Analysis: Misunderstanding the rich American uncle

Couldn't Israelis learn something from American Jewish culture?

talansky court 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
talansky court 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The prime minister's latest scandal has opened up discussion on the nature of American Jewish involvement in Israeli affairs. While some have written off Ehud Olmert - a politician who would take untraceable cash from a supporter - and Talansky - a supporter who would give it - as bad apples, many Israelis are expressing cynicism and even disgust at the notion of American Jewish involvement and influence in Israel generally and in the country's politics specifically. It was Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz in mid-May, who expressed this feeling at its most virulent, taking the issue of cash envelopes and extending it to the entire concept of giving to Israel. "Serious questions need to be asked about the relationship between American Jewry and Israel," he writes. "It's time to reorganize the system, to air out the relationship... a relationship that has long become distorted and even harmful." According to Levy, this is "the kind of schnorring that begins with Shaare Zedek Medical Center and could end in court... It is time to say to the American Jews directly, as is customary among relatives: Leave us alone. Take your hands off Israel." At the end of the day, according to Levy, considered a voice of the far left, "the name of the game... is money. Everything is about money, even if it is concealed under a pile of cliches and promises. From the prime minister to the mayor of a remote town, from hospital director to community center manager - all look to Jewish-American money. That's a guarantee for unhealthy relations... We are dealing with an impatient, aggressive Jewish community, whose aggression is reflected in its relations with Israel." Levy is perhaps overly fond of unfortunate stereotypes. He, like most Israelis, knows nothing about American Jewry, and still less about their philanthropy. But in this case, he is at least reflecting a sentiment heard often on the Israeli street in recent days, not least because of the state's 60th birthday party, when US casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson bought a seat and a stage appearance alongside President Shimon Peres for a measly $3 million. Talansky's testimony on Tuesday did not help to dispel this perception. In such an atmosphere, it is worthwhile to step back from the narrow Israeli perspective and notice that, in fact, Talansky does not reflect American Jewish wealth and the culture that has developed around giving it away. First, American Jews give not just a few dollars to Shaare Zedek, as Levy suggest; $17.8m. was raised in 2005 alone by the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Hadassah raised $134m. and the Friends of the IDF took in $47.6m. in 2006. All three US-based nonprofits reflect the scope of American Jewish donations to Israeli society, which certainly reaches well past the $2 billion mark annually. But what they don't reflect is the fact that Israel makes up a very small part of the philanthropic agenda for American Jews. Though Israelis were justifiably focused on $9,000 envelopes this week, American Jews give billions inside America. According to a recent study by Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg, the largest Jewish foundations in the United States, some 56 of them, worth about $17b., gave the vast majority of their contributions, 79 percent, to non-Jewish causes, mainly universities, hospitals and the arts. Just one-third of the remaining 21% - a tiny 7% - went to anything Israel-related. American Jewish giving, like American philanthropy generally, is based on a culture of personal generosity that Israelis have never encountered and don't understand. The American philanthropic industry is so large and sophisticated that an entire profession of highly-trained professionals, with advanced degrees in economics and management, exists to assist wealthy people (and literally thousands of American Jewish foundations) in giving away hundreds of billions of dollars each year in effective ways. For American Jews, becoming wealthy is assumed to carry with it the responsibility to share the wealth and to enable others to make their own way. Couldn't Israelis, who clicked their tongues this week at Olmert's American Jewish contributors and alleged corruption, learn something from this American Jewish culture, particularly now that a "Hebrew tiger" era of strong economic growth has forged a new cadre of wealthy locals who have barely begun to follow American Jews on the road to generosity?