The 5,000-hectare blaze near Haifa in Israel through the Carmel national forest sparked controversy inside and outside Israel this past week. Emergency funds were set up by New Israel Fund (with J Street offering a $10K matching gift), the Joint Distribution Committee, UJA-Federation of NY and the Jewish National Fund.
But nothing is simple when it comes to Israel. Correspondent for The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg, not known for being a stringent critic of Israel, dropped a surprising post titled “Don’t give to the Jewish National Fund.” Israel’s failure to contain the blaze shouldn’t be enabled by coddling Diaspora donors who treat Israel as a “charity case,” he says:
Israel’s per capita GDP is nearly $30,000. Israel is a rich country. The fact that it doesn’t possess adequate firefighting equipment is its own fault. […]
My sympathy is with the people who lost their lives, their families, and those still in danger. It is not with a government that appears to be negligent. And I’m not going to contribute funds that might serve to paper-over the government’s inadequacies.
Goldberg shares the predictable outrage he receives in response alongside a JNF fundraising letter detailing all the fire trucks that donations would buy. Ouch. (Note that he donated to the UJA’s resettlement fund.)
To this, I only partly agree. (And I’m not known to agree with Goldberg often either.) I agree that most of American Jewry views Israel at a charity case. And this should stop. Diaspora dollars fund, according to professional estimates, 90% of Israel’s nonprofit sector. The country nearly lacks a philanthropic culture, instead looking to the (albeit wealthy) easily-guilted foreign relatives. The federation system provides $1 billion a year, often to quasi-governmental agencies like the JNF, to provide services governments should independently. These enable an Israeli government that already neglects social needs in favor of defense. (Or at least uses security threats to dodge pressing civil strife over internal divisions on such services.)
Let’s also not forget that American gives Israel $3 billion annually in foreign aid, more than any other country by far, primarily for defense. Given that Israel spends more money on its military than its immediate neighbors combined, I wonder what budgets they would consider cutting if there wasn’t such aid. Would the government choose less defense spending or a lower quality of life? We can never forget that we Americans are uncomfortably entangled in Israel’s sustainability. The country may never reach self-sufficiency at this rate, which to me contradicts true self-determination.
But it’s unfair to say that all Diaspora philanthropy hurts Israel. Perhaps it’s better to say that donating to fulfill public services is indeed erroneously enabling bad governance. Defense is one, fire prevention is another. Some functions of Israeli society, however, do not belong in the hands of government. Strong, independent civil society advocates for the equal implementation of government resources are integral to a country’s ability to self correct; these must be wholly independent and Diaspora aid welcomed. Art, as another example, isn’t a field served well by exclusive governmental patronage. And particularly as right-wing private philanthropy bolsters the settlement enterprise, it is national suicide to abandon funding those who are fighting back. Particularly those fighting to preserve democracy.
Luckily, the debate inside Israel contains many similar sentiments. There are calls for the resignation of Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai, who has spent more time this year fighting to deport a handful of migrant workers’ children and propping up settlement construction in East Jerusalem. But other voices point out that Yishai is just Shas’ symbolic appointee to that ministry, when the real culprit is Netanyahu’s Ministry of Finance — and his disastrous economic policies and national priorities. One commentor went to so far as to accuse that if an Israeli isn’t haredi or a settler, they could expect to receive no support from the Israeli government. Ask many, what if the fires were started by Iranian rockets? Will the Carmel fire become Netanyahu’s Katrina?
The fire was a call to action for both Diaspora and Israeli society. There are many kinds of security in Israel, not just one. Maybe we can all remember that next time we give, and maybe Israelis will remember that the next time they visit the polls.