Israel's rich trying to take it with them
Underdeveloped philanthropy among Israel's elite is retarding the growth of local civil society. It also helps explain the resentment of the 99%.
Israel's rich have their back against the wall.
The public is justifiably raging about the members of elite who gaily ran huge risks that didn't pan out in business, and are now pleading for bailouts, which boil down to defaulting on bond debt to the public – the infamous "haircuts".
Politically, the social-democratic Labor Party has taken off in opinion surveys with party chairman Shelly Yacimovich stubbornly standing by her proposal to slap a surtax on the rich in order to distribute wealth in a more egalitarian fashion. In the last few weeks the social-justice protest has tried to reclaim the streets; this time it's directing the brunt of grievance towards the rich. The mood is getting hot, and ugly.
Matters have reached the point that the prime minister and finance minister feel compelled to warn against "hatred of the rich" and remind that the wealthy contribute to the country's economic well-being and help create jobs.
Whether or not the masses take to the streets in protest again, or whether the protest loses momentum, the public's rage towards the wealthy elite is well deserved, to a large extent, not only because of sins of commission, but sins of omission.
What did the rich not do? They have not used their fortunes to give back to society to any significant degree, to the society that allowed them to build that very wealth in the first place.
In its gut, the public feels what the figures show. With the exception of a small number of individuals, most wealthy Israelis do not make philanthropic donations anywhere near the amounts that wealthy non-Israelis contribute to their own societies.
Research conducted by Jerusalem's Hebrew University shows local Israeli philanthropy is miniscule, at least in comparison to the degree of active civic engagement, size of donations and charitable endeavors underwritten by wealthy philanthropists in other countries.
Donations in Israel only reach 0.75 percent of GDP, while in the United States the same figure exceeds 2 percent. In other words, Americans contribute that is three times as much to charitable causes relative to the size of their economy.
This disappointing Israeli figure exists despite the fact that Israel relies in a large part on "importing" philanthropic donations from Jewish benefactors who live outside Israel and made their money elsewhere as well.
Moreover, the data from the Tax Authority regarding tax deductions for charitable giving points to a sharp drop in claimed deductions in this category. That of course reflects a sharp drop in charitable giving.
Local Israeli philanthropy largely takes the form of corporate donations, made by publicly-traded companies; there are less corporate contributions from privately-held companies.
In other words, common investors who own stock in publicly-listed companies are the real philanthropists - and the credit for the donations are cherry-picked by those who hold a controlling stake in the companies through well-oiled public relations machines.
Charity (tzedaka) and benevolence associations (gmilot hesed) are among the most ancient institutions in the Jewish tradition. Only with the help of these institutions were the Jewish communities in the Diaspora able to overcome the difficulties engendered by 2,000 years of exile.
It was only with the help of these charitable institutions that the Yishuv, pre-State Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, was able to lay the foundations for the establishment of the State of Israel.
The Israeli non-profit sector has no shortage of concerned citizens engaged in social issues. But the non-profit sector is gasping for air that only philanthropists can provide. The additional financial resources that wealthy backers could provide would allow worthy non-profit organizations to enrich and expand the breadth of social services they can provide to citizens and reduce their dependence funds budgeted by the government.
Once the non-profit sector is truly independent of government aid, it can exert a real influence on government policy. Such a non-profit sector would develop a vigorous and active Israeli civil society and be capable of instigating necessary social change. The patrician class has been called to rally around the nation's flag.
In most Western countries, the wealthy has answered the call to duty. Not so in Israel.
The writer is the CEO of the non-profit Or Yarok Association for Safer Driving in Israel.