Home inFocus Celebrating Israel at 60 (Spring 2008) U.S. Charity to Israel Reconsidered

U.S. Charity to Israel Reconsidered

Daniel Doron Spring 2008

American Jewish support for Israel was essential for the state’s creation and is vital for its future prosperity. The American Jewish community has given Israel not only invaluable moral and diplomatic support, but also the financial resources that helped the fledgling state meet some of its most daunting challenges, from building a strong military to the absorption of millions of destitute new immigrants.

However, it may be time to reassess the efficacy of some of America’s Jewish charitable assistance to Israel. While such charities undoubtedly helped Israel overcome emergencies in its first years, questions arise whether continued aid, dispensed in the same manner, will enable Israel to continue to develop a productive society with a prospering economy.

This question is of utmost importance. Economic prosperity is a matter of survival for Israel, not merely a means to achieve a better standard of living. Without economic growth, Israel will neither be able to provide its younger generations with well-paying jobs that will keep them working at home, nor pay for the country’s growing defense needs.

Early Socialist Causes

American Jewish charitable institutions have traditionally focused their assistance to Israel in three major areas: immigrant absorption, the provision of health services and welfare, and education. Unfortunately, much of the early assistance from the United States served the interests of socialist Israeli political parties and thus unintentionally hampered the healthy development of the Israeli economy. The allocation of this considerable treasure was marked by inefficiency and waste, and often made the successful absorption of new immigrants more difficult.

In the pre-state days, many of the funds donated by American Jews went toward failing socialist experiments, especially in the collectivist sector (kibbutzim and moshavim). It also helped build the wasteful and politicized industrial and financial enterprises of the leftist labor union, the Histadrut, which was similarly unproductive and dependent upon constant subsidies and privileges. Huge sums of money were spent to subsidize banks, industry, and trade corporations associated with the Israeli socialist movement. The nationalization of land and water, and the building of only collectivist settlements, eventually bankrupted the technically-advanced Israeli agricultural sector, and left immigrant development towns a permanent disaster.

In retrospect, some of the early charity projects that financed and expanded Israeli socialism were a major factor contributing to the economic weakness that afflicted the Jewish community in the pre-state era. Similarly, after 1948, these projects kept the Israeli economy inefficient and underdeveloped. The Left’s extensive agricultural sector and its economic empire eventually collapsed in the 1970s when the Left lost its total grip on power and Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s right-wing government halted many subsidies and privileges that had kept them in business for so many years. But even after the decline of this empire, American charitable contributions continued to bankroll a non-productive public sector in Israel, including a huge number of not-for-profit organizations that agitated for a wider welfare state rather than a free market economy, to the detriment of economic growth and prosperity.

The Dangers of Nonprofits

There have been other recent cases of American Jewish charities throwing good money after bad. Vast amounts of money have been raised to help absorb Ethiopian Jews, endow Israeli universities, and reverse the fatal trend of assimilation. All of these causes were worthy ones. However, it is doubtful that many of these American tzedaka initiatives can be considered long-term successes.

Of course, these failures never stemmed from bad intentions. Some of the poor results were probably due to the mismanagement endemic among many charitable organizations that are not subject to the same market discipline as businesses in the private sector. In the business world, when corporations fail to achieve goals, someone is held accountable. This is not always the case among Jewish nonprofits.

The New Israel Fund

One major factor that rendered some of the American Jewish contributions to Israel counter-productive was the lack of sufficient knowledge on the part of donors. Many Jewish American contributors have supported numerous purported “pro-Israel” charities, but have known relatively little about the way their money was spent. Indeed, many American Jews would be surprised, if not appalled, to find that their money was spent on radical leftist initiatives in Israel and beyond.

For example, The New Israel Fund (NIF) launched “The Palestinian Project.” As part of this initiative, self-described anti-Zionist professors from Ben Gurion University and communist members of the radical Hadash party instigated the Bedouins, long loyal to Israel, against the state, calling for “autonomy” and separation. The NIF also created and funded many “social rights groups” (such as Yedid and Kav La’oved) and Arab “human rights groups” (such as Adallah). Yedid and other NIF-sponsored organizations agitate against the liberalization of the Israeli economy, while Kav La’oved and Adallah spread anti-Israel calumnies and encourage boycotts of Israel in the international arena. The NIF has also supported violent protests by anti-globalization, anti-capitalist and anti-Israel organizations. These organizations were among the instigators of anti-Israel activity in the notorious Durban conference in South Africa in 2001 that characterized Israel as a racist country practicing “slavery.”

