passed and they’re still in a bad place,”

Naftali personally wishes that Israel had done more from the beginning to help the South Sudanese in Africa establish their own independent nation: “We could’ve done so much working with the south Sudanese to become a an independent country,” he said. “When they came here we didn’t do anything to empowerment them.”

But as far as Brit Olam goes, Uganda was the perfect place to direct Israeli volunteer work and financial assistance, according to Naftali.

“It was a logical decision to start in east Africa because it’s nearest to Israel and an English-speaking country. It’s easier to communicate,” he said.

And ever since the White Lord Army, which encourages brutal rapes of women, was pushed out of northern Uganda, Naftali believes that the country’s security situation has been pretty stable.

“It’s a country that pleasant to work with,” he said. “People there are very, very friendly and wonderful to work with. We are trying to get people to interact with each other.”

“The strategy of Brit Olam is to develop long-term friendships with the local population.” Muse Uganda is modeled after an arts school in Jaffa called Musot, Naftali explained.

“We took the model of Musot in Jaffa and developed a strategic partnership with the arts academy in Uganda, and we decided that we wanted to use art as a vehicle for development,” he said. “We are now moving very nicely on using the art – performance arts, sculpture, dance, plastic arts.”

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds come to learn at the school and live there in its boarding quarters, with international volunteers teaching and working with them. The school – located in Namulanda, halfway between Kampala and Entebbe – is finishing its second year in session, and started with 16 students the first year, received 16 more this current school year and will have an additional 16 next school year.

Naftali is working on “mobilizing” Israeli volunteers to come spend time at the school. Thus far, volunteers have including two senior artists from Israel, two recent graduates of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, an artist who spent a full year there and an Israeli singer who helped out for three weeks. The average stay of volunteers is around two to three months, and in addition to working in the school, they can participate in community based outreach projects, like assisting in the central women’s jail.

One recent volunteer, a religious young woman, came with her husband for five months and taught the prison inmates knitting. “Each volunteer is in his own way creative,” Naftali said.

Next year, Muse Uganda will be partnering with Masa Israel Journey to offer an Israel Corps opportunity for young Diaspora Jews to come volunteer at the school and surrounding community as well. Already, Brit Olam works with Masa and Repair the World to help support B’Tzedek’s LIFE program, a nine-month leadership development course for Jewish college graduates that takes place partially in India.

Naftali hopes that Ugandan children currently taking part in another Brit Olam program – Little Light, which provides preschool education to kids in the Namuwongo slum – will eventually be able to come to the high school.

“We do hope that in two or three years time some of these children will be able to move into the high school,” Naftali said.

He also hopes to expand the school, which already has acquired a 60-acre piece of land in central Uganda, and develop a larger boarding school that can hold at least 150 students.

“We have the architecture and design but don’t have the money yet to do it,” Naftali said, noting that Muse’s budget is currently only $35,000 per year.

“We are struggling and sometimes my wife and I have to pump in money,” he added. “But in the last year Brit Olam as a year has moved forward.”

“My colleagues and my vision at Brit Olam was to export unique Israeli professional knowledge,” Naftali said.

In general, however, Naftali is optimistic about the future of Israeli participation in international aid, even if he feels that current efforts and contributions are still lacking.

“All in all we are moving,” he said, noting that many organizations, like the Jewish Agency and Masa, already “understand this value of tikkun olam – the value of bringing together Israelis to improve the world.”

“I’m optimistic that Israel will resolve its issue with the Palestinians and be less concerned with internal issues and open its eyes to an external perspective,” he added.

Only then, he said, when a strong infrastructure for world aid is established, “we’ll be a normal nation.”