Friday, January 01, 1999


(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week in late 1998)

According to those who measure the wealth of nations, on a per capita basis Israel is now one of the most affluent. The signs of this affluence are everywhere in the country, in the modern and ever-expanding highway system, in a building boom that has made the construction crane the national bird of Israel and, most tellingly, in the luxurious lifestyle of many Israelis.

Any lingering doubts about this lifestyle should have been dispelled by a remarkable set of statistics that appeared a few weeks ago in this newspaper. One out of four Israelis older than 18 and a total of between 600,000-700,000 were expected to travel abroad in August. According to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, favorite destinations include New York, London, Paris and Rome, places where the living – especially for tourists – isn’t cheap. Israeli newspapers carry ads for excursions to Alaska and other exotic locales at $5,000 a head.

There are tons of hard currency floating around the country, giving impetus to shopping sprees that none of us would permit ourselves or our children to indulge in. Much of the story is old, as for years Israelis have earned tremendous sums from tourism, personal transfers of funds and the philanthropic income of a great number of communal institutions and organizations. Of late, foreign investment in Israeli industry, primarily the technology sector, has added importantly to the flow.

While this is testimony to the creativity and hard work of Israelis, it remains that the country is flowing in money, if not also in milk and honey.

For all of the incontrovertible evidence of affluence, Israeli leaders continue to shnorrer, maybe because the role has become part of the job description. Prime Minister Netanyahu is promising change, although at a pace that ensures that it will be business as usual for a long time to come. At a celebration commemorating Israel’s half-century, he said that in another fifty years Israel would support overseas Jewish communities. That is, whatever remains of meaningful Jewish life in the Diaspora. When we consider what has been lost in the U.S. and elsewhere since 1948, it isn’t abstract speculation to wonder what might be left to be salvaged when the twenty-first century reaches its midpoint.

The appropriate issue is, in any case, Israel’s present economic condition, how it presents itself to world Jewry and how world Jewry responds. While there have been changes in Federation and other philanthropic funding formulas, these have been modest and they reflect, in the main, ideological preferences rather than a coming to grips with the fundamental question of whether Israel needs or deserves all of the philanthropic support that it is receiving. In my view, it does not. Our charity can be far better spent at home. A change in philanthropic priorities will not deprive Israel of other lucrative sources of income.

Admittedly, a substantial proportion of Israelis are economically deprived. Successive Israeli governments have lavished great sums on all sorts of construction projects, while expenditures on human needs, including such vital things as teachers’ salaries, have lagged far behind. Inequality in the distribution of wealth and inequities in public spending are common to all societies and they are scarcely susceptible to improvement via the philanthropic patterns that characterize Israel-Diaspora relations. In fact, the evidence shows that our charity has inordinately added to the wealth of the privileged, without having much of a salutary impact on the have-nots.

There are ways to directly assist needy Israelis and there is great merit to giving charity in this fashion. But it is a fantasy to think that our institutional philanthropy will improve the lives of the neediest Israelis.

Those who advocate the maintenance of the philanthropic status quo apparently believe in the “so what?” argument. So what, they reason, if the support given to Israel enriches a society that is already affluent. Israel is the Jewish State, our greatest treasure, and whatever we give advances its welfare. Furthermore, its people have sacrificed and struggled and they continue to pay a high emotional price because they live in a dangerous neighborhood surrounded by enemies. Israelis have earned the comforts that they now enjoy.

This argument has merit only if we black out certain realities. It’s not a mitzvah to abet and encourage spending sprees and hedonism. It’s not a mitzvah to support the construction of communal and public buildings in nearly every nook and cranny of the country and it is certainly not a mitzvah for American Jewish philanthropy to underwrite luxurious living while much of our own communal sector desperately needs assistance.

At the communal and institutional level – but not at the personal level – the contrast between Israeli and American Jewish life is startling. The U.S. is presumably awash in affluence and American Jews are near the top of the socio-economic ladder. Yet, a large majority of our schools are in shabby facilities and except for some community centers and synagogues, there is little to write home about. When our Federations get around to supporting continuity and education projects or other initiatives that aim to promote American Jewish survival, invariably the portions that are doled out are parsimonious. Grants usually are a few dollars north or south of the $10,000 mark. What is more, the recipient institutions are expected to report that they have achieved wondrous results.

When support is provided for Israeli projects, the level of giving takes a quantum leap. It is expensive to engage in philanthropy in Israel. There are an untold number of institutes, few of which add to our knowledge of human affairs. Typically, the salaries paid to personnel are astronomical by American standards. There are also discrete educational programs which cost about a million dollars each for no more than a handful of students, some of whom are part-time. Amazingly, American Jewish philanthropists are in love with these kinds of activities, although they would never permit a comparable level of extravagance back home.

All told, the non-profit sector in Israel lives handsomely off governmental and philanthropic doles and there isn’t anything like it in these former colonies. Our philanthropists are being sucker-punched and yet they come back for more. So what, they seem to be saying, if the money is wasted, at least it’s being wasted in Israel. No thought is given to American Jewish waste, the wasting away of a Jewish future for so many of our people because we refuse to invest the necessary resources in reaching out to those who can still be reached out to.

The most guilty are the American Orthodox. They pour money into schools and projects in Israel that are already on the receiving end of tremendous governmental funding, while the schools that serve their children and communities are being neglected. As one especially painful example, while the yeshivas and day schools which educate Russian Jews in the U.S. are literally at the point of collapse, there is energetic fundraising for the Israeli institutions that serve Russian Jews and which receive governmental support.

The interesting thing about what is happening is that it is built on a structure of self-justification: Because we invest so little, we continue to suffer great losses among American Jews and because of these great losses we continue to believe that the only place where our philanthropic funds should be invested is Israel.