By Helping Elite Veterans, I Am Also Helping the Weak

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Ehud Barak, 2016.
Ehud Barak, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“One might expect that a person who was prime minister would be familiar with society’s needs, and know who is more in need of an opportunity granted by philanthropists.” So wrote Tali Heruti-Sover last week in her criticism of my decision to donate more than half a million shekels ($130,000) for scholarships to go to veterans of the Israel Defense Forces special-ops unit, Sayeret Matkal. Indeed, I know well who needs the generosity of philanthropists, and those are exactly the people who benefit from the activities of the Sayeret veterans association.

My donation to the association was aimed at retaining those outstanding people who have been through Sayeret Matkal within the circle of those who volunteer and contribute to the community. The association helps, inter alia, to fund scholarships for unit veterans that are conditioned on taking on volunteering assignments that generate over 20,000 hours of service a year. Allowing these veterans to keep helping others is vitally important. We can already see that their inherent distinction is trickling down to the young people from weaker populations who participate in projects sponsored by the association.

Heruti-Sover argues that the truly generous and just thing to do would be to find the weakest populations and help them advance toward the stronger ones. There’s no disputing that, and it is in this spirit that the Sayeret veteran’s association operates, by running programs in Ofakim, Hatzor and Lod to increase teens’ motivation to enlist and do meaningful IDF service, as well as to help young academics find jobs appropriate to their skills.

Beyond that, Heruti-Sover ignores the many studies showing that true social change can only come through the empowerment of the weaker populations, not necessarily by giving them money directly. We’ve all heard the saying, "Give a man a fish, and you have fed him once. Teach him how to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime." Rather than donating 120 scholarships to weak populations, the association’s vision is to leverage 120 unit veterans so they can motivate and give tools to 1,200 young people that will launch them on a path to success that will include meaningful IDF service, higher education and a good job.

If we look at the nonprofit sector, Heruti-Sover’s description of the situation as one of limited resources that can’t meet all the needs is accurate. That’s why every donation should be made with careful consideration. It would be best if the state, which also allocates resources to helping various groups get ahead, as well as those in the private sector who donate, would seek and identify force multipliers, finding points at which their contribution creates a continuing network of influence consisting of as many people as possible, and not just a pinpoint effect that in many cases is no more than a Band-Aid on a wound.

In the end, the writer unfortunately succumbs to the prejudice many have about Sayeret Matkal soldiers. It’s true that these are outstanding people, combat and combat-support veterans whose military service will enhance their resume and gives them skills that will be useful later in life. Yet the unit has a broad range of people in it, not all of them necessarily from strong economic backgrounds whose families can easily finance their higher education.

Moreover, it’s unfortunate that nowadays, combat or combat-support service in an elite unit is no guarantee of success in life or in finding a good job. Israeli society has changed, and the gratitude due these fighting men has dropped drastically in recent years.

Let me summarize by saying that I am proud of my contribution to an association of exceptional people that has set goals of fomenting social change and enhancing the resilience of Israeli society. I believe that if such people become part of the circle of giving, Israeli society will grow stronger and social gaps will be reduced.

The writer is a former prime minister of Israel.

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