Foreign funding for Israeli politicians undermines Diaspora ties

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 12/31/14

The role of Jews from around the world in Israeli politics has been the third rail of Israel-Diaspora relations. Can we be critical? Should we be supportive? Do we get a say on peace and security? Do we get a say on immigration? How about the role of the non-Orthodox?

Yet, all of these careful discussions, which have been calibrated over years of tinkering, are thrown out the window during election season. It is now that the niceties of this conversation are thrown aside and the real dynamic between Israel and the Diaspora is laid bare.

For the majority in the Diaspora, an Israeli election is a confusing affair, a circus of different political parties flashing across the headlines. Israeli journalists, think tankers and communal professionals will come to synagogues and community centers and attempt to explain what the main issues are, and who might come out on top. Election season is the busy season for Israel educators across the world.

For the global Jewish donor community, however, the Israeli election season is a chance to boost favorite candidates.

Likud’s primaries, which take place on Wednesday, consist of two separate elections: One to pick the party’s leader, and another to determine its Knesset slate. This year, ahead of these ballots, Likud politicians have received donations from across the world. As of last week, Benjamin Netanyahu raised 539,000 shekels ($137,000) from 14 U.S. donors and one from Spain. Danny Danon, who is challenging Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud, raised 261,000 shekels ($66,800) from 11 donors, 10 of which are in the U.S. Zeev Elkin, who is vying for a preferential position on the party’s slate, was backed by donors from U.S., Russia, Switzerland and Britain.

Likud members are not the only ones receiving funding from abroad. Labor MK Nachman Shai reportedly received 79,352 shekels ($20,300) from donors in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Israel. MK Ayelet Shaked from Habayit Hayehudi received 51,976 shekels ($13,300) from donors from the U.S. and Israel.

Nearly every democratic system struggles to deal with the issue of money in politics, the U.S. being a prime example. Yet, the extent to which it is acceptable, both legally and publicly, for Israeli political candidates to receive direct funding from foreign interests is astonishing.

Israeli politicians should be joining the time-honored global political tradition of whispering political promises into the ears of their own tycoons, not foreign nationals; at least the tycoons need to obey the laws of those they are seeking to put in power.

This bizarre allowance, both legally and in the eyes of the public, shows the real nature of the Israel-Diaspora relationship: Rich boosters from abroad are allowed to have undue influence in the political process of a country they care enough about to try and buy off, but not move to.

The political donor dynamic undermines every argument of those Israelis, on the left and the right, who say that Jews from abroad should not have a say in Israeli politics. Those who have always maintained that Jews abroad should serve as Israel’s cheering section, that they should sit quietly if they disagree with Jerusalem’s policies, are hypocritical when they stand by and allow foreign funding for Israeli political careers.

It makes a mockery of the efforts that Jewish foundations have made, via seminars and dialogues, to make Knesset members understand the complexities of life in the Diaspora.

As long as it is a publicly accepted, legal norm for Jews from around the world to donate to political candidates in Israel, whether in the primary or general elections, the unhealthy dynamic between Israel and the Diaspora will continue unabated.

Give us your donations but not your votes – Distancing and Dependency in Israel

Ha’aretz 10/29/12

To what extent should the Diaspora be involved in the upcoming Israeli elections? To your average Israeli taxpayer, the answer is, not at all. Without the burden to pay tax, send your kids to the army and live with the consequences of your vote, you should have no role to play on determining who runs Israel.

This argument seems correct in theory. Yet in practice Jews abroad are having a tremendous impact on the election. As Haaretz recently reported, 96.8% of the Prime Minster’s personal fundraising took place overseas. In total over 53% of all political donations over the past two years has come from abroad. The only party who has not taken a dime it seems has been Meretz.

How politicos in Israel choose to raise money doesn’t bother me; that is for their electorate to decide. What irks and worries me is how this phenomena, a public distancing while maintaining private cash dependence, is maximizing the worst stereotypes we have of each other.

I don’t think that Diaspora communities should have a voice in decisions yet we cannot ignore the fact that in every Zionist educational program the question is asked whether Jews around the world should have a say in Israel’s internal affairs. The Israeli prime minister, declaring themselves the leader of the Jewish People, and reserving Jerusalem as an eternal Jewish capital, spurs this question on.

If someone purporting to be my leader, and declaring a city my capital uses me to strengthen his or her legitimacy, surely I should have some say in the matter. The question is made sharper by the fact that they come to me for my money in their pursuit for public office.

The mismatch of public Israeli feeling, with the private reality feeds the unhealthy ATM relationship between Israel and the global Jewish community. The bounds of the current relationship are outdated and eroding. The distancing mixed with dependency culture is unsustainable and both sides will need to demonstrate a willingness to change.

What the global Diaspora offers Israel today is a petri dish of public policy ideas and solutions to tough problems currently facing Israel. How does one square pluralist Judaism with an Orthodox establishment? What are the best methodologies of integrating an ultra-Orthodox community into a secular society? How do we encourage a culture of philanthropy to sustain our public institutions? What is the correct way we should approach interfaith programming, where are the pitfalls and opportunities?

These are just some of the questions that can be helped by plumbing the depths of the various Jewish communities around the planet to find answers. Using the modern Jewish experience from abroad, rather than just our checkbooks, will open the door to a far more productive relationship than one of dependence. Jewish communities want to have a deep and meaningful connection to Israel.  Yet as long as it is publicly disrespected and privately pandered to, this relationship will continue to be dysfunctional.