Giving to Israel
America is not an old country by any means, as the republic nears its semiquincentennial, or 250th anniversary. Yet it is far older than its friend in the Middle East. Since the State of Israel gained independence in 1948, American Jews have looked upon the young nation like a younger child in need of protection. But has our role and our attitudes about philanthropy changed over time?
American Jewish Philanthropy
In the philanthropic world, American Jews are known for their generosity. Regardless of their income, they tend to give more – and more often – than their counterparts in non-Jewish households. In fact, studies that compare dollar amount of charitable giving by religious affiliation show Jewish households giving, in some cases, more than double that of another prevalent faith. Part of this can be traced to the Jewish religion itself, as the concept of tzedakah, or charitable giving, is central to the religion. Regardless of how religious a family is, the call to give to charity and to support the Jewish community seems to be heeded across the country. It is central to holiday traditions and milestone celebrations.
It doesn’t hurt that American Jews as an ethno-religious community tend to be better educated and more prosperous than other communities. This includes the highest average of years of schooling within any major U.S. religious group and the highest percent of households with an annual income that exceeds $100,000.
Between the resources available and the culture of giving, it makes sense that American Jews give and that they give to Zion, to the homeland.
In the Beginning
Donations from the American Jewish community were essential during the nation’s early years, and the young country was quite dependent on the philanthropic efforts from overseas. Without them, it would certainly not be the same country it is today – and it might not be a country at all.
After the dire events of World War II, the need was raw and apparent. Jewish people needed to relocate, they needed safety, and they needed a place they could call their own. Many of them were relocated to Palestine and began to establish the framework of what would become first a community and then a country.
There is a need to continue to donate to Israel as it’s very important for Jews to keep Israel strong and prosperous; especially with antisemitism on the rise worldwide.
Lou Rosenberg, Executive Director of Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA) in Los Angeles
During this time the United Jewish Appeal raised more than half a billion dollars with annual campaign themes like the Year of Survival, the Year of Destiny, and the Year of Deliverance.
Within the first ten years of its founding, charitable donations from Jewish Americans made it possible for more than one million refugees to find a new home – and a new life – in Israel. These people were the heart of the new nation, but they had nothing to their name and were completely reliant on the goodwill of others. The resetting of Jews from around the world who had been displaced became a primary objective of Jewish American philanthropy. Today’s baby boomers can easily recall their parents’ devotion to Zionism. Israel at that time was a mere fledgling, vying for survival in spite of its enemies. The mandate to give was passed down from one generation to the next. Israel and the idea of a Jewish homeland remains important to them, a worthy cause to which they continue to contribute.
Those same baby boomers witnessed attacks on Israel’s sovereign soil. In 1967, when the Six-Day War pitted Israel against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, it only took two weeks for Jewish Americans to collectively donate $100 million dollars. Millions more followed before the crisis was over.
Anytime Israel faced new threats and dangers, American Jews stepped up. Like the 1973 Yom Kippur War, that saw generosity that topped $700 million in aid. From the East Coast to the West Coast, there seemed to be a united view that Israel must be protected at all costs.
As It Stands
Israel has come quite long way since its founding in 1948. The view from here is that of a mature country, one that appears to be stable and in full bloom. While statistics can be difficult to pin down, various sources suggest that Israel receives more than $3 billion in donations from Jewish friends in other countries. An estimated $2 billion comes from America.
Even today, it is believed that one-third of Jewish American adults will contribute to an Israeli cause each year, with somewhere between 8% and 15% of their total giving going towards a Zionist cause. While the dollar amount is healthy, the percentage of the giving that goes to Israel appears to be on the decline.
The younger citizens of Jewish America don’t necessarily share the cultural mandate of Israeli philanthropy held by their parents or grandparents. Instead of barren land devoid of resources, they might see a developed country with beautiful cities, a strong cultural identity, a thriving economy, and a highly educated population. They may not feel the same call to give.
Of course, there are a number of factors that can influence Generations X, Y, and Z and their philanthropic priorities. One may simply be the sheer need they see in the world around them. Social media has given virtually every cause a platform, from the Little Leagues and the PTA’s to environmental causes, social justice, and even political campaigns.
We see the impact of what people give and how it matters every day. In Israel, poverty has nearly doubled since the pandemic and by helping our brothers and sisters there we are making a difference. Giving support is key, so that in this moment we can help end the cycle of poverty and hunger for future generations.
Rena Ben-Ezra, Director of Special Projects, American Friends of Meir Pani.
Another factor is the growing divide between the ingrained liberalism of the majority of American Jews and an Israeli culture that is leaning more conservative as time goes on. Additionally, U.S. synagogues, once a bastion of fundraising for Israel, face threats to their own survival. With shrinking memberships and mergers with nearby towns to stay afloat, their primary efforts by necessity must be to provide for themselves.
The Need Remains
The rosy images we have of a country that has overcome all odds and appears to be unstoppable does not tell the whole story. We see the museums, the universities, the medical centers, and the start-ups. We don’t see the 2.5 million Israelis who live in extreme poverty, including more than 1 million children who go hungry. We don’t see the 30,000 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea trying to immigrate and integrate. We don’t see the nearly 200,000 Holocaust survivors, many of whom live below the poverty line.
It’s all too easy to forget the past. But in today’s America, where echoes of fascism and neo-Nazism have become commonplace in mainstream political discourse, it is clear we can take nothing for granted. A safe and welcoming home for Jewish people must remain strong – and it must have an equally strong infrastructure, economy, and technology to be a light to all nations for all time. There is still need in Israel.
There is still a meaningful and legitimate cause to give.