Now that the fire is out

What if the Diaspora demanded something in return for the financial aid it delivers each and every year to Israel?

fire (do not publish again) (photo credit: avi katz)
fire (do not publish again)
(photo credit: avi katz)
THE WORST FIRE IN THE HISTORY of the State of Israel has been brought under control and the process of assessing needs and rebuilding has begun. Residents have returned to their homes, the emergency command headquarters at the University of Haifa has been dismantled and the immediate crisis has passed. In between the recriminations, the government has begun a needs assessment.
And so have most players in the global Jewish world.
According to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), as a result of the fire at least 43 people died, 25,000 were evacuated, many homes were lost and more than 12,500 acres of forests destroyed. JNF foresters estimate over five million trees were burned and initial estimates put the cost of damage to the region at about $75 million.
“The extent of the burnt area is comparable in size to 40 percent of Jerusalem or no less than 7,142 football fields,” a JNF announcement makes clear.
Early total damage numbers come to 1 billion shekels. The Israeli government will surely supply a part. And, as it has been so often in the past, the government will be dependent on the Diaspora for extra financial support.
They will not be disappointed. Even as the fires still burned out of control, Jewish institutions funded by moneys from abroad came through for the State of Israel.
Organizations such as the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee were already on the ground – offering assistance, in addition to their regular day-to-day projects, in a myriad of ways. With schools about to close for Hanukka break, the Jewish Agency organized activities and outings for youth in areas beyond the reach of the fire, and included students from Daliat al- Carmel and Usfiya, two Druze villages that were also threatened.
The Joint paid close attention to the region’s vulnerable populations, including the elderly, disabled and youth at risk, focusing on immediate rehabilitation programs, including psycho-social support, to the affected populations. The World ORT education charity made alternative arrangements for children evacuated from Tirat Carmel’s psychiatric hospital to continue their distance learning through a Web site operated by Kadima Mada, its operational arm in Israel. The JNF began fire restoration efforts, including erosion prevention and clearing of debris.
And the list goes on. Once again, the Diaspora community is coming together, raising emergency funds, to assist Israel in the maintaining of the state.
Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time for the Diaspora to have a quid pro quo.
There are many issues here in Israel that bear direct influence on Jewish life around the world. I’m not talking about defense or security related issues, nor foreign policy. I am referring to distinctly Jewish issues. As an example: the right to marry as a Jew. While Israel sometimes does bow to outside pressure on diplomatic issues, on issues such as these the Jewish state continues to act in a unilateral, unacceptable manner.
This past summer, legislation was initiated in the Knesset that would have led to change in the conversion laws. The uproar in the Diaspora was immediate. One of the leading voices for, at least, maintaining the status quo came from the Jewish Federations of North America – the umbrella organization for the federation movement – who forced the pending legislation to be put on hold.
The organization is a significant fund-raiser and funnel for moneys coming to Israel. What if they demanded something in return for the financial aid they deliver each and every year to Israel?
While the Carmel burned, the government and we the citizens of Israel learned a valuable lesson. We came to realize that in times of need we were not alone. Numerous countries stood with us; not just in words, but in actions. Firefighting equipment and personnel came quickly, from countries as diverse as Greece, Bulgaria, the UK and Russia. Even Turkey, a country with which we have experienced deteriorating relations, unhesitatingly sent firefighting planes. The prime minister was grateful; and so were all of us, citizens of Israel and members of the Jewish people.
Since long before the State was established, Diaspora communities provided billions of dollars to acquire and cultivate the land, equip the military during the War of Independence, support social service projects in the 21st century and more. And they have provided this aid readily, without hesitation.
But in recent years, the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora has become increasingly conflicted. Some of the conflict is driven by the peace process, some by the myriad of issues that surround the “who is a Jew” question and religious pluralism.
Some segments of Israeli society feel the country no longer needs money from outside, arguing that Israel is not a charity case. Others, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader from the Kadima Party, Tzipi Livni, have said that it is time to restructure our relationship with the Diaspora as full partners in moving the state forward.
Full partners means that you work together, consult and compromise on issues directly related to the well-being of both. Full partners means all parties, including the haredi political ones, will need to swallow their pride and show a spirit of “klal Yisrael.” I am not suggesting emergency funds should not be disbursed to those in need. But perhaps, some of the more discretionary funding from communal organizations should be frozen. A radical idea? Yes, decidedly. But I’m guessing the Israeli political establishment blinks first.
The writer, a resident of Jerusalem, is the founder of