The local government conference currently being held at Tel Aviv University deals with a wide range of subjects relating to the local authorities' activities: the financial crisis, planning and lands, unifying councils and reforms, violence and fighting corruption, local communications, quality of life, education and society, and ties with communities abroad.
The university's School of Government and Policy, which prepared the academic framework for the discussions, provided surveys, criticism and recommendations written by experts on all these subjects. But it is the ceremonial event that will take place today - during which Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), will receive an award for his contribution to local government - that exemplifies more than any academic research the dramatic change that has taken place in the sphere of donations to municipalities and local councils in Israel.
The data presented to the conference indicates a drastic reduction in the amount of donations to local authorities funneled through the Jewish Agency, compared with a sharp rise in the sums from Jewish foundations and Jewish donors to projects that are directly administered by the Jewish federations.
A real revolution has occurred, however, in the field of donations emanating from the Christian world. Today these contributions represent the major form of assistance for welfare projects in local government; there is hardly a needy local council in Israel that does not get assistance from the fellowship's foundation. In 2004, the foundation gave a NIS 100 million grant for projects involving immigrant absorption and welfare in Israel, most of which fell directly under the aegis of the local councils.
"This is one of the best projects established in Israel in recent years," Adi Eldar, chairman of the Union of Local Authorities, said of the Christian foundation. In an interview to Haaretz half a year ago, Eldar said: "The fund supports the weakest members of society in place of the state, which has not managed to help. The fund operates without setting conditions, without bureaucracy. If they weren't giving, no one would be giving. There would simply be no money."
Eldar added: "This money has nothing but a good smell. We should remember that the State of Israel took reparation payments from Germany, and that was a much more problematic source of financial assistance."
The advantages of donations from a Christian source can therefore be attributed to the lack of bureaucracy as compared with the state budget, or donations to the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Communities, the federations and the other Jewish funds which all involve convoluted bureaucracies and include stipulations on the part of the donors about whom they want to give to, the planning, the allocations and the supervision. A series of joint projects between the local authorities and the Jewish communities went down the drain because of differences in mentality and approach between Jews in the Diaspora and local government officials.
The donations from the Christians bring to mind the donating patterns of the UJA and the Jewish Agency (and even the haluka charity funds that were distributed to the Jewish yishuv before the establishment of the state), which are a dying phenomenon now. The Christian foundation is based on a central fund-raising mechanism that receives a steady flow of millions of small donations from ordinary citizens, particularly Evangelical Christians, who are stirred by sermons full of religious fervor about "the chosen people" and the coming of the Messiah.
In much the same way as the United Jewish Appeal in the past, the donations spring from a sense of zeal with messianic attributes, which presents Israel's struggle as that of David against Goliath, the Islamic terror that threatens mankind. And what is no less important to the head of local authorities in Israel is the fact that the assistance for the social projects comes with no strings attached, and in the best case scenario, if it is carried out effectively and honestly, it can help cover the growing debts in the welfare budgets.
The opponents of donations from the Christians are a strange coalition of ultra-Orthodox Jews from the Lithuanian stream, a small section of the national religious camp and left-wing activists. The left is opposed to the right-wing Christians mainly because of their political positions and support for the settlers and therefore it harps on the Evangelists' eventual aim - getting the Jews to convert when the Messiah comes.
Indeed, in their sermons and publications, the Evangelists do not hide their belief that once the ingathering of Jewish exiles is completed, as they interpret the promise of the prophets, the Christian redemption will take place and include everyone. They claim that Israel is where Jesus will be resurrected and, if Israel does not exist, there will be no place for his Second Coming.
It is important to stress that there are no signs that the donations or the fellowship itself are connected to missionary preachings. Eckstein is an ordained rabbi from the Orthodox Yeshiva University of New York, and he makes certain to stress that his work has the blessing of his teachers. The right-wing nationalist camp that is associated with the Evangelical organizations and the heads of the local authorities react to accusations by saying that it is a waste of time to argue about the hidden intentions of the donors before the coming of the Messiah: "Let's wait and see who will come."