Many American Jews have been attracted by the liberal-sounding rhetoric of the Israeli Left over the years. But when they fail to understand what is really done with their money and do not demand transparency, they can unwittingly finance organizations or policies that cause great damage to Israel.

Higher Learning

The problems surrounding the charitable funding of Israeli universities are also worth briefly noting. Israeli universities have long been a favorite place for American Jews to give, particularly in light of the strong emphasis that American Jews typically place on education. Israeli universities are widely considered to be excellent institutions of higher learning. However, many American Jews would be surprised to learn that the social sciences and humanities departments of many Israeli universities are often dominated by post-modernist, anti-Zionist, and neo-Marxist professors. In many cases, they are more radical than the Leftist professors at American universities that have received a great deal of press in recent years.

It is difficult to imagine that American Jews would seek to fund this kind of education in Israel, or anywhere else in the world. Indeed, the original intent of charitable giving to causes in Israel is to perpetuate a pride in Israel and a strong sense of the Jewish people. The professors at some of these schools work assiduously to undermine these values.

Learning From The Past

Of course, not every American Jewish charitable initiative was a failure. Many – like Hadassah’s efforts to improve healthcare in Israel – were great successes. However, few charitable organizations have undertaken a proper accounting of the failures. Few Jewish or Israeli leaders took the time to learn from the failure of earlier absorption efforts. Instead, Israeli immigration services and their charitable partners abroad took decades to correct problems that may well have been solved earlier. This would have helped save time, money and trouble. It might have also prevented many of the social problems that plagued Israel over the years, such as the continued misery of the “development towns,” a failed project intended to help Israel with immigrant absorption that only contributed to immigrant alienation.

It can also be argued that the almost exclusive focus on fund-raising has not helped promote a healthy relationship between America and Israel. American Jewry is rightly viewed as incredibly generous, yet too many U.S. Jews (and increasing numbers of Israelis) feel disconnected and only tenuously Jewish. They do not feel that the community provides them with a plurality of avenues to express and develop their Jewish identity, except in the framework of charitable giving. Over time, this can actually work to undercut the sense of Jewishness originally intended to engender, and even foment alienation among Israelis toward the Diaspora. Indeed, among Israelis a sense is growing that American Jews feel that they do enough by simply giving charity, and that they do not need to visit Israel or establish strong personal ties with it.

This is a great pity. There can be no doubt that Jewish Americans have only the best intentions when they give charity intended for Israel, and that Israelis are deeply appreciative of the support they receive from Jews in the Diaspora. It is also a tragedy, as there is no more worthy and heroic task than working to ensure Jewish survival and revival.

Looking Toward the Future

To correct the problem, Jewish institutional efforts must now undergo a period of reform and greater accountability. Some charitable efforts should be privatized. Individuals or groups of donors must take personal responsibility for specific projects, to ensure that funds are dispensed in a responsible and cost effective manner. Indeed, American Jews should show their sincere care for Israel by taking individual responsibility for the money they give as charity, and by demanding strict accountability for that which they share with their fellow Jews.

The greatest challenge facing Israel – after the challenges posed by threats to its security – is the need to reform the Israeli economy. Israel needs a prosperous economy if it is to continue to pay for its growing defense needs. It must also provide enough good jobs so that its younger generations choose to stay home, rather than seeking more prosperous work abroad.

There is a difficult struggle being waged in Israel between those who understand the desperate need to turn Israel into a productive market economy and the powerful interests who benefit from the government-dominated system, including the advocates of an extreme, anti-productive welfare state. The latter seek to increase the number of Israelis who would live as wards of the state.

American Jews, who have so greatly benefited from their participation in a thriving free market economy, can now serve as role models to Israelis. Indeed, by giving to the right causes, American Jews can help move Israel toward a system that will allow Israelis to realize their tremendous talents and potential.

Daniel Doron is the president of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, a private think tank near Jerusalem (www.icsep.org.il).