JDC Chief: Young Jews Less Willing to Give to Israel

Arnon Mantver, who is stepping down as director of the Joint Israel after 19 years, talks about integrating immigrants and why young Diaspora Jews don’t want to donate to Israel.

Emil Salman

When Arnon Mantver was a boy, somewhere back in the 1950s, his parents owned a fruit juice factory in Petah Tikva. This status earned him quite a lot of insults. “We employed 10 workers, and barely made a living,” recalls Mantver, who has been director of JDC-Israel, the local arm of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, since 1995. “But people in the youth movement called me a capitalist. Free enterprise was not considered the right thing at that time.”

The young “capitalist,” who is leaving his job this month, did not live a life of luxury. When he wasn’t at school he helped his father distribute juice (“We worked, we didn’t talk”), and when his friends went to see the fireworks on Independence Day he washed bottles in the factory.

His parents were sure he would stay with the business, but Mantver rebelled: Another family experience actually forged his professional career. Back in Ukraine, his parents, who owned a large plant for making wine, had been hidden from the Nazis by loyal workers. His father lived with his family in a hole in the ground for 22 months; his mother and her family were hidden somewhere else. They came to Israel with 5-year-old Arnon in 1950, and he already knew from a very young age what he wanted to do: to work in the absorption of new immigrants.

After the his army service as an education officer, Mantver went to work for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry as a caseworker dealing with immigrant families. He climbed the ladder to the most senior ranks, but nothing he did prepared him for what happened in 1989, only six months after being appointed head of the Jewish Agency's Aliyah and Absorption Department. “It was the most difficult year until that point [with very low numbers of immigrants]," he says. But then half-a-million new immigrants began to arrive from Russia, along with an influx of newcomers from Ethiopia.

Today, Mantver, 68, is married for a second time and has five children. He lives in Jerusalem and has a bachelor’s degree in social studies and a master’s degree in communications, both from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He remembers his six years at the Jewish Agency as being intensive. He gives good grades when it comes to how well the Russians were absorbed, for the most part. As for the Ethiopians, however, he gives a medium to low grade for their absorption process.

There is no such thing as easy emigration, but in the case of educated olim (immigrants), he explains, "you must give them a good foundation – in particular, language and housing. “When they told me ‘we will send the Russian engineers to high-tech,’ I said: ‘No, we need to teach them Hebrew.’

"When Israel learned to build public housing quickly," Mantver continues, "a large proportion of the stronger population began to integrate. But there was a complete failure in connection with the weaker links – the elderly, the disabled, those who today constitute the most serious cycle of poverty. The pressure in light of the huge numbers [of immigrants] was so great that it was hard to think in a complex manner that related to everyone.”

Mantver admits that mistakes were made with respect to Ethiopian aliyah, but also understands the process of how that happened, and to some degree is not sure it would have been possible to do things differently.

Studies that have examined the integration of third world immigrants in developed countries "have a difficult time finding success stories," he says. “Indians may be more successful, but that is mostly when they are educated and know the local language. Most communities that arrive from the third world are barely absorbed at all. There's something tragic that goes on in the migration process, especially when the 'opening conditions' are difficult.

"The first generation is worn down and suffers; the second generation is also not always absorbed well, and it is easier for it to deteriorate. Only the third generation embarks upon a full integration process. It takes a generation and a half, 40 years, to start reaping the fruits.”

JDC centennial

The JDC, the largest Jewish humanitarian organization in the world, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding this year. The worldwide "Joint," as it is frequently called, was originally established to deal with problems facing Jews due to the outbreak of World War 1, and in particular the terrible situation of Jews living under Ottoman rule in Palestine. The organization currently has 260 employees in Israel and works in the main to provide social services for various underprivileged and vulnerable populations, in tandem with the government. Its programs operate locally on an annual budget of some $120 million, about one-third of the JDC’s global budget.

What could Israel have done differently [with respect to immigration]?

"Sometimes the best you can do is still not good enough. The first thing that must be done, and is being done more today, is investing intensively in young children. At the same time, you must look at the women: The real revolution in the Ethiopian community is happening among the women. When they arrived only 20% of them worked, and today it is 60% – compared to only 50% of the men. The main problems have been language and understanding the culture. We have not yet finished the absorption of the Ethiopians, even after 30 years. There are islands of success, but they are still too small."

Today at the Joint you are in fact dealing with the failures of this immigration.

“We are dealing with every social problem for which we think we can provide a solution. The social gaps are very worrying. This is a global problem, but the world worries me less than Israel. If we don’t deal with it aggressively, it will deal with us.”

In the short term, Mantver adds, the solution is professional training, while in the long term it is education with a community orientation.

JDC-Israel was established in 1976. If in the past the organization distributed basic goods, today it concentrates on such issues as improving the quality of life, promoting equal opportunity and reducing social gaps. It is active in an entire range of religious and ethnic communities, working among others with children at risk, the elderly, the disabled and of course immigrants. It has also launched special programs to help facilitate employment among Haredim, Ethiopians and Arabs.

“In the past we were an aid organization, and today we are agents – a platform that identifies social problems and knows how to promote solutions for citizens and the government,” Mantver explains.

This creates a situation where Israel’s social problems are solved with money from Jews with a guilty conscience. Half of your budget comes from donations.

"In today’s global society where borders are blurred and people move all the time, various Diaspora communities have begun to take a much more central role in economic and social development of their mother country. We, the Jews, are the classic model, but Mexicans who do not live in Mexico also contribute to the country they came from in a structured fashion, and there are also other diasporas.”

While Mantver agrees that it is of immense importance for world Jewry to support Israel, he says the relations must be mutual.

For example, Israel's government supports such programs as Birthright (which sponsors free 10-day trips to Israel for Jews from all over the world), and that, he says, is a pretty good investment. As opposed to the past, when it was clear that money must be given to Israel so it could survive, today there is a different model: a two-way relationship. “It is not one of donor and recipient," Mantver explains, "but two sides that support each other. It is the new model, and the right one.”

The fact that contributions from abroad are increasingly earmarked for specific causes does not particularly concern the outgoing director of JDC-Israel. He is more worried about the attitude of what he calls the "third generation," the young generation of Jews living abroad today, who often object to making contributions in general. Even if the level of donations is remaining relatively steady for now, the future looks to be a problem.

“Large parts of the third generation view us [Israelis] as an occupying people,” he says. “In the 1970s we were the victim. After 2000 a different view started to emerge, and it is creating a distance [between Israel] and large groups, and in particular young ones. This worries me greatly. If there is no solution to the conflict [with the Palestinians], we will have a problem. We operate all over the world, we help people who've been hurt by a tsunami or earthquake. The Joint’s message is a strong humanitarian one, and when there is a problem with Palestinians, this message is put to the test,” notes Mantver.

One solution would be greater contributions from Israelis. “Israelis must give more, especially those who can afford it. Others can give a little – as long as they do that," he says.

After 19 years you are leaving.

“It is enough,” he smiles. "Now I want to concentrate on the activities of the nonprofit organization I founded, the Center for International Migration and Integration, where I serve as volunteer chairman. In recent years, for example, CIMI helped to end the ridiculous payments demanded of Thai workers who came to Israel. Chinese workers, and of course the Filipinas, are paying huge sums for the right to work here. We need to stop it. It is important to prevent, in any way possible, the trafficking in human beings."