The future of Jewish giving to Israel

Jewish philanthropy need not be a zero-sum game.

American Jews marching in New York with Israeli flags. How can we bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora? (photo credit: REUTERS)
American Jews marching in New York with Israeli flags. How can we bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Will American Jewish giving to Israel dry up?” That unanswered question haunts the panoply of Israeli institutions dependent on large cash infusions from American Jewish donors.
Why the current anxiety? For one thing, the natural passage of generations creates many unknowns. Will younger Jews who were shaped by developments in recent decades give the same way as did their elders who witnessed Israel’s birth and early years of tribulation? Seared by memories of an encircled and vulnerable Jewish state, American Jews born during the first half of the twentieth century could be counted on to rally at times of war and crisis, even as the wealthiest helped build the state’s not-forprofit infrastructure – its hospitals, universities, yeshivas and cultural institutions. But today a new generation of American Jews with different historical memories and priorities is beginning to play a greater role in philanthropy, either by inheriting responsibilities from their elders or amassing their own fortunes. The jury is still out on how they will choose to give.
Younger Jews, moreover, are familiar with Israel only as a Middle Eastern superpower and thriving innovation powerhouse. They no longer perceive Israel as a young, struggling society in constant need of cash infusions from its wealthy and more established American Jewish relatives. The Jewish state’s remarkably agile economy, high-tech and scientific achievements and successful absorption of large immigrant populations are established facts. Unlike in the past, therefore, the case for philanthropic giving can no longer be made primarily in terms of emergency needs.
Major shifts in American Jewish life also are creating a new philanthropic environment. According to surveys of American Jews, younger age-groups tend to relate less intensely to Israel than do their elders. Much ink has been spilled debating whether this is related to where younger Jews are in their life cycle or whether this is a permanent feature of their outlook. If the former, they may well warm to Israel as they grow older; if the latter, they may remain cool to it.
The ubiquity of intermarriage undoubtedly has also cost Israel financial support. Intermarried families tend to relate far less than the in-married to Jewish peoplehood and Israel. And politics too threatens to drive a greater wedge between American Jewish donors and Israel. An American Jewry overwhelmingly identified with liberal causes and liberal versions of religion finds it increasingly hard to identify with an Israel whose politics and religious preferences are hardly in line with today’s progressive views. Both intermarriage and political alienation are driving the scions of once strongly Zionist families to tell their parents they should give whatever they want to Israel during their lifetimes because their generation will not carry on the family tradition of supporting Israeli causes.
Despite these concerning developments, countervailing trends point to the likelihood of continuing big giving to Israel. In recent years, American Jewish support has held steady between one-and-a-half and two billion dollars annually, hovering in recent years at the high end of the range. In inflation- adjusted dollars this is slightly below funds raised at the time of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. That shouldn’t be surprising: why would we expect the outpouring of support today to match a time of emergency funding when Israel was threatened with invasion from the south and north? Today in relatively more peaceful times, roughly one-third of American Jewish philanthropy going to Jewish causes (as opposed to non-sectarian ones) is sent to Israel. These sums are hardly insignificant for Israel’s non-profit sector, and they are indicative of currently robust giving to Israeli institutions.
So much for the present and recent past. As investment literature routinely states: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
Some signs point to the prospect of strong financial support in the coming decades. One is the considerably higher proportion of younger Jews who have visited Israel. Thanks to Birthright Israel’s free trips, millennials are more likely than older age-groups to have seen the country firsthand. Post-trip surveys indicate that the large majority of alumni warmed to Israel, and those positive feelings have persisted. Less than 20 years into the program there already is anecdotal evidence of Birthright participants who have amassed wealth or control family philanthropies who want to give back by supporting Israeli institutions.
Israel also benefits from the multiple philanthropic opportunities it offers to donors who prefer targeted giving: Orthodox Jews eager to support yeshivas and projects in Israel; donors committed to building civil society by supporting agencies aiding Israelis on the margins or Arab-Jewish reconciliation; and Jews who want Israel to contribute its smarts to solving universal human challenges through bio-medical research, desalinization of water, nano-technology, or environmental know-how.
Ironically, Israel may be the beneficiary of trends hurting American Jewish institutions. For example, support for Israeli medical and technological research appeals to some big donors who may have minimal interest in helping Jews, but they support Israeli scientists likely to make breakthroughs of benefit to humanity. Israeli institutions also have an advantage due to their size: big donors tend to prefer making sizable gifts and regard American Jewish institutions as too small to absorb large sums.
A gift the size of the $400 million bequest left to Ben Gurion University by a San Diego couple would likely not be granted to an American Jewish cause. Jewish philanthropy need not be a zero-sum game. If anything, though, Israeli institutions collectively have an edge over their American Jewish counterparts. They appeal to particularists and also universalists, to the religiously committed and the secular, to those who wish to support a specific institution and those hoping to make a large social impact. Israel at 70 is no less attractive to American Jewish philanthropists than in the past, even if the causes they support in the future will change over time.
The author is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His report, “Giving Jewish: How Big Funders Have Transformed American Jewish Philanthropy,” was prepared under the auspices of the Avi Chai Foundation.