Forget the 'Trump Bump,' Will Israel's Crisis With World Jews Spur More Donations to Jewish State?

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A protest by Jewish activists groups challenging the Orthodox monopoly over rites at Jerusalem's Western Wall, outside the Israeli Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, on July 1, 2017. The placard read in Hebrew "Bibi do not divide the Jewish People"
A July 1 protest in Jerusalem against Orthodox control over rites at the Western Wall. Some Diaspora Jews see the recent Israeli government decisions as being hostile to them.Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Outraged by recent Israeli government decisions viewed as hostile to them, Diaspora Jews have been threatening to reassess their ties to the Jewish state. Might this ultimately take the form of a significant cut in donations to Israeli nonprofits and institutions committed to social change? At least one leading expert on Jewish philanthropy thinks not. In fact, he is inclined to believe the bad blood flowing between the Israeli government and the Jewish world could trigger the opposite effect.

“Maybe some programs, in which the Israeli government is heavily involved, like the Jewish National Fund, will be hurt,” said Andres Spokoiny, the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, a group that represents 1,800 foundations and individual donors in 11 countries, the overwhelming majority from the United States. “But I think it’s going to be the other way around. I think people are going to invest more in organizations that promote causes to which they are emotionally tied – religious pluralism and civil society, for example. “

The crisis between Israel and world Jewry erupted over two recent decisions taken by the Israeli government. Two weeks ago, at its weekly meeting, the cabinet voted to retract its promise to create a new and permanent egalitarian prayer space for Reform and Conservative Jews at Jerusalem's Western Wall. Hours later, on that same day, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to advance a controversial bill that would grant the Israeli Chief Rabbinate a complete monopoly over all conversions in Israel.

Both decisions were passed under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government. The conversion bill has since been put on hold for six months.

To date, said Spokoiny, none of his member organizations have discussed with him the possibility of withholding contributions to Israel due to this crisis.

Andres Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. "People understand that by withholding donations, they’re hurting the nonprofits they love," he says. Credit: Natan Dvir

“I haven’t experienced it, and frankly, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said. “After all, nobody gives to Israel as such. Rather, they give to nonprofits in Israel with which they have a strong connection. People understand that by withholding donations, they’re not hurting the Israeli government – instead, they’re hurting the nonprofits that they love. So those who are upset are going to choose carefully where they invest in Israel, but they are not going to stop investing.”

The recent crisis, Spokoiny said in a phone interview, has caused many Jews around the world to realize that their Israeli counterparts apparently don’t feel as strongly about the issues of mixed-gender worship at the Western Wall and conversion as they do. Part of the reason certain Israeli nonprofits could benefit now, he noted, is that “Diaspora Jews will try to change that.”

Spokoiny estimates that the nonprofits receive an estimated $4 billion a year in donations – about half of that from outside the country. The Jewish federation system, which raises about $900 million a year, is the largest Jewish philanthropy in the world. The share of its funds earmarked for a range of organizations and projects in Israel, however, has declined sharply over the years. In recent years, only about 20 percent of the money raised by the federations is invested in Israel.

Next generation worries

Jerry Silverman, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, which represents 148 federations and 300 communities, said it is still to early to predict how the recent crisis will affect fundraising for Israel.

“Nobody has yet called me up and said, ‘I’m out,’” he told Haaretz, “and if they’ve said they’re re-evaluating, I’ve been reminding them what our mission is and what we do. The response, from the four or five donors I’ve had such conversations with, has been that they are not changing their federation gifts.”

Silverman said he is less concerned about the financial impact of the crisis and more about how it will affect future ties between Israel and Jewish communities outside the country.

“Money is not the main issue,” he said. “To me, it’s about the connection to Israel and engagement with Israel, and just as importantly, how is what’s happening now going to affect the next generation. I’m much more worried about that.”

Misha Galperin, a U.S.-based expert on Jewish philanthropy, is even more pessimistic. The former chief fundraiser for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency in Israel, now an independent consultant, believes that unless the Israeli government reverses the decisions that have sparked such outrage in the Jewish world, “there will be a significant downturn” in contributions.

Galperin: “The natural reaction is going to be to withdraw support. I think that for some people it will be an emotional and ideological reaction, and for others, it will simply be an excuse. After all, there has been a trend away from giving to Israeli causes now for quite a while, especially among progressive Jews. And this would be just one more reason for them to conclude that Israel is not a place that they will identify with.”

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