Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Philanthropy and Zionism

I see from the discussion about philanthropy in the aftermath of the Carmel fire that there's need for a clarification of the guiding principles - so here's a stab at it.

The idea that Jews from afar need to support the economy at the center is not new. Some of the tithes commanded in the Bible were geared to encourage economic activity in Jerusalem, since they could be consumed only there. That was thousands of years ago. For most of the recent centuries prior to Zionism many of the Jews in the land of Israel lived off philanthropy from wealthy Jews abroad. The deal was simple: every Jew should live in Israel but most don't, can't or won't, so the many outside need to support the few inside for representing them all. This line of reasoning was strengthened by the reality that Ottoman-ruled Israel was a dreary economic, political and cultural backwater, and no-one living there could reasonably expect to achieve much wealth even if they tried, whereas this was possible elsewhere.

Ironically, early Zionism didn't much change the pattern. True, the early Zionists did hope one day to achieve better conditions, so in a way they were asking for investments not philanthropy, but at any given moment between 1897 and the late 1950s this was a nice hope, not a practicality. Even into the 1970s, I can remember discussions about how regrettable it was that wealthy Jews abroad were willing to donate but not invest.

Eventually this changed. I think it's safe to say that investing in Israel today is probably a better business proposition than putting your money in the $ or Euro zones, which is the main reason the Bank of Israel has been forcefully trying to depress the soaring Shekel for the past few years (even before the world economic crisis).

Parallel to this development, the size of Israel's economy and the slowly changing focus of America's Jews inwards have meant that financial support from Israel's friends abroad, wherever they are, plays only a minor role in Israel's economic condition. Exports to India are probably more important.

This is not to say such support has no importance. It does, on two levels. The first is that it strengthens Jewish solidarity, just as it has since Biblical times. Earlier this year I reviewed a fascinating book which goes so far as to claim that the loss of the 2nd Temple and its demand of philanthropic support detached the Jews of Europe from the rest of the nation, and they effectively drifted away for the next ten centuries, some of them never to return.

The second level is the precisely focused philanthropy. Most universities in the US (but not Europe) live largely off philanthropy; this is partially true also in Israel. The same goes for hospitals, cultural institutions, NGOs and many other institutions. This isn't about Zionism and shnor, it's about society being broader than the state, and about significant parts of society which need solidarity to function because the state doesn't - and shouldn't - support them, while they can't support themselves because there's no possible road to profitability.

You're never going to move to Israel, but wish to support the Jewish state? Good. We appreciate it. Come visit and spend money, or invest. If you prefer philanthropy to investment, figure out what part of Israeli civil society you'd like to support. If I had my druthers I'd recommend you invest in fishing-rod things, not fishes, perhaps even in fishing rods that may have universal returns such as education or research, or national returns such as Jewish culture or identity - but those are my preferences peeking through. The point is, there's a give and take, just as there always is when one engages in philanthropy. We're not the poor cousins who need charity anymore, we're partners who offer real value for your input.

And, alas, knowing what I know about the state, simply dumping funds into its bureaucracy probably won't give you the biggest bang for your buck.


Tamar said...

I don't know of anyone suggesting direct donations to the State (we Israelis certainly "donate" plenty directly through our taxes).
Yemin Orde Youth Village, OTOH, was an inspiring and very worthwhile charity before the fire, and is desperately in need of funds now that much of it has burned down. Housing and educating a combination of orphans, teens from dysfunctional families, and teens from the former USSR whose parents are abroad, Yemin Orde has a wonderful record of turning these kids into functioning and productive citizens of Israel (and no, I don't work for them!)
Please see http://www.yeminorde.org/pages/friendsmission.aspxhttp://www.yeminorde.org/pages/friendsmission.aspx to donate from US (tax-deductible). It's tax deductible in Israel as well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tamar for the recommendation. I like to find places that are off the radar.

My immediate thought was to help replace trees!


Micha said...

Both the Israeli and American Jews need to move away from this mutually condescending attitude. The Americans should stop viewing Israel as the poor pathetic cousin who is propped by the generosity of his rich Jewish-American relatives. The Israelis need to stop viewing American Jews as fat cats too lazy for real Zionism. We should view ourselves as equal partners in the same project -- maintaining and cultivating the Jewish people.