The combination of hypocrisy and damage stemming from Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s recent incarnation of the NGO labeling bill has left a trail of destruction behind it. Putting aside, for a moment, the veracity and importance of criticisms of the bill, the debate also provides an opportunity to examine political philanthropy in Israel in a wider context, both in the past and at present.
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From the inception of the Zionist movement, Jewish philanthropy from abroad, especially the United States, was critical to Israel’s establishment. This trend continued in 1948 and after the official recognition of the State of Israel. During its first years, Israel received donations equivalent to 25 percent of the country’s gross national product at the time. Since those days, the philanthropic landscape has changed quite a bit. Israel’s national budget has grown considerably, in direct correlation to a sharp decline of the share arriving from Jewish communities outside the country. At the same time, a parallel process of privatizing Jewish philanthropy started taking form. More and more American individuals, foundations, and even specific federations, channel their contributions directly to specific causes and organizations in Israel, rather than to the state or to various Zionist institutions that predated the state.
The consequences of this trend in philanthropy are varied and substantial (one consequence, for example, is the growing governmental support of NGOs, many from the political right, with the government playing a quasi-philanthropic role). Of particular interest here is the way in which Israeli philanthropy took shape in relation to Diaspora Jewish philanthropy. Israelis, even the most affluent ones, give far less than their Jewish counterparts overseas (both in relative and in absolute numbers). Moreover, donations to political causes are rare.
It is common knowledge among Israeli NGO fundraisers that Israeli contributions to political NGOs are as rare as condors in California. All fundraisers can name the handful of millionaires who give to political causes. However, I would argue that Shaked’s McCarthy-styled bill provides an opportunity to challenge this reality by breathing new life into Israeli political philanthropy.
First, Israeli political entrepreneurs must accept what Americans are well aware of: Philanthropy is a cultural and communal action, one which can bring about the engagement of a society when cultivated properly. In other words, political philanthropy need not begin at the top or be spearheaded by the very wealthy. This sector of society is, in fact, more likely to get on board after the trend of political giving has been established in wider circles of the middle and upper-middle class. Outspoken political alignment is far less risky for the middle class in Israel, making this sector a powerful base from which this culture of giving can begin to grow.
Furthermore, in cultivating the culture of political philanthropy in Israel, large donations need not be the goal. The main goal of non-profits should, at first, be the creation of ever-increasing circles of donors, each giving between 500-1,000 shekels annually, the rough equivalent of $100-250. Building such a support base is not only a wise move against the relentless attacks on foreign governmental funding to NGOs, it also has a healing potential for Israel’s wounded liberal camp, in its call to members to put their money where their values, ideals, and collective interests are.
Last year's Labor Party primaries tapped into the immense potential of generating numerous smaller-scale donations. During their respective campaigns, MKs Stav Shaffir and Shelly Yacimovich raised hundreds of thousands of shekels from a large number of small contributors. This money helped both MKs in several ways. First and foremost, they raised the funds needed to cover the campaign expenses. Second, the donations were a public expression of popular support long before the ballots boxes were positioned. Third, donations made it possible for supporters who are not young, on-the-ground activists to translate their support into meaningful action.
Like Shaffir and Yacimovich, progressive and liberal NGOs in Israel must begin to cultivate a wide circle of Israeli funders. The benefits of such an effort lie not only in the financial arena, but extend beyond: to creating a cultural atmosphere in which philanthropy is regarded as a kind of “membership fee” for those belonging to a specific political camp, with a shared set of convictions, upon which they act.
The writer is a former director of programs at Molad: The Center for Renewal of Israeli Democracy.