Changing charity

The proposed overhaul Jewish federation giving to Israel reflects the changing relations between an increasingly robust Israel and challenged America.

Israel US flag 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel US flag 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has kicked off their three-day annual General Assembly, this year in Denver, Colorado. And one of the major items up for vote is a major overhaul in the way federations give to Israel.
If approved by JFNA trustees, the federations will create a Global Planning Table that will be determine their philanthropic budget policy worldwide, including in Israel.
Creation of the Global Planning Table will have a direct impact on the way the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) are funded. No longer will the 75:25 ratio that favors the Jewish Agency be maintained.
Instead, “the GPT will work to determine priorities, strategies and action in order to make the greatest impact where needed most,” according to a JFNA executive summary prepared for the General Assembly. In other words, local Jewish federations will have more freedom to choose to give to Israel – or not to.
Critics have argued that the Global Planning Table proposal is the result of a breakdown in mutual responsibility [arvut hadadit] and historic partnership between American Jewry and Israel. America’s Jews, claim the critics, no longer want to be obligated to give to the Jewish Agency or to the JDC. And in coming years they will continue to give less and less to Israel.
These critics might be right about their forecast, but not about the cause. Undoubtedly, American Jewish philanthropy has undergone major changes in recent years.
Donations to Israel via the Jewish Agency and the JDC have steadily dropped. In 2007, the agency got $159.5 million, while JDC received $58.4m. The amount has steadily dropped to the point where in 2010 the two organizations shared $135m.
The 2008 financial crisis has dampened philanthropic activity. But there has also been a transformation in the way federations and individual philanthropists want to see their money spent.
If in the past federations entrusted the Jewish Agency, JDC and other philanthropic “managing agencies” with the decisions, in recent years, federations have opted for more self-empowerment by giving directly to their favorite causes, without go-betweens. In part, this is because the agency and JDC are no longer the indispensable intermediaries between the grantors in America and the grantees in Israel.
Federations are doing it on their own. There has also been a conceptual shift from “charity” to “strategic philanthropy.”
American donors are no longer satisfied with providing general support to alleviate poverty, hunger and sickness.
Today’s philanthropists want long-term, systematic and structural solutions. Justifiably or not, philanthropists feel their money is put to better use when they are in control and when working directly with grantees.
But perhaps the demand by Jewish federations for a funding shake-up is also the result of changing relations between Israel and US Jewry. Once upon a time, Israel was dependent on US Jewry’s largesse. But this is no longer the case. If anything, the two countries now share mutual economic interests. The Jewish state has become a strong, prosperous nation with a high standard of living, a good quality of life and an innovative business sector. Israel’s economy actually managed to weather the financial crisis better than the US’s.
Meanwhile, America has been plagued by a troubled medical system, high unemployment, stagnant GDP and a destabilized banking system. Compounding the situation is the fact that the US is overextended militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In contrast, Israel’s socioeconomic ills, while real, are less formidable than America’s and are being addressed on the backdrop of impressive GDP growth of 3.3 percent in annual terms in the first half of 2011 and unemployment below 6%. It should come as no surprise that many young American Jews are opting to make aliya, and not just out of ideology.
Therefore, the proposed overhaul in the way Jewish federations give to Israel should be seen as part of a larger reevaluation of the changing relations between an increasingly vibrant and robust Israel and an America that is looking increasingly challenged domestically and abroad.
If Israel can pay back in some small way American Jewry’s enormous generosity over so many years by ceasing to be an economic burden, this would be the ultimate Zionist act.