SYDNEY, Australia – Diaspora Jews should stop donating hundreds of millions of dollars each year to Israeli organizations and instead invest the funds in their own communities.
That’s the controversial thesis of an Israeli scholar living in Sydney, whose newly released Hebrew book has broken the longstanding taboo in Australia on the sensitive subject.
Dr. Shahar Burla, a political scientist at the University of New South Wales, argues in “Political Imaginations in the Diaspora” (Resling, 2013) that Israel presents a two-faced image to Diaspora Jews to maximize the “ultimate goal” – extracting as much financial support as possible from Jews living overseas.
On the one hand, he says, Israel portrays itself to Diaspora Jews as a strong homeland in order to elicit financial support as an “insurance policy” against another Holocaust.
But on the other hand, he says, Israel casts itself as weak, especially in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat and Islamist terror, also to trigger financial support. Burla argues that these two seemingly contradictory narratives, both underpinned by the premise of anti-Semitism, have helped ensure Diaspora Jews continue to donate vast sums via the United Israel Appeal, the Jewish National Fund and other Zionist organizations.
But the 37-year-old former resident of Tel Aviv, who received Bar-Ilan University’s President’s Fellowship as an outstanding PhD student, argues that Israel no longer requires the deluge of dollars.
“Israel doesn’t need this money; it would be better used here in the Diaspora,” Burla told Haaretz this week. “Why do we need the United Israel Appeal to raise money for us? It’s not in Israel’s interests and it’s not in Australian Jewry’s interests.
“In fact it’s against Israel’s interests and the Diaspora’s interests. The money should be used to subsidize the cost of Jewish education,” he said.
Despite a long-running debate here about the exorbitant cost of Jewish education, few ever say publicly what some are whispering in private: that the tens of millions of dollars sent annually to Israel could help guarantee Jewish continuity in Australia.
“Just from Sydney alone, tens of millions of dollars go through the UIA and JNF each year,” Burla said. “Think about what this money could do for the community here. Even if a small portion of the money were used to subsidize education it would have a huge impact."
“People know this is what they have to do, but they don’t have the power to do it," said Burla, who arrived in Australia in 2007, after completing his master’s degree in political science and philosophy at the Hebrew University.
"It’s the same in Israel," Burla added. "People in the Jewish Agency know. Everyone knows something needs to be done but no one has the political will to do it.”
Roni Shorer, executive director of UIA in Sydney, disputed Burla’s conclusions, suggesting that criticizing donations to the Jewish state could be considered an example of “delegitimizing Israel."
“We are proud to be the ones who are raising the funds needed for so many important projects, including social welfare projects for refugees, support for underprivileged children, youth at risk, elderly Holocaust survivors and countless other social service projects – which is what UIA does," she told Haaretz.
“The indisputable facts indicate that many social programs would never have been realized but for these donations through UIA and it is clear that donors in Australia and elsewhere choose to give their money to ensure that these projects also continue in the future,” she said.
Burla did, however, concede that donating funds to Israel is a way for Diaspora Jews to express their Zionism and Jewish identity.
“That’s true, but unfortunately when you go to a UIA function, the ultimate aim is to get your money – that’s the bottom line. It is ridiculous to send tens of millions of dollars each year through the JNF and UIA to Israel when only a small portion of the Jewish population can afford Jewish education here,” Burla reiterated.
About 50 percent of Australian Jewish children attend Jewish schools in Sydney, many of them subsidized.
At last year’s UIA gala fundraiser in Sydney, president Bruce Fink said it had raised $16 million, making it the “highest per capita campaign in the Keren Hayesod world."
Shopping mall magnate Frank Lowy, a life governor of the UIA who fought in the 1948 War of Independence, reminded the 1,000-plus donors in the audience of the countless lives lost defending Israel. “We must recognize our responsibilities and pay our dues,” Lowy said.
Burla believes discontent is mounting among the younger generation of Australian Jews, despite the country being “arguably the most Zionist Jewish community in the Diaspora.”
“In particular, the lack of trust reflects a growing sense among the younger generation of the Australian Diaspora that Israel sees Australian Jewry as a resource that can be used for its own needs, without any accountability or mutual responsibility,” Burla wrote at the time of the scandal surrounding the death of Australian-born Ben Zygier, an alleged Mossad agent who committed suicide inside an Israeli maximum-security prison in 2010.
“Israel must start a dialogue now with different elements in the Jewish community, and not only the establishment,” Burla wrote.
He also cited former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who said in a 2008 speech to the Jewish Agency, “For the past 60 years, Israel has been the project of the Jewish people. For the next 60 years, the Jewish people will need to be the joint project of Israel and Jewish communities around the world."
Burla’s conclusions are based on research undertaken between 2007 and 2010, centering on two communities – Denver, USA, and Sydney, Australia.