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Israel And Philanthropists: A Delicate Dance
When the rockets started coming down again in Sderot a couple of weeks ago, Arcadi Gaydamak, a former Russian oligarch now living in Israel, made headlines by providing funds to evacuate frightened residents.
His action, which many saw as grandstanding, put the government in a tight spot. Officials were annoyed that he stepped in so quickly, making them look slow and uncaring, but they didn’t want to publicly criticize him and make matters worse.
Gaydamak, a billionaire who made his fortune in oil in Russia amid speculation of dubious dealings, took a similar course of action last summer during the war with Hezbollah. He paid to bring embattled northern residents to the beach in Ashkelon for some rest and recreation.
His is an unusual case — he no doubt hopes to parlay his charitable acts into a political career — but it raises, in dramatic fashion, the question of where to draw the line between philanthropic generosity and government responsibility.
Edith Everett, a longtime Jewish activist and philanthropist here, thinks the government of Israel steps over the line when it asks diaspora donors to fund “basic needs” it should be handling, like sufficient teacher hours and hot lunches in the public schools.
Everett, who with her late husband Henry championed the Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry movements long before they were popular, is not afraid to speak out. The couple’s opposition to electing leaders in the U.S. Jewish community who were involved in the tobacco industry was widely viewed as quixotic, but they persisted.
“I’m not sure I’m leading a marching band” of American donors willing to criticize the Israeli government, Everett acknowledged the other day, “but it has to be said. Israel has become a nation that seeks help in areas where it should be providing services itself. And if this trend continues, it makes Israel a weaker country. It’s a sickness at the core.”
She noted that when Israel was a younger country and severely strapped for funds, it managed to provide food for more of its poor and a higher quality of education for its youth than today, when the economy is booming.
The state has slipped from among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of education to 37th, and an estimated one-third of its youth live below the poverty line.
Everett believes that “good-hearted” American philanthropists “are part of the problem,” allowing the Israeli government to rely on outside funding rather than tending to its own needs.
“Philanthropists should use their money for innovative projects and for programs that enhance,” like after-school enrichment programs, she said, not provide the basics. Her foundation is responsible for a number of such programs in the northern development town of Hatzor, supporting the library, community center and public school.
But after making up for extra teaching hours at the local school the last two years, Everett told officials she is not going to do it any more.
“It’s painful, but it had to stop,” she said. “Maybe this will bring about a change.”
During a visit to Israel several weeks ago, Everett said she spoke to a number of Israeli officials, including Education Minister Yuli Tamir, and none mentioned a shortage of government funds as an excuse. Yet the school day is short, ending at 1 p.m. or earlier, and class sizes are large (up to 40 students, with one teacher).
“I want to see Israeli education move forward, especially in the arts and sciences,” said Everett, “but the government is missing the boat.
They’re just not doing it.” And she believes some major American philanthropists, by helping the government out, are acting as enablers, in a negative sense.
Ironically, she may have more Israeli officials agreeing with her than major U.S. donors. Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog and Knesset member
Rabbi Michael Melchior are among those who have spoken out publicly on the need for the state to do more in the arena of social services and education and to rely less on donors.
But Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of birthright israel, said he doesn’t expect the Israeli government to have the same standards as the U.S. government when it comes to separation between the public and private sectors. “It is what it is,” he said of the Israeli system, which is more porous.
“No one is forcing her to do anything,” he said of Everett, but he agreed with her that when it comes to philanthropy, wealthy American Jews are far more generous to Israel than wealthy Israeli Jews.
“It’s one-sided,” he noted, adding that there are very few Israeli business figures who are “exemplars of philanthropy, and that’s a serious problem.”
Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP), estimates that about 90 percent of Israel’s $1.5 billion in philanthropy is imported, which he characterized as “unhealthy.” He noted that Israeli philanthropy is growing, particularly in the last few years, but that it still has a long way to go.
(One Israeli official here reminded me that Israelis are among the most highly taxed citizens in the world, so in a sense they are contributing to their society even before voluntarily opening their pockets.)
Lynn Schusterman, another major U.S. funder, said she is not as “hard-nosed” as Everett about the issue of partnering with the Israeli government on social service or educational projects, which she often does. Schusterman and some others seek to leverage their contributions by expecting the government to pay its fair share — the bulk of the expenses — for innovative projects that prove successful.
“Edith’s concern is 100 percent valid,” noted Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, who said “it takes great energy and smarts” to be an effective donor in working with Israel. He cited successes like the Karev Fund, a supplemental education program begun by ACBP, and a hot lunch program begun by the Sacta-Rashi Foundation in Israel, both of which succeeded in having the government become a full partner.
“The sweet spot in philanthropy is to pay for improvements” in innovative projects “if the government fulfills its responsibility in areas it is obligated to take care of,” Charendoff said.
Perhaps if more funders hold Israel accountable, like Everett is trying to do through her words and action, and other philanthropists are doing through creative partnerships, the government will begin to do its fair share in the areas of education and social services. Otherwise it risks alienating some of its biggest supporters who want to help, but not be taken advantage of.
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