Diaspora philanthropy isn't what it used to be

Jewish Agency

Less of the money donated by North American Jews is reaching Jewish causes let alone Israel. "Globes" examines the reasons.

Who gives and who gets - that is the $3.15 billion question. $3.15 billion is how much North American Jewry gives Israel each year, through a system lacking in transparency, thousands of communities, organizations, and private funds are channeling huge amounts of money to Israel for the Zionist enterprise, right and left, north and south.

Behind the political argument about the legitimacy of donations to various and sundry organizations lies North American philanthropy, which for decades has been giving Israel a political and economic blank check to do whatever it felt like with the billions donated. This narrative, however, which was accompanied by little criticism and a strong affiliation with Israel, has changed completely in the past 30 years. It has changed so much that some see a split between the communities.

The crisis involving the entry to Israel of US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D, Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (D, Minnesota) last week was further evidence of the yawning gap between Israel and US Jewry. Frightening scenarios speak of such a grave rift between them that it jeopardizes the many years of Jewish support for Israel. A recent document issued by the Reut Institute referred to the emerging situation as no less than a "Yom Kippur War" type surprise liable to cause an economic disaster for Israel in the not-too-distant future, and recommended making protection of the North American money conduit a national security goal (former MK Michael Oren spoke in much the same way in 2017 when he was a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office). Delving into the economic data, however, shows that the problem differs widely from this diagnosis. It looks a lot more like a combination of Jewish angst, a political tool for fanning discourse among ideological circles, and apocalyptic and leveraged slogans spouted by organizations trying to reinvent themselves.

The alarming trend: Most of the money does not reach Jews or Israel

In order to understand how much money enters Israel, and how, three main donation channels must be examined: the Jewish Agency, which this year celebrated the 90th anniversary of its founding, and which nowadays focuses on strengthening the Jewish community in Israel and worldwide; the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which unites 150 different regional federations, constitutes a Zionist fundraising organ, and mediates between 670 organizations friendly to Israel; and private funds that are individual initiatives with clear goals and purposes, such as the Marcus Foundation, the William Davidson Foundation, the Tikva Fund, the One Israel Fund, and the New Israel Fund.

Navigating and detecting economic trends in this mass of organizations is an impossible task. It is so impossible that in recent years, there were estimates of the amount donated to Israel by US Jewry ranging from $2 billion (Institute for National Security Studies) to $3.15 billion (Jewish People Policy Institute). It is practically impossible to track every cent; even the government does not try to do it.

"The big claims that philanthropy is being reduced are incorrect," says Dr. Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, deputy director Israel of the Ruderman Family Foundation and a guest scholar at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, who recently published a comprehensive study on Jewish philanthropy in North America. "I can say unequivocally that there is no drastic downturn in Jewish giving. We are seeing changes in the proportions. US Jewry is investing more internally, in reinforcing community infrastructure, and in strengthening the connection of young Jews to the Jewish community. Israel is one value out of many values tying young Jews to their community. The broader goal is to bolster Jewish continuity."

The decline observed by Dr. Bar Nissim began in 2009, when the proportion of giving for Israeli purposes tumbled to 10% of all the donations raised that year, compared with 24% in the preceding year. The most recent figures in the study, which include reports in the 2015 tax year in the US, indicate a continuation of this dismal trend, with 9% of all donations being directed to Israeli purposes, 32% allocated to Jewish purposes in the US itself, and the other 58% to non-Jewish purposes.

A study by Jewish Theological Seminary Professor of History and former provost Jack Wertheimer found that only one fifth of all the donations channeled by the 250 largest funds in the US go to Jewish purposes, let alone Israeli ones.

"This is built into Jewish life," Wertheimer says in explaining the history of the rift between Israel and US Jewry. "We always see ourselves as a dying nation, that Israel may not survive or the Diaspora will die. It's a Jewish theme."

Bar Nissim examined the contribution of North American philanthropy in recent decades, and found that the most prominent change is not in the direction of right or left, but the general aloofness of US Jewry from Judaism. "What should disturb people worried about the connection and searching for trends in giving is that most of the philanthropic money goes to neither the community nor to Israel," she points out. "The Jewish community is already withdrawing into itself now. It's decades of erosion that is connected to sociodemographic trends in the US."

Bar Nissim's study tried to accurately trace how much money enters Israel through donations. In order to obtain the information, she went over the tax refunds of organizations of friends, private donors, funds, institutions, and various campaigns - a total of 1,235 different organizations in the US, which gave more than 21,000 grants totaling $46.3 billion in 2000-2015. This is the wonderful and complex world of the J's - hundreds of different bodies. Some of them contribute directly to organizations in Israel, some of the give the money to veteran institutions such as the Jewish Agency, and some of them donate directly to projects in Israel.

