Misused Diaspora dollars undermine Israel’s democracy

Ha’aretz 6/20/13

Being a member of the Jewish community I have come to expect charitable requests when they come knocking, and, as a member of a global community that highly values charity, I have never minded the dinners, young professional committees and email appeals that come across my desk. It is part of being a member of the Jewish people who lives in the West. My wife and I normally sort through the different groups, picking out whom we want to support each year.

The amount of solicitations that I received dramatically increased when I moved from the United Kingdom to the United States. This was understandable – now that I belonged to a bigger and generally richer community, I was expected to support more global Jewish causes.

Now, I have written in the past about the need to change the donor-based dependency of all the different groups in Israel and the Diaspora. I, of course, do see the Zionist value in supporting Israel through one’s wallet, but I also feel strongly that Israeli millionaires should pay for their own poor.

In terms of Zionist bang for your buck, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces can be seen as the charity to get American Jews to open their wallets for. No group is more perfectly situated to make U.S. Jews feel the obligation to give. Here is a group that basically says, “We fight for the Jewish State, your job is to support us in this mission.”

For many U.S. Jews who feel guilty at the fact that it’s other people’s kids who have to fight, this charity is a perfect vehicle by which they can feel a part of the war effort.

It is odd in general that charity funds support another country’s military. The IDF is very well funded, both through general taxation in Israel and through the aid that the U.S. government gives it every year.

The money raised by FIDF is supposed to go toward recreational rooms and other creature comforts that make compulsory conscription just a little bit less awful. In the words of the FIDF, it seeks to provide conscripts with “love, support, and care in an effort to ease the burden they carry on behalf of the Jewish community worldwide.”

I was surprised then to find out that money raised by FIDF had gone toward paying for a NIS 8 million ($2.2 million) gym for the Mossad. The Mossad is a professional intelligence outfit, not a conscripted army. For the FIDF to provide the Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the CIA, with a gym seems outside their mission statement. How does a NIS 8 million gym for the Mossad provide “love, support and care” to compulsory conscripts? The people who will enjoy this gym are well-paid  employees who choose to work for the country’s national intelligence agency; they are not compulsory conscripts.

What could possibly justify why FIDF decided to fund this project? Is the Mossad’s funding so strained that they cannot train their legendary spies without charitable funds? Is the economic situation in Israel so desperate that the state cannot afford to run its own intelligence service? Or was it that the Israeli government decided such funds were better spent elsewhere?

As Israeli ministries continue to tackle for their share of limited budget funds, those who miss out on the big bucks may lay their eyes on the Jewish Diaspora. There they hope to find Diaspora dollars that will fill the gaps. If the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry wants to do job training but can’t find the shekels, why not find a Diaspora program to fund it? If the Defense Ministry is going to find its budget shaven, why not ask the FIDF to make up the shortfall?

The danger in using charitable funds for programs that should be run by the state lies in the risk of skewing the democratic process. Budget cuts are, sadly, part of democratic governance; if elected officials decide that the Defense Ministry budget is bloated, the Diaspora community should not re-inflate it. If the government wants to cut subsidies to the ultra-Orthodox to encourage them back into the workforce, Diaspora groups should not make up the difference with donations. (Nor should Diaspora groups be expected to pay the full cost of job training necessary for adding the ultra-Orthodox to the workforce.)

The status quo is dangerous. We risk falling into the trap where charitable money replaces the role of the state. This has the potential to both absolve the state from its responsibilities and prevent it from carrying out it’s polices. As a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Israel is not the charity case it once was. To continue to treat it as such is a disservice to all involved.



Identifying a nation through its memorial day

Ha’aretz 11/15/12

Having grown up in London, settled in the United States and had the rest of my family make aliya, I have experienced all three countries’ rituals of memorial days.

If I have learnt anything through my experiences in each of these societies it’s that each one honors those who gave their lives depending on how it views itself. Whether with a pride of the present, a shame of the past, or a feeling of inevitability; memorial/veterans day gives us a glimpse at a nation’s soul.

My childhood memories of Remembrance Day are dominated by red poppies and a moment of silence following the service at the Cenotaph in the heart of London. Apart from that one day each year, and the admirable people at Wootton Bassett, there are never visible feelings of pride and respect for the British armed forces in England. Members of the military do not walk around in uniform and there are no announcements on trains, buses or airplanes supporting our troops. When one does come across someone in uniform no one really makes a fuss at all.

Last year, I moved to the United States and found myself amazed at how respectful the majority of the public and the institutions are to their soldiers. Military personnel are allowed to board planes early, are given shout-outs by the pilots on planes and are respected in the streets. The government invests millions (though many say not enough) into veterans programs, to get people back into work and support them through their education. Despite only 1 percent of Americans serving, there is an appreciation of that service recognized in every state and private institution I have come across. Not only to the United States have Veterans Day on November 11, it has another, separate day that remembers those who have fallen, in a Memorial Day in late May.

The different relationships that each of these societies have with its military seems to be engrained into the way the country perceives itself. America sees itself as the leader of the free world; the military being the tool that can fix bridges, fight wars and build nations. The image of the greatest generation, those who fought in World War Two and came back home to rebuild the country, is part of the American narrative. Serving one’s country is seen as an intrinsic good.

In the United Kingdom, the military seems to be one of the last bastions of the old order. It appears to be part of the British Empire, but not part of Britain’s modern story. There are few, if any, recognitions back home of the sacrifices that are being made by members of the armed forces abroad. Indeed there are now only a handful of members of parliament with any military background.

My third experience of a memorial day comes from my Jewish acquaintance with Yom Hazikaron. Occurring on the day before Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Hazikaron remembers all of those who have fallen while defending the State of Israel. Its occurrence before the happiest secular day of the year shows the peaks and troughs of Jewish life: there is no celebration without tragedy, yet no tragedy leads to despair.

What is a very universal message is also incredibly personal. Statewide conscription to the Israel Defense Forces means that every family goes through the same experience and the society collectively shows its scars. It fundamentally affects the military covenant of Israel morphing it into a completely different concept than that of a professional army. Israeli society is built around national service; indeed it is very hard to be a part of mainstream society if you did not serve.

I’ve always had friends and extended family in the IDF, but with my immediate family having moved to Israel and enlisting, I now have the same anxiousness that comes from having a loved one in harms way. Yom Hazikaron has always been part of the global Zionist calendar as a day for education, but one that re-enforces the differences between Israel and her Diaspora. This year I feel that I have been able to cross the emotional Rubicon.

While I have admired the pride of the United States and wondered about the ambivalence in the United Kingdom, Israel’s Memorial Day has always left me with the most questions. The universal nature of the sacrifices made prompts Israeli society to constantly look at itself introspectively. Perhaps that’s the purpose of the day after all.