Come the Awakening: It's Time for Israelis, and All Jews, to Wake Up

On this holiday of freedom, we can say that the social protests debunked Israel’s idealistic narrative. Will they bring true change? Probably not – salvation requires a new generation of social leaders

During holiday seasons in Israel and around the world, the custom is to seek an optimistic angle, particularly when producing a magazine about renewal, like this one. As the spring flowers burst into bloom, it is a golden opportunity to wax loquacious on the awakening Israeli public, these wonderful people who comprise the amazing mosaic that is Israeli society. It is an opportunity to write about self-improvement − renewing oneself, one’s life, one’s livelihood; how to be a better person, parent, manager, employee or citizen.

This isn’t going to be one of those articles. You aren’t about to learn about some magic renewal formula. You aren’t about to be uplifted. You can look for that elsewhere in this magazine, in other publications, or in the excellent traditional Jewish texts filling the press in these days before Passover.

With your permission, I want to discuss the crying need for the Israelis in Zion, and of the Jews outside Israel, to wake up.

This has nothing to do with the Iranian threat, or the myriad demographic threats that we love to scare ourselves with. I’m talking about something much earthier, simple and mundane, something we don’t usually like to talk about, certainly not on the eve of the holiday celebrating our emancipation from bondage.

Eran Wolkowski

Last year’s social-justice protests changed Israel’s narrative. The story that Israelis told themselves and Jewry in America and Europe over the last decade simply proved to be false.

We told ourselves and them that we have a wonderful country whose only problem is the security threat; that we have an amazing start-up nation that rewrites economic theory whose only snag is the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers.
But the protests exposed the great lie. Israelis’ eyes were opened.

The smokescreen of security claims, the ceaseless preoccupation with the Palestinians, the ultra-Orthodox and the settlements was merely a wily tactic by decision makers to avoid the true economic and social problems afflicting Israeli society.

Unlike their European or American counterparts, the Israeli social protests were not led by the unemployed or the poor. This was an uprising by the middle class. They were protests by millions of Israelis expounding against the political, economic and social systems that developed over the last decade. Millions feel they have no economic or social future in Israel; they worry that their children will be even worse off. Millions of Israelis feel they’re B-list citizens, while the A-listers are the ones with tentacles in the right places, rammed into the centers of power and money. They are the members of the powerful public-sector unions and the mighty private-sector juntas.

The Israeli decision makers also awoke following the summer of protests, but most are captive within the current political and economic structure. They have little ability to spearhead true change. Don’t hold your breath waiting for significant political change following last summer’s awakening.

But should you give up? Not at all. The revolution in consumer awareness proffers a tremendous opportunity for people who want to spearhead social and economic change.

In the morning I tear and rend, in the evening I sew

An interesting reflection of this is the surprising initiative that began last month, at a Jewish Funders Network international convention held in Tel Aviv. Twenty Israeli philanthropists, each of whom donates more than NIS 100,000 a year, announced a plan to double the circle of givers in Israel and enhance the effectiveness of their donations.

Ostensibly this is no great novelty. The newspapers constantly report on philanthropists cutting ribbons on new hospital wards or university buildings, or launching educational programs. But this could be the harbinger of a bigger change.

Israeli philanthropy in recent years has originated mainly with big business, mainly monopolies and companies that depend on cozy government regulation or that have terrible reputations. The donations and social activities are intended to burnish their grubby images or alleviate their consciences: In the morning I brutalize a regulator, then at midday I cut the ribbon on a new senior center; in the afternoon I buy a legislator and in the evening I call the gang to raise donations for a worthy cause.

The ostentation, the loudness and the occasional shallowness and cynicism has not done wonders for Israeli philanthropy’s image. It has tarnished even the pure souls who operate far from the public eye. The public has come to believe that anybody donating at night spent his morning gouging.

Over the past six months, the Israeli public has come to better understand the structure of Israel’s private economy. After three years of newspapers controlled, directly or indirectly, by big business groups shrugging off economic concentration as a nonissue, along came the government-appointed economic concentration committee and ruled that Israel has one of the most concentrated economies in the world. Corporate philanthropy in Israel was merely part of the fig leaf shrouding crony capitalism.