According to her study, 62% of Jewish giving in 2000-2015, amounting to $28.5 billion, was given for purposes that were American or international, not Israel or Jewish. $9.6 billion, 21% of the total, was given for Jewish purposes, and $7.9 billion, only 17%, was given for Israeli purposes.

"This erosion has been taking place since the 1980s. It didn't begin three years ago because of the Western Wall plan," Bar Nissim says.

Wertheimer found the same amounts of money have entered Israel in recent decades, but that they are coming from mega-donors. 90% of the donations come from 10% of the donors, who are part of an aging population - from the silent generation to the baby boomers (those born from the 1920s to the mid-1960s).

Donations in an emergency - Only in non-defense crises

The Western Wall plan is perhaps the clearest example of the widening ideological rift between North American Jewry and the Israeli government. North American Jewry is one of the traditionally liberal groups most loyal to the Democratic Party since the Woodrow Wilson administration. The Israeli government is adopting a hardline political policy, and is strengthening its ties with Republican President Donald Trump and groups identified with the Republican Party, such as fundamentalist Christians. The government's decision to delay the Western Wall plan thwarted overnight a long effort by non-Orthodox Jews to create a shared prayer space and excluded Reform Judaism, perhaps the most organized and vocal Jewish group in the US, which already felt excluded by being kept away after being deprived of any role in conversions, to an even greater degree.

Trump's recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and statement that US Jews have begun moving from the Democrats to the Republicans, while citing Jexodus, an especially marginal movement of Jewish political conservatives, make no difference. The figures tell a different story.

"Trump is hated - I use this word deliberately - by very large sections of US Jewry," Wertheimer emphasizes. Recent polls found that 79% of US Jews having the right to vote voted for Democratic candidates in 2018, compared with 71% in 2016. From a slightly longer perspective, according to party affiliation trends surveys, American Jewish affiliation with the Democratic Party was 69% in 1994 and 67% in 2017.

At the same time, young Jews in the US no longer feel obligated to refrain from criticism of Israel. They emphasize that they can support Israel without necessarily supporting its policy, especially if it is becoming less peace-loving, less secular, and less accepting.

"Parts of the Jewish community feel unrepresented in Israel - there they are all old Ashkenazi men," Bar Nissim says. "There are hundreds of communities and sub-groups in the US, such as Russian speakers, Sephardim, and people with disabilities. Any reference to the Jewish community in the US as a single entity is questionable - there is a variety of communities, and their members feel alienated and excluded. More tolerance of those who are different and different variations is needed - more inclusion and acceptance, and it all ties in with trends in Israeli society."

What has nevertheless changed in giving to Israel because of the political situation? Bar Nissim's study indicates an existential threat. "In the past, US Jewry responded immediately to a war or emergency operation with an emergency fundraising campaign that raised tens or hundreds of millions of dollars within a few weeks. We don't see this today. During the second intifada, the Second Lebanon War, and Operation Cast Lead, we saw an immediate response from philanthropic institutions. After 2010, however, we no longer see this. In the events in 2012 or 2014, there was still giving to Israel, but the US Jewish public did not join in like in the past. The narrative that we face an existential threat no longer works. The only time that there was a peak in philanthropic giving was following the fires in the Carmel Forest. There is a response to emergency situations, but not those with a political or security orientation, or related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

The young generation: Israel is a means, not an end

Even though the money continues to flow into Israel in the same amounts, the worst-case scenarios of rift and alienation are not completely imaginary and divorced from reality; they are simply different. The change exists, even if it is not reflected in the volume of donations at this moment. Israeli government ministries and the large Jewish organizations feel it the most; they are having difficulty raising money in the traditional ways, and are having to cut back or close down activities and rethink their relevance. There are more variables in this equation than the organizations, institutions, and other political forces are trying to portray.

The real change is not taking place because of growing disagreement or criticism between US Jewry and the Israeli government, because these still include Jews who show interest in Israel. The deep change is taking place in the extent of indifference among the US Jewish population. "There are several indications showing alienation or friction of identity in certain forms that may substantiate such concerns," Wertheimer says. "We see alienation from all aspects of Jewish life among the American Jewish population, and Israel is only one element of this. They are staying away from synagogues, Jewish organizations, and involvement in Jewish culture. It's not just Israel, and it's important to emphasize this.

"In terms of philanthropy, I certainly understand why some are worried about the future. The intermarriage rate has soared in recent decades, and this affects the number of Jews involved in Jewish life. It includes various types of involvement, including their interest in Israel, and this affects philanthropy." How? It mainly diverts money and effort to strengthening the connection of Jewish millennials to their Judaism in the US.

