Post 5: Where is the Israeli Center?

[eJP note: This post, by Gidi Grinstein, was originally published on May 13, 2008, as part of a series on Philanthropy in Israel. With this year’s Jewish Funders Network conference taking place in Israel, we thought it would be timely to rerun the series.]

The gist of this series is that Jewish philanthropy in Israel requires an overhaul in order to recapture a central role in Israeli society. One of the powerful and persistent trends that are driving this sidelining is the growing disconnect from the Israeli socioeconomic center. It is a challenge of priorities, as well as communications.

In the past, Diaspora Jewish philanthropy was perceived and framed in the context of economic and social assistance and as a supplement to Israel’s national budget. Hence, understandably, it has been focused primarily on immigration absorption and on alleviating poverty and hardship.

At the same time, Diaspora Jewish philanthropists have always engaged a very small economic, business and political elite, as well as leaders of nonprofits and charitable organizations such as hospitals, universities or museums.

But where are the masses of Israelis, Israel’s socioeconomic center? How are they exposed to the generosity, passion and care of the Diaspora communities? It would be fair to say that Jewish philanthropy in Israel has lost touch with and is in a state of disconnect from this very large constituency of Israelis.

This represents a loss of opportunity. In the context of the past framework for Diaspora philanthropic giving in Israel, which was economic assistance and development, resources and attention should have been focused on the areas of need and hardship. But according to a new framework, which focuses on reinforcing global Jewish peoplehood, focus should shift to capturing the hearts and minds of many Israelis and connecting them to fellow Jews and Jewish communities worldwide.

This is a challenge of shifting values, priorities and patterns of conduct. First, it is about a vision: Diaspora Jewish philanthropists need to embrace a vision that is relevant to the lives of the vast majority of Israelis. Such a vision may focus on education, heath care, excellence or economic growth, but has to impact most Israeli households. Second, it is about priorities: obviously, resources – many millions of dollars – should follow the vision in order to implement it. Hence, as new projects move to the front seat, others will have to be handed over to other organizations or terminated. Third, it is about communications and claiming collective credit through mass media. Israelis must know of the amazing dedication and generosity of our Diaspora communities.

Addressing this challenge is essential for narrowing the gulf between the Jewish communities in Israel and in the Diaspora. Bringing Diaspora Jews closer to Israel is a massive challenge. Bringing Israelis closer to Diaspora Jews is no small task either.

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder and President of the Reut Institute.