Israel, Justice

The fire in Carmel — and should the Diaspora donate to help?

Carmel fire, photo courtesy of University of Haifa
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.

8 thoughts on “The fire in Carmel — and should the Diaspora donate to help?

  1. Netanyahu’s “disastrous economic policies”? Say what you will about the man, but he kicked, pushed and dragged through many of the reforms that have enabled robust Israeli growth, even in a time of recession and war.

  2. He’s dismantled the social safety net. What good is this “robust Israeli growth” if it only benefits the top 18 families in Israel? Which you see the US trying to repair, not continue down the same disastrous path. Israel has one of the greatest income inequality gaps of first-world nation.

  3. The goal should be to expand the robust growth down to social sectors that are not yet benefiting from it, not to extinguish it through more taxation and regulation. At the very least you cannot contest that growing tax revenues from the high-tech and export sectors can be used in addressing income inequalities. A stagnant economy benefits no one.
    Moreover, I agree with you that antiquated managed market economic models left over from Labor’s reign mean that a handful of near-monopolies (controlled by hyper-wealthy families) are able to squelch competition and growth, and should be disbanded. Just look at the price competition that’s resulted from busting up El Al’s monopoly. If anyone can push those reforms through, of Israel’s current leadership, Netanyahu is it.
    As for the US, well, the elections said everything. Government taxation and spending is out of control, on a federal, state and local level, and people are not going to put up with it anymore. You’re now seeing Obama complying with the electorate’s will and lowering or freezing taxes, instead of raising them. Kudos to the President for respecting the will of the people; a lesser man wouldn’t.

  4. Please. Either you believe that the fires were caused by Sabbath desecration, as preached by the rabbi responsible for the fire services, in which case money should be donated to outreach yeshivas.
    Or you have to believe the fundamentalist interior minister is part of the problem, in which case giving to any of the organizations which pride themselves of cooperating with the Israeli government is just enabling the problem to perpetuate. Giving to anything other than the opposition — I’m looking at you, New Israel Fund — is not doing Israel any favors.
    But the five or ten million to fund shiny firetrucks is small change. I’m waiting for the day when some brave Congressional challenger runs an anti-Israel attack ad: “My opponent supported billions of dollars in aid to a government which finances virulently anti-Christian clerics, governemnt-sponsored clergymen so extreme they threatened to excommunicate anyone who rented a house to a Christian. Why does my opponent use our tax dollars to support such horrible anti-Christian hate?”

  5. 1/ ‘… more than any other country by far’
    What about Egypt?
    2/ Yes, Israel gets a lot of money from its easily guilted foreign relatives.
    Lots of people get money from easily guilted relatives (foreign and domestic)
    Why argue with success?
    2/ Will Carmel become become Israel’s ‘Katrina’?
    I dunno. Was ‘Katrina’ something unpredictable, or was it something predictable like a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico?
    3/ How’s Israel’s economy doing BDS, Carmel and all?
    a/ If the $5-10 million for firetrucks is ‘small change’ what to you call the maximum of $10K that JStreet is offering to launder?
    b/ Name the rabbi that wants to excommunicate anyone for renting to a Christian (as opposed to a non-Jews in general)
    Of course if you’re looking for a rabbi with a negative view of Christians in particular (and Zionism in general) there’s aways:
    c/ PS I clicked on your blog-it hasn’t been updated since mid-2009.
    Always trying to help

  6. BZ, perhaps you’ve noticed that we just had an election. The biggest Republican congressional landslide in 80 (?) years, just four years after Democrats swept into power, and you’re looking at polls? Wake up. President Obama has.
    In any case, the difference, according to the cbs article, of Obama’s tax plan or the Republican tax plan is a measly $70 Billion/year over ten years. Big whoop, when we’ve got nearly $1-2 Trillion in yearly deficit spending third year running. This country needs to get back to work, or all your favorite social programs and Obama’s presidency are in deep doodoo.
    But what am I saying, you’re looking at polls.

  7. What good is this “robust Israeli growth” if it only benefits the top 18 families in Israel?
    @KFJ. I agree with you that the growing economic gap in Israel is a disgrace.
    But, to be fair, Netanyahu had a real economic plan–and theory–one that he carried out as Finance Minister.
    (And I too disagreed with parts of his work.) But,his work is certainly part of the reason that Israel has dodged this recent mega-recession. If you look back, Netanyahu went after those families, in all of his deregulation efforts, especially regarding the banks. That’s why those rich families threw their support behind Olmert in 2006, against Netanyahu.
    In addition, Netanyahu’s economic policies alienated many of the Likud’s base voters.
    Even more, during his first government, Netanyahu made a serious effort–but basically failed–to wean Israel off of U.S. aid.
    So, while I agree with many of these criticisms of Israeli society, I don’t know if the blame really lays with Netanyahu.

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