The main concern being discussed in the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is that the alienation of Diaspora Jewry from their Jewish identity and from Israel will cause a decline in economic support, and a study conducted by the ministry in 2017 shows that this concern is well founded. Among other things, the study examined the dire consequences of a drop in support for the Israeli economy. For example, it shows that 160 workers will lose their jobs for every 1% decrease in Jewish tourism, and 13 technology companies will lose financing for every 1% decrease in investment by Diaspora Jewry. Ministry of Diaspora Affairs director general Dvir Kahana explains that the processes of alienation among Diaspora Jews are also strongly felt in Israel, which has begun allocating resources to strengthening the connection millennial generation Jews to their Judaism.

"What has changed in Israel in recent years is Israel's massive investment in the future of the Jewish people and strengthening ties with Diaspora Jewry," Kahana says. "Israel spends NIS 450 million annually on activity of this type, such as Taglit (Birthright Israel) and Masa (I Belong Israel). This has no direct economic value; it stems from values that are not cost-benefit. It is not part of a security or economic concept of the country; it is because we regard ourselves as the center of the Jewish people.

"We have to mature as a society," he sums up. "We have to realize that not everything is 'We are the center,' 'They'll donate to us,' 'The rich uncle in the US will send us.' We also have an obligation to Diaspora Jewry. This is a conceptual obligation - let's also bring our own added value from 70 years of sovereignty in Israel into the common dialogue and the round tables - and also an economic obligation - the government should investment more and more in strengthening the connection and affiliation of the Jewish people to both Judaism and Israel."

600,000 US Jews have visited Israel in the framework of programs such as Taglit. This has boosted the proportion of US Jews who have visited Israel to far above that of any other Jewish community in the world, in complete contrast to the situation 20 years ago.

"Today, Israel is perceived as a means of inspiring young people to connect with Israel, and perhaps other aspects of Jewish life, not as an end in itself," Wertheimer adds. "For example, there are programs designed to bring Jews, not Jews with an inclination for technology, for summer training to take part in the startup nation. Others bring mixed couples for a 'honeymoon in Israel' in order to connect them to Israel, in the hope that it will light a spark and interest in Judaism and the country." What, if any, is the significance of the direct acquaintance of hundreds of thousands of young people? No one knows yet knows the answer to this question.

The new philanthropy: Thousands of funds for thousands of purposes

While young US Jews are dispensing with their Jewish identity, collective Jewish fundraising - the famous United Jewish Appeal - has been hit hard. In the past, this fundraising was the bread and butter of the renowned huge organizations, such as the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federations of North America. At the same time, a new decentralized philanthropy with no patience for blank checks and old large organizations began to sprout up. This philanthropy wants to determine for itself where the money will be invested, and insists on seeing change and returns. According to Bar Nissim, 9,000 private and family funds were founded in 1996-2002, with aggregate funds of up to $30 billion. A fund for every purpose, a family for every yeshiva.

Today's donations are not confined to consensus matters, such as aid to the elderly, Holocaust survivors, and the outlying areas. They cover a diverse network of civil purposes. It is a balanced flow of money to right and left, for purposes such as Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria on the one hand and human rights organizations on the other, to libertarian and socialist think tanks, and to conservative and liberal news websites.

"Today, we have no one group capable of integrating the community's needs," Kahana says in order to illustrate the government's problems caused by the breakdown of collective fundraising. "It creates very great difficulty for every project, and we sit around a table with a very large number of philanthropists on a pay-to-play basis. There is no federation or roof organization that represents all of the donors. Every donor is much more complicated. The donor has to be recruited, the relation with him or her has to be preserved, and the results and output have to be shown."

This is not just an administrative problem. The real tumult in the democratization of the philanthropic enterprise involves the stimulation of ideological discourse.

Ostensibly, the large number of donors and projects should be a sign of the strength of Diaspora Jewry and its connection with Israel. Today, however, when it not even possible to recruit donors in an emergency, the number and variety of the donors have become an issue in itself. A new political argument has arisen concerning funding, including efforts to delegitimize certain funds. This is no accident.

"It is also important to mention that the political narrative itself generates donations," Bar Nissim says. She gives the current example of businessperson Robert Kraft, who said in January (just before he was accused of solicitation of prostitution), that he would establish a new fund to struggle against anti-Semitism. "You can look at such a declaration and those like it and say, 'Where does it come from? Is this a new way to raise new money from the local community? Is this a new narrative? Is this a mechanism or a need of the Jewish community? How does this change other organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency?''

Bar Nissim does not mean that there is no need for action against anti-Semitism in the US, which has spurted in the past three years according to FBI figures. She is saying the organizations and institutions need to leverage attractive purposes like air to breathe - purposes and disputes that generate new situations in which their activity is relevant.

While the right and left of the political spectrum are using frightening scenarios of total separation between the US Jewish community and Israel, non-profit organizations in Israel and the US are turning this discourse into economic opportunities.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 25, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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