Don't abuse philanthropy

The balance between Israeli and world Jewish needs must be responsibly calculated.

money good 88 (photo credit: )
money good 88
(photo credit: )
The Prime Minister's Office revealed on Wednesday that equipment in hundreds of bomb shelters in the country's North and South has "disappeared" - apparently taken home by residents when the war ended, or stolen in the year since. Ra'anan Dinur, the director-general of the PMO, said that at least one philanthropist who went to see his donated equipment "was disappointed and hurt" when he found an empty shelter. Dinur did not comment on why the donated air-conditioners, TVs and other equipment were not catalogued, nor would he say whether efforts were made to catch the thieves. This embarrassing phenomenon highlights not only the ineptitude of the relevant locals councils in taking basic measures to protect property. It also emphasizes the degree to which Israeli officialdom has come to take for granted the generosity of overseas donors. Unsurprisingly, this is fuelling a burgeoning sense among Jewish donors worldwide, and the institutions that solicit funds from them such as the United Jewish Communities and Keren Hayesod, that the Israeli government has come to see Diaspora philanthropy as a kind of perpetual budgetary breathing room. Indeed, one senior American Jewish official told the Post some time ago that "Israeli officials," while seeking philanthropic assistance, "have told us that the Finance Ministry is budgeting basic social services at a percentage of their known costs, telling local authorities to raise the [missing] money from overseas donors." Avraham Infeld, the former president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, said at the time that he had "heard the rumor" of this alleged Finance Ministry policy, and that, if it were true, "the government is making a terrible mistake and driving away donors." It is difficult to ascertain to what extent the government is taking advantage of foreign donors' goodwill, by seeking assistance in areas that should be its own preserve. But with billions of shekels of surplus budget in the first half of 2007, Israel is plainly not the struggling infant of yesteryear. And the former mild murmur of discontent from donors - who read on one page of the newspaper about the growing numbers of Israeli millionaires and about our economic might and technological prowess, and on other pages about a national inability to provide basic services to the most needy - is developing into a rumble. Those who work in philanthropy in North America know that donating to Israel is an important expression of Jewish identity for many Jews in the US and elsewhere. It is an emotional and institutional bridge between the Jewish communities of the world and the Jews in Israel. It has been crucial to Israel's wellbeing over the years, and is still vital in many areas. But there is a danger that some of this philanthropy is being misdirected, to become a taken-for-granted addition to the budget for state social services. Jewish philanthropy is essential to help the Jewish world's - not just Israel's - weakest sectors. In this context, Israel's own immensely wealthy business class has a part to play. As the Jewish Agency has come to understand, and to take action in order to implement over the past year, overseas donations to Israeli projects should be matched with equivalent sums from Israeli donors, most especially from those wealthy Israelis best placed to help. In taking the pan-Jewish approach to giving, it is worth noting that one of the Jewish world's greatest challenges today lies not with helping Israel's poor but with directing funds to assist the poorer Jews of America and the rest of the Jewish world in paying for a Jewish education for their children - education that grows more expensive each year, but that is crucial to Jewish continuity. As Jewish thinkers are gathered in Jerusalem this week to develop a survival strategy for the Jewish world, Jewish philanthropy must also switch into "Jewish peoplehood" mode. There are acute needs in both Israel and the Diaspora - vital, in both cases, to the wellbeing of the Jewish nation. Israel should not be exploiting Diaspora concern in order to channel philanthropic funds to areas where the government should be responsible. The balance between Israeli and world Jewish needs must be responsibly calculated. Precious donor funds must be directed where they are most needed - not to areas where the government is proving delinquent but, rather, to causes where only philanthropy can provide a remedy.