Anyone trying to understand why Israel does not have a fundraising culture needs to look no further than the tents on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. I know that the demonstrations are not about charity and non-profit life. But the events of these past weeks offer some vital insights into the future of the Third Sector and philanthropy in Israel.
On the most obvious level, what Israelis are saying is that they simply cannot make ends meet. I don’t know how much American Jews fully grasp the appalling status of Israelis salaries. The average monthly salary in Israel is somewhere in the range of $2000-2500 gross. Even two people working full time with those salaries, with say two or three small children and an average mortgage of $1500-2000 a month, will have a lot of difficulty meeting expenses. The newspapers these past few weeks have been filled with stories of people – highly educated, well-trained, and hard working people holding good jobs – whose living expenses are simply higher than their income. Sure, everyone has different ways to cut costs – moving to a moshav, bicycling to work, no afterschool lessons for the kids, second-hand clothes and books, never going out to eat or even ordering pizza, no cable, no second car, certainly no cleaning help and probably no gym membership, and definitely no family vacations to Europe. Instead, there is a lot of overdraft – some 80% of Israelis are living in overdraft, according to some estimates – and definitely no savings.
Understand this: no savings. When the Madoff scandal broke and his victims complained about having their life savings wiped out, many Israelis on the street could be heard saying, “Rich people’s problems”. Or, put differently, “What is this ‘life savings’ creature that you speak of?” Israelis don’t do life savings. Many don’t do pension plans either, or college funds, or kids’ savings plans, or IRAs or anything like that. Why? Because to save money, one has to actually have money to save, and Israelis who aren’t sure if they will be able to cover the makolet bill this month are not exactly putting savings plans on the top of their agendas.
So before any conversation can take place about why Israelis aren’t more forthcoming in their support of amutot, we must look at Rothschild and remember this. If a person is living month to month, has not long-term plan and no six-month cushion, and meanwhile has to choose between sending her child to music lessons or supporting an amuta for needy children, we can understand why it may be a difficult decision. Or worse – if a family has 30,000 NIS in overdraft, they probably shouldn’t be approached for donations to even the worthiest cause.
More than that, though, I think that the tent protests are raising a much deeper issue about the role of the Third Sector in Israel in general. The public is crying out that they expect to be looked after by the State. The Jewish State. Israel was built on values of socialism, in the ashes of the Holocaust and generations of Jewish oppression. There is a profound assumption in Israel that the government is the arm of the Jewish People, a kind of institutionalized kehilla, the father figure for all Jews who can know that their landsmen have their back. Health, education, and basic sustenance, the crowd is screaming out, are the responsibilities of the government. Personally, I think it’s a deep-seated, subconscious Jewish Peoplehood thing. Somewhere in our collective consciousness, we believe that the Jews are a single entity with a deeply embedded value of mutual responsibility.
The question that emerges is, why should there even be a third sector in Israel? Why should there be 45,000 amutot filling in the gaps that the government has left open? Why should hospitals have entire wings named after donors? Why should schools have amutot for collecting funds for Jewish identity programming? Shouldn’t all schools and all hospitals have everything that they need? Shouldn’t the government be ensuring that there are enough ambulances and computers in classrooms for everyone? Isn’t that what it means to be a Jewish state?
It’s also worth remembering, that the entire culture of philanthropy is an outgrowth of capitalism. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and their colleagues who became the first philanthropists, were robber barons who made their fortunes off the backs of the people, thanks to an absence of government interference and regulation. Certainly their money was used to do some wonderful things over the years, but this is thanks to a system which planted the seeds for some of the most severe social inequalities in the Western world.
So when we consider the significance of creating a culture of philanthropy in Israel, we should remember that here, too, whatever excess wealth exists that may be used for philanthropic purposes is likely built on the dark side of capitalism, in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Hi-tech exits may abound, but somehow workers in those take-over companies are still having trouble paying their bills. That capitalist ethic, the same one that may just make an Israeli culture of philanthropy possible, is also part of the great evil that is at the core of the current demonstrations.
All this leaves us in a bit of a bind. We want social equality, and we want it to come first and foremost from the government. But the third sector, filling in the holes, is undeniably reliant on Israel’s nouveau riche, the Great Israeli Gatsbies, the beneficiaries of Israel’s deregulation and cursed process of privatization, the ones who Israel is relying on to take actions based on conscience and social accountability, actions that are arguably crucial if that third sector is to flourish.
I get a headache just thinking about these issues, and about some of the difficult choices that educated, employed, hard-working people have to make in Israel. Maybe other Israelis have headaches too. Maybe that’s why so many are running to Tel Aviv and sleeping in tents. I can certainly sympathize. It may just be easier than normal Israeli life.