Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s denial last week that northern Israel is in dire need of aid — the very picture painted by Jewish federations that have raised millions in war relief funds — is etching the latest chapter in the complicated tale of diaspora philanthropy.
The United Jewish Communities’ Israel Emergency Campaign has raised some $260 million to address economic and social service needs created by the month-long rain of Hezbollah rockets last summer and the continuing shelling of Sderot from Gaza in the south.
But Olmert said the northern economy was booming and dismissed any lingering effects from the war in a meeting last week with visiting journalists from American Jewish newspapers. That struck a particularly raw nerve at a time when researchers funded by U.S. donations were compiling data showing widespread effects of post-traumatic stress, particularly among students, tied to last summer’s war.
Citing his own psychology studies at Hebrew University, Olmert dismissed the assertion of psychologists that post-traumatic stress disorder was a problem fueled by lack of confidence in the government. Rather than trauma, he suggested, many Israelis were feeling disappointment that the war had not ended with a more decisive victory, and that they had fallen victim to high expectations created by the media.
“I hope to God he doesn’t drive philanthropists away,” said professor Eliezer Jaffe, co-chair of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at Hebrew University and chairman of the Israel Free Loan Association, which has provided $2 million in loans to people in the north. Most of the loan money came from foreign donations.
It is not the first time an Israeli official has rocked the American Jewish organizational world with mixed signals, at best, about its work.
“[Former Finance Minister] Avraham Shochat denied the need for Israel Bonds,” said Steven M. Cohen, a former sociology professor at Hebrew University. “As prime minister, Yitzchak Rabin denied the need for AIPAC, [deputy foreign minister]Yossi Beilin denied the need for the UJA and [President] Ezer Weizman denied the need for any diaspora Jewish help except if Jews would make aliyah.
“Even aid from the U.S. government is seen with some ambivalence because the very provision of aid is testimony to the incomplete nature of the Zionist experiment,” Cohen added.
Olmert, whose aides stipulated that he could be paraphrased but not directly quoted as a condition of the meeting, allowed that some suffered discomfort and inconvenience during the conflict that killed 43 civilians, injured hundreds and caused tens of thousands to flee the region. While still downplaying the situation, Olmert said he did not want to suggest that people didn’t need any help from the Jewish community.
He depicted the funding from Americans as a useful expression of Jewish solidarity, calling it helpful and significant, but he insisted that media reports of continued disruption of life in Israel’s northern communities struck by Hezbollah attacks were exaggerated and artificial.
Those remarks sent officials of the United Jewish Communities, which sponsored the journalists’ mission, into damage-control mode. The organization had lined up numerous Israelis — mothers and children, teachers and service providers, Ethiopian immigrants and Israeli Arabs — to express gratitude through the Jewish media to American givers for their largesse.
The money allocated, $232 million out of $260 million raised, has funded everything from counseling for rescue workers to enhancing bomb shelters, summer camps and community centers and after-school programs. The UJC’s Israel Emergency Campaign also allocated more than $18 million for economic assistance, consulting and subsidized loans to prevent the closure of small businesses struggling since the war. The programs are administered by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Ethiopian National Project and other groups.
In a statement issued immediately after the meeting, UJC Director General in Israel Nachman Shai said, “The IEC projects underway meet the needs of the people in the north and south in full coordination with the government of Israel.”
Jaffe said Olmert’s remarks were reminiscent of the prime minister’s reaction last year to wealthy businessman Arkady Gaymarak’s financing of the evacuation of citizens of the north, which he dismissed as “a millionaire’s promotional trick.”
“Unfortunately it’s a gut reaction to the fact that when government is not performing the way it should be, then philanthropy gets involved and makes him look bad,” said Jaffe. “Instead of saying thanks he goes off in the other direction.”
The remarks by the prime minister may reflect a concern that depicting his citizens as traumatized emboldens Israel’s enemies, or a political calculation that many people in the north don’t want to be seen as needy and in crisis.
“My moshav on the day after the war was back to normal,” said Capt. Mitch Pilcer, a 30-year resident of the Upper Galilee who made aliyah from Washington Heights at age 18. Pilcer, who is spokesman for the IDF’s Northern Command, runs a bed and breakfast at Moshav Zippori in his civilian life .
While escorting a group of Americans across the hilltops of Metulla to overlook the Lebanese border last week Pilcer said reports of lingering trauma were “exaggerated” and added: “A crisis situation is how you show what you are made of. Israelis showed resilience.”
In a later e-mail, when asked whether people in his area needed American money, Pilcer said: “In most cases, these people have a high quality of life and have no need of charity from anyone, anywhere. In fact, portraying brave Israelis, who choose to build their lives near the northern border in defiance of the threats of Hezbollah, as victims needing foreign aid both undermines their morale and downplays the determination and steadfastness they showed during last summer’s war.”
Pilcer suggested, however, that American Jews could play a positive role by replacing war-damaged forests, helping upgrade bomb shelters or aiding legal efforts in the United States to stop fundraising by Hezbollah through front groups.
No one, including Olmert, is saying the money isn’t being put to good use. But his comments beg the question: Would the millions raised for Israel be provided by its government if American Jewish charities were less generous or successful?
“Fundraising has always been a critical statement of ‘all Israel is responsible for one another,’” says Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations. “It’s an expression of Israel-diaspora ties. … When Yossi Beilin tried to dismiss the importance of federations, I don’t think he fully understood the importance of fundraising to strengthen ties between world Jewry.”
Added John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation: “The need from Israel does not take into account the fact that those who care about Israel want to contribute financial resources to the people of Israel at all times but particularly at times of crisis, and in this way participate in what is arguably the most significant undertaking of the Jewish people at this time. … The giving of tzedakah responds to needs of both the recipient and the giver.”
The controversy comes at a time when Israel enjoys a robust, growing economy largely fueled by its technology market. Merrill Lynch recently reported that there were 7,200 millionaires in Israel in 2006, up 12.9 percent from the previous year. Some may ask if Israelis should soon start their own federation.
“Many philanthropists in Israel are not waiting for the go-ahead from the prime minister,” said Jaffe. “They’re saying, I can do this on my own.”
But the time when American aid will be obsolete is a long way off. Ruskay of UJA-Federation, which raised $45 million for the Israel Emergency Campaign, said the Jewish state’s leaders could take “justifiable pride in Israel’s accomplishments and its robust economy and may be understandably ambivalent about accepting North American philanthropic support.”
But he added: “I urge them to join me in my office for a few days and witness the parade of leaders from Israeli not-for-profit organizations — that serve the Ethiopian community, that respond to children in need, that seek to strengthen Jewish education and the Jewish identity of Israelis, that are working to enrich the democratic fiber of Israel —who are eloquent in their requests for financial support from UJA-Federation and the North American Jewish community.” Jaffe added that Olmert’s attitude was ironic because the government factors projected philanthropic money into its budget.
“He is counting on that money because it enables him to cut back on government services,” says Jaffe. “He did that during the war.”