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‘The Israeli New Orleans’

The Olmert government is drawing harsh criticism from American Jewish philanthropists and Israeli officials for failing to coordinate relief efforts in northern Israel during the recent war in Lebanon, leaving the not-for-profit sector to shoulder an unfair share of the responsibility.

Many observers compared the situation in Israel to America’s experience with Hurricane Katrina, where the government’s inability to deliver aid to thousands of its own citizens — particularly the poor and the elderly — became a national embarrassment.

“I saw the Israeli New Orleans,” said former defense and health minister Ephraim Sneh, leader of the Labor faction in the Knesset, describing impressions of his wartime visit to a bomb shelter in the northern city of Acco. Sneh delivered the remarks at a briefing held earlier this month in New York by the Israel Policy Forum. The outcry over the Israeli government’s performance on the home front comes as Olmert and his Cabinet are already taking heat for what a majority of the Israelis view as a mishandling of the war on the battlefield. Olmert recently established an internal government inquiry to investigate the state’s conduct throughout the war, but critics have called for the establishment of an independent commission with stronger political muscle.

Since the conflict erupted in mid-July, hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into Israel from American charities — including $300 million raised by the network of local Jewish charitable federations in North America — to provide aid to the region’s embattled residents. Donations continue to flow in as rebuilding and economic development efforts take center stage.

Some philanthropic leaders say that because of the government’s inability to determine the needs on the ground during the war, the job fell to not-for-profit organizations and individual mega-donors, including Israelis, to deliver desperately needed assistance.

“This is not the right balance between government and civil society,” said Rachel Liel, director of Shatil. The organization is an arm of the New Israel Fund, a liberal Washington D.C.-based charity that trains and funds advocacy groups in the Jewish state. “It was either businesses, philanthropies or nongovernmental organizations doing the work, and the government functioned very poorly,” she said.

In a prominent example of the outsized role that private donors played during the recent crisis, well-known Israeli Russian billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak, who is wanted in France on charges of illegal arms dealing in Angola, set up a tent city in southern Israel to provide temporary shelter for some 5,000 refugees from the north.

Gaydamak is reported to have spent $500,000 a day to provide food, housing and entertainment at the complex, which was run by event producers who normally put together music festivals. The effort caused a media stir when the billionaire’s spokesman told a Knesset subcommittee that the government later asked Gaydamak to foot the bill for police and firefighting services at the tent city.

Representatives of the Israeli branch of the Reform movement reportedly also cried foul at the same early-August Knesset session. “When we turned to the Welfare Ministry, we were told: ‘The ministry has no clear picture of the needs — do what you can,’” Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of public policy for the movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, told the subcommittee, according to a report on

Both prominent funders and the practitioners who provide basic social services to residents of the north say they are worried by the state’s meager response to the crisis and by its reliance on them to fill that void. They are warning that the recent experience could be a bellwether for a more long-term breakdown in the traditional divvying of tasks between the Israeli government and Diaspora donors.

“The fact that donations are coming in should not replace the state,” Israeli Education Minister Yuli Tamir said during recent remarks to a crowd of high-powered Jewish philanthropy executives, assembled in New York by the Jewish Funders Network earlier this month. “I hope,” Tamir told the assembled philanthropic powerbrokers, “you insist that what you are doing is something the state will pick up later.”

Tamir attributed what she described as the government’s failure in the north to its broader negligence of the region, one of Israel’s poorest.

“The state left the north years ago,” she said, citing the government’s privatization push as a major factor in the area’s recent economic decline.

The social welfare system, which many northern residents relied upon, has been largely depleted in recent years as the government has moved toward privatizing and cutting social services — a policy shift initiated by Likud leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he was appointed finance minister in 2003. While some American philanthropic leaders have tempered their criticism of Jerusalem’s handling of the crisis in the north, saying that it is the job of Israel’s own citizens to take their government to task, others offered candid assessments.

Lynn Schusterman, a top donor in the federation system, said she was “surprised” by the state’s inaction. “We hope that they’ll get their act together,” she said. Through her organization, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Schusterman has supported shelters for victims of child abuse in Israel as well as early childhood education programs there. The foundation is currently organizing Up North, an initiative that will bring 500 American college students to northern Israel over winter break to help rebuild.

Mark Charendoff, who is president of the Jewish Funders Network, a group aimed at maximizing the influence and impact of individual donors and independent foundations, described the organization’s Israeli members as “enormously frustrated” by the government’s inability to care for the civilian population.

“I don’t think it’s the role of private foundations to replace the government,” he said.

Charendoff proposed that discussions between donors and the Israeli government were needed to determine the duties of each sector.

Meanwhile, on behalf of several anonymous donors, the Jewish Funders Network is contributing $10 million to a $60 million northern recovery fund that Charendoff described as a joint effort between the Israeli government and the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, a French charity that focuses on supporting the underprivileged in Israel. The intent, Charendoff said, is to challenge the state to match the amount of private money donated.

In a clear illustration of the controversy’s traction in Israel, an academic study parsing the issue is currently under way. The Israeli Center for Third Sector Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is conducting a study on how not-for-profit organizations functioned during the war, their perceptions of the government’s role and how they can manage their relationship with the state during emergencies.

The study, spearheaded by the center’s director, Benjamin Gidron, will focus not only on the major philanthropies but also on grass-roots and Arab organizations, which represent half of the north’s population.

The study is due to be completed in November, Gidron said.

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