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Charities’ Focus on the Hungry Draws Israel’s Ire

American Jewish philanthropies are coming to blows with their main beneficiary, the State of Israel, following an unprecedented Israeli Cabinet vote to deplore Diaspora charities’ use of Israeli hunger as a fundraising tool.

Prime Minister Sharon unleashed the opening salvo at a weekly Cabinet meeting last Sunday, lambasting overseas fundraisers who use images of “hunger and poverty” to sell Israel to potential donors. At his urging, the Cabinet approved a declaration that the tactic “harms Israel’s national strength and damages the country in the perception of Jews overseas.”

The Cabinet called on Diaspora Jews instead to highlight immigration to Israel, “Jewish-Zionist education,” and development in the Galilee and Negev in fund-raising appeals.

Several American charities contacted by the Forward questioned the prudence of the Cabinet decision and, in a few cases, the Cabinet’s motives. There were suggestions that the measure reflected one international Jewish welfare agency’s efforts to undermine a rival agency. Moreover, as numerous observers pointed out, poverty is in fact growing in the Jewish state.

Critics include the heads of the Chicago Jewish federation, the New Israel Fund and a group whose anti-hunger work Sharon has praised in the past, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Sharon “doesn’t want to face up to the consequences of his government’s own policies,” said the president of the New Israel Fund, Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman. “If the government is actually going to do less to alleviate poverty, which the government concedes is one result of recent budget cuts, international organizations should help out.”

The facts on the ground seem to speak for themselves, as several baffled charity chiefs noted. By government estimates, about one Israeli in six currently lives below the poverty line, including about one child in four. Statistics released May 20 showed unemployment at 10.8% in the first quarter of 2003, a 10-year high, with 281,000 Israelis jobless.

Israelis have long complained of a patronizing tendency by American Jews to view Israelis as poor cousins. Nonetheless, Israelis have welcomed donations by the billions. Just last year, Sharon publicly thanked a Chicago-based rabbi, Yechiel Eckstein, whose International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has raised millions of dollars, mostly from evangelical Christians, by highlighting Israeli hardship.

Sharon singled out Eckstein after he handed over a $215,000 donation to a program to feed hungry Israeli families for Passover.

Eckstein seemed to question Sharon’s latest move. “The needs of the people of Israel today are great and addressing their poverty needs is something not only legitimate for Jews, but in my opinion it is incumbent on Jews to do,” he told the Forward. Still, he said he would be more careful not to exaggerate Israeli hardship.

Several observers, seeking to explain the Cabinet’s attack, pointed to a recent intensification of the long- standing rivalry between two of the largest international Jewish charitable bodies, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Sharon’s salvo came shortly after a meeting last week with the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Sallai Meridor, at which Meridor complained about Diaspora food-drive campaigns. Addressing his Cabinet days later, Sharon brandished a Joint Distribution Committee brochure to illustrate his complaint.

The Jewish Agency and the Joint have been at odds for years, partly because they vie for the same dollars and partly because their missions — one helps Jews emigrate to Israel while the other helps them stay put — inherently conflict.

The friction has been compounded recently by the growing weakness of the United Jewish Communities, the body whose job it is to channel dollars from local Jewish philanthropic federations to the two international welfare agencies. As UJC’s authority has waned, the competition for donations between the agencies has moved to the local federation level and reached a fever pitch.

No one accused Meridor this week of deliberately seeking to undermine the Joint, but several charitable leaders said the backdrop of tension between the agencies played a part in the Cabinet decision.

“There remains a tension between these two organizations and their missions,” said Eckstein. “How to work it out — that interagency tension — so that nobody’s toes are stepped on is something the UJC should work on.”

An aide to Sharon, government secretary Yisrael Maimon, told the Forward that Sharon handed him the Joint’s pamphlet immediately after his meeting with Meridor last week, and ordered Maimon to draft the Cabinet resolution. Sharon also gave Maimon two news clippings about other hunger campaigns.

“I can only assume, but I cannot say as a fact, that all three items came from Sallai [Meridor],” Maimon said.

The six-page Joint brochure, titled “Jews in Crisis,” features hunger in Argentina and the former Soviet Union, but when it refers to Israel, its main focus is child safety initiatives in the Jewish state. Several observers questioned whether it actually illustrated the image Sharon opposed.

Some local American charities criticized the Cabinet decision for seeming to cut off much-needed Diaspora dollars to destitute Israelis. Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, told the Forward that his federation had planned to donate monies from its annual campaign to feed Israelis but will now have to consult the Israeli government beforehand.

“There’s a pretty strong suggestion from the government,” Nasatir said. “If they’re saying don’t raise money, they’re suggesting don’t send any either.” Nasatir said his organization was “not going to campaign on something we’re not going to provide assistance to. That would be disingenuous and dishonest.”

Still, several communal leaders called on the philanthropic establishment to take its cues from Israel and steer clear of food drives.

“American Jews and Israeli Jews have been working for a long time building a relationship based on the notion of partnership,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the United American Hebrew Congregations. “Representing Israel as a welfare case or a basket case is a terrible blow to creating that kind of relationship.”

“The question here is not whether there is need,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. “The question being discussed and debated here is whether this is a matter of collective Jewish responsibility… many influentials have strongly expressed their view that they can and want to take care of it themselves.”

The Cabinet resolution is vague about whether Israel opposes all food-related aid to Israel or only the recent, overwrought campaigns. Sharon told the Cabinet there is “poverty, but no hunger” in Israel.

“We’re saying ‘raise money for soup kitchens, raise money for shelters, for hot meals,’ but you cannot describe Israel as a whole by saying hunger is all around,” said Maimon, Sharon’s aide. “And you cannot use the hunger as a means of marketing.”

The Cabinet communiqué did express appreciation “for the continuing involvement of Diaspora Jewish communities in building up the state of Israel and for the continuing support for the development of social welfare services, absorption, education and health services.”

The resolution stipulates that the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, and the minister for Jerusalem affairs, Natan Sharansky, “will act to bring the resolution to the attention of the relevant government ministers and ministries, and direct them to put an end to the phenomenon.”

Two Cabinet ministers, Benny Elon of the National Union Party and Gideon Ezra of Likud, opposed the Cabinet resolution, saying it would hurt fund-raising.

The Soldiers Welfare Association, Israel’s equivalent of the USO, was also cited at the Cabinet meeting for unacceptable solicitation tactics.

The Joint issued a statement saying only that it “welcomes the government of Israel’s call for the continued partnership of Diaspora Jews in building the State of Israel.”

Nahman Shai, who heads the UJC office in Israel, issued a statement saying his office does not dictate campaign strategy. “Throughout the United Jewish Communities’ history of campaigns, the policy of the UJC is to show the full and honest picture of the reality in Israel, the positive and the negative, and not to focus on one aspect of the situation in Israel.”


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