Tuesday, June 25, 2013

For Israel, charity begins -- but doesn't end -- at home [Blowback]


Uri Resnick, deputy consul general in Los Angeles
A June 8 article in The Times on a study that ranked countries based on international giving may leave readers with the misleading impression that Israelis are not generous with their charity dollars. Unfortunately, as is too often the case when it comes to Israel, this has served as a springboard for those seeking to malign Israel and the Jewish people. The figures in the article must be taken in context.

Israel has a heavy defense burden and has absorbed millions of immigrants over a short period of time. It spends roughly 7% of its gross domestic product on defense, almost four times the average of 1.8% of other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. As a consequence, Israel is left with fewer resources to allocate for civilian purposes. Nevertheless, having joined the OECD only in 2010, Israel is working hard to achieve the philanthropic spending levels set by some of the other member states. For example, just last year a group of 20 leading Israeli investors established Committed to Give, with the express goal of significantly increasing the level of private philanthropy in Israel.

Since declaring independence in 1948, Israel has absorbed more than 3 million immigrants; its overall population has increased tenfold, from roughly 800,000 in 1948 to just more than 8 million today. In contrast, the U.S. population has doubled over that same period, and other developed nations have seen even lower rates of growth. Israel’s steep population gains have posed tremendous social and economic challenges. In particular, the Jewish state’s rapid transformation from a primarily agricultural economy into one of the world’s leading hubs of high-tech industries and research speaks volumes about Israeli society’s resilience and social awareness. Israel’s National Council on Volunteering lists no fewer than 34 separate  organizations for immigration absorption. Israel is as much a “sign-up nation” as it is a “start-up nation.”
Volunteerism in Israel runs deep; it is rooted in the pre-state voluntary institutions established by the Zionist movement in all walks of life, including education, healthcare, labor relations and representative government. Consider the “Kibbutz,” a unique innovation centered on a communal arrangement that shows how deeply ingrained volunteerism is in Israeli society.

Examples of how this spirit expresses in Israeli life abound. In education, Israel’s PERACH (an acronym in Hebrew for “tutoring project”) engages nearly 60,000 disadvantaged children a year and involves nearly 15% of Israel’s university student body. On a per-capita basis, this is more than 30 times the size of the largest comparable mentoring organization in the United States. Inspired by this powerful expression of social solidarity, more than 20 countries around the world have adopted the PERACH model.

In healthcare, groups such as Yad Sarah provide free medical and rehabilitative equipment to anyone in need. Run by more than 6,000 volunteers, Yad Sarah’s annual budget is financed almost entirely by donations, 70% of which come from Israelis. By comparison, an effort on the same scale in Britain would need more than 48,000 volunteers, roughly three times the size of the largest volunteering organization in that country. Moreover, the roughly $320 million saved by the Israeli government in hospitalization and medical costs every year because of its healthcare volunteers should be factored in to any assessment of philanthropic activity in Israel.

In the fields of humanitarian aid, emergency responses to terrorism and natural disasters, Israeli non-governmental organizations such as IsrAid, Save a Child's Heart and Zaka make a big difference overseas. Zaka, run by 1,500 volunteers, has extended its work beyond our borders. Zaka volunteers have joined the Israeli military’s search-and-rescue unit in being among the first responders after the 2011 tsunami in Japan that caused a nuclear fallout crisis, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina in the southern U.S., the space shuttle Columbia disaster and terror attacks in Turkey and Kenya. Numerous additional volunteer organizations are active in virtually all sectors of Israeli society.

Moreover, a variety of Israeli nongovernmental organizations has for years provided humanitarian assistance throughout the developing world. Most notably, Mashav, Israel’s international development agency, has been operating in the developing world since 1957. Close to 300,000 people from more than 130 countries have been trained by Mashav in medicine, agriculture, community development, women’s empowerment, entrepreneurialism and more. Any fair assessment of Israeli philanthropy would have to account for how this training has boosted economies around the world over the last half century. Notably, in Africa, even those very few countries that do not have relations with Israel continue to benefit from our development assistance.
Recognizing Israel’s international contribution, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has referred to the country’s “great love for humanity,” noting that “Israel has been increasing their contribution to the United Nations agenda.” This is hardly the stuff of a nation characterized by an "anti-philanthropist feeling."
Israel can do more. As is true anywhere else, Israel can improve and augment its internal and foreign philanthropy, and it is taking important strides in this direction. But taken in context -- and accounting for aspects of Israel’s philanthropic activity that can only be indirectly quantified -- Israel actually has a robust philanthropic record of which it can be, and is, very proud.

Uri Resnick is Israel's deputy consul general in Los Angeles.
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