Israeli children celebrate Independence Day./YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90

As the Jewish state turns 75, Israel – and its supporters – face deep divides



As the Jewish state turns 75, Israel – and its supporters – face deep divides

Israeli children celebrate Independence Day./YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90

Any 75th birthday – whether of a person, a business, a country – is a significant moment, a time to recall the past, to consider the future, and to reflect on the changes that are occurring at a juncture five years past the Biblical allotment of three score and ten.

All those elements are well underway in Israel, a state where the past is rich in both triumph and tragedy and where the future is always uncertain if not perilous. But the transformations underway in Israel as the country turned 75 at sundown on April 25 – combined with adjustments in the perspectives of the residents of its greatest patron, the United States – are producing substantial changes in the subventions support that Americans for nearly three generations have generously, gladly, and proudly provided for their Israeli cousins.

The changes in Israel are obvious, often crowding onto the front pages and into social media. The Jewish state now is a mature nation, like so many countries struggling with how to reconcile its idealistic founding ideas with new circumstances and new challenges. At the helm of the country is a prime minister marinated in the heroic tales of Jewish history and Israel’s founders. In the streets are thousands who view his leadership with concern if not horror, mixing their concern for the survival of Israel with their equally strong concern for the survival of the democratic ideals and institutions that have given Israel a special place among the nations.

Back here, in the United States, the home of the world’s second largest Jewish population, there is both skepticism and solid support. The support is intuitive, reflexive, deep. The skepticism is unsettling, fresh and growing.

As Americans contemplate the future of democratic values in their own country, they couple that concern with fears about similar values – not religious but secular, and devoutly held as a kind of civic faith – in Israel. A country struggling with whether and how to accommodate and welcome immigrants looks across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to another country that arguably has provided little accommodation and no welcome to Palestinians, who – unlike those on America’s doorstep – are not primarily from elsewhere. It is, to adapt a phrase from our history, a question not only of home rule and of who shall rule at home – the fundamental points of conflict during the Colonial period in North America – but also a question of whose home it is. Or was. Or both.

Those disquieting questions have shaken American Jews even as they have shaken the comfortable place Israel has had for three-quarters of a century in the Jewish American mind.

They also have shaken the comfort of Jews on what, in the decades after World War II, might be considered the most congenial territory in the United States, the college campus. There the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has portrayed Israel as a global pariah, and there college courses on Middle East history have become emotional and political battlegrounds.

All these issues – all these changes – all Israel’s wars, against nation states and also against groups that consider themselves a nation within its state – combined with the passage of all these years – has transformed Israel, its place in global geopolitics, and its image in Americans’ eyes. It also has altered American giving patterns.

Harvard’s BDS, anti-Israel display on campus.

A revealing study undertaken by Jamie Levine Daniel of Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs demonstrates that “there are signs that giving from Jewish organizations to causes in Israel is decreasing even as giving to Jewish causes outside of Israel increases.” She added, in an article on The Conversation website, “Between heightened concerns over Israel’s policies, growing numbers of antisemitic incidents and increasingly pressing social justice issues at home, we believe that Jewish federations and other local funding groups that historically made fundraising for Israeli causes a high priority may experience more pressure from their donors to instead support groups doing work closer to home.”

This is occurring at a time when American Jews are overhauling their broader outlook on philanthropy in Israel. The earlier phase – aimed primarily at buildings in a country that itself was being built – clearly is over. The buildings are built, the country’s infrastructure is established. American contributions are increasingly likely to be directed to specific issues and causes. In short, Americans more and more are giving to specific groups inside Israel rather than to Israel itself.

“The old kind of contributions are being replaced by contributions to very specific non-profits,” Andres Spokoiny, president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network, which counts more than 2,500 members in 11 different countries, said in an interview. With more than 600 “Friends of …” organizations raising close to $1.86 billion annually for specific non-profits, money continues to flow into Israel even if it does not necessarily flow to Israel.

Many of these non-profits did not exist as recently as two decades ago, and increasing amounts of philanthropic money are being raised locally – in Israel – as well.

“But overall, I don’t see a disengagement,” said Spokoiny, “Instead, I see a change.”

I wrote this column on the 15th day of the Omer, the passage between Passover and Shavuot, regarded as the passage from liberation to revelation – or from deliverance to destiny. A moment ago, an email flew into my in-box from the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine, with a special appeal for this, the day of Chesed within Tiferet, kindness within balance. That email – aimed at Jewish philanthropy, but not philanthropy aimed at Israel – is yet another example of the competition for Jewish philanthropic dollars.

All that, and the two values of of Chesed within Tiferet, provide perhaps an apt moment to reflect on the passage of the Jewish state in its 75th year, and to consider the changing nature of the kindnesses that Americans have provided to Israel. Not a disengagement, but a change. Θ

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.

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