The nicest people nobody knows

In recent years many philanthropists here have concluded that Israel is moving down unsustainable paths, socially and economically. They have not only a responsibility but a clear interest in playing a bigger, more effective and more prominent role.

The JFN initiative reflects this understanding that if they continue to modestly conceal themselves and settle for funding specific projects, they won’t move the needle. Their millions or billions will be drops lost in Israel’s sea.
The willingness of a small group of people to take center stage, reveal themselves and discuss social responsibility must not be taken for granted, especially at this time of social unrest, when people are showing more interest in social gaps than in the security situation.

Among the people taking the dais are names nobody’s heard of: Shuki Erlich, Shmuel Ben Dror, Yael Lipman. There are also somewhat better-known names such as Avi Naor, Roni Duek, Noam and Dov Lautman and Yehudit Recanati.Their willingness to take risks and expose themselves will drive other philanthropists to make a decision: Will they settle for giving nothing but money, or will they assume a social leadership role? To do the latter, they will have to present ideas, values and concrete plans for action. Mainly, they will have to be relevant. They will have to relate to the most painful points in public discourse and to field hard questions. It seems that willingness is gearing up.

The current drive is to widen the circle of donors. This is part of a more important goal, however − to leverage philanthropy, to make it more effective. This is the greatest challenge of all.

Philanthropists, and today’s social activists, need to expand that circle of giving beyond “pet projects,” important though they may be. Israel’s social and economic path, the political paralysis and the crying absence of leadership demand fresh faces to drive change.

The philanthropists and social activists don’t seek to replace the government or public sector, but to strengthen them. Even though they or their parents made their money in the free market, they know that a strong, effective, excellent public sector is crucial to solving Israel’s economic and social problems.

Even if the scope of donation in Israel grows 50% in the next few years, which can’t be assumed given the state of the global economy, the money itself will be meaningless compared with the potential structural, cultural and value changes.

The political structure in Israel, the powerful unions’ control over the economy, the tycoons, and the desultory public discourse make change very difficult. But the philanthropists and social activists could seize the day, be more daring, be more independent. They could take more risks and formulate creative ideas that the politicians and bureaucrats cannot ignore, even if they wanted to.

Raging against the machine, aimlessly

In March, TheMarker spoke with Timberland founder Jeffrey Swartz, a philanthropist and a groundbreaker in U.S. corporate responsibility. Swartz, who seeks to influence structural and infrastructural issues in Israeli society as well, views the social protests as an opportunity, not a threat, for people like himself. The key to social change is civil involvement and dialog with the centers of power, whether they be government or business, he says.

The rock band Public Enemy had a song “Fight the Power,” says Swartz. “I say, no, use the power. What’s wrong with the rage movement is that it has no agenda.”
It needs an agenda, Swartz urges − an agenda of perfecting society, not destroying or demonizing it. Government is not evil by definition; business is not a bad thing.
“Rage against the machine is just a band. You can’t be angry all the time,” says Swartz. The market mechanisms should be exploited to get CEOs to take responsibility. “We are a generation that demands more,” he says.

In the last decade, people like Swartz have abounded, but not many of them are like him. A mere handful of the newly rich decided they could or should harness their abilities for the greater good of society. Some are afraid; most would prefer to remain in their comfort zones and not take unnecessary risks.

The balance is delicate. At the end of the day it’s the government that should supply services and make decisions. But the government exists within an ecology. It can be rendered more effective by social backing and courageous entrepreneurs and philanthropists, who can develop new tools, help change public discourse and help strengthen the common ground between Israel’s various communities.

The willingness of 20 private philanthropists to stand up and unite could prove viral. It could push more and more wealthy Israelis to seek influence, and thereby widen the circle of social entrepreneurs. The challenge will be to forge creative ideas, to tear down consensuses, to attain public legitimacy and to do everything professionally and effectively while learning about Israel’s true economic, social and political problems. We can only hope that the true public awakening has already begun.