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Passing the Buck on Israel’s Periphery

In a most dramatic fashion, the American Jewish community rallied to Israel this past summer during the war with Hezbollah. Emergency appeals raised millions of dollars, and individuals and organizations mobilized to demonstrate their political support for Israel. Philanthropists from around the world stepped in to do what Israel’s government apparently could not: alleviate the dire situation of the many Israelis trapped in the North or in temporary refugee situations.

As executive director of the New Israel Fund, I was gratified by the overwhelming response of our donors to Israel in its time of need. But beyond this satisfaction, I could not help but ask myself whether, on several counts, we are heading in the wrong direction.

Israel’s war with Hezbollah once again displayed a not entirely healthy co-dependency between Israel and the major Diaspora communities. The war demonstrated that the Diaspora is willing to put millions of dollars at the disposal of the Israeli government, without necessarily asking the right questions about accountability and about government’s responsibilities to its most vulnerable citizens.

The concern about government preparedness is particularly troubling. On a recent impact assessment tour of northern Israel, I met activists representing Israel’s most disenfranchised groups — Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, single mothers, working-class Israelis of Mizrahi descent — for whom assistance during the crisis came almost exclusively from voluntary philanthropy. Now, with the war over, these invisible Israelis are legitimately concerned about compensation for their losses and assistance from a government that is viewed as having been missing in action during the conflict.

The comparison with the Katrina disaster is quite apt. As residents of the Gulf Coast recall with a shudder, in most cases the most immediate assistance was provided by the Red Cross and other private groups. Israelis are now accusing their government of a FEMA-like abrogation of responsibility. After all, NGOs and philanthropists are there to complement government’s basic duty to protect its citizens — not to be a substitute for it.

Although the government has committed to expenditures of billions of shekels for economic assistance, rehabilitation and, most recently, the tattered education system in the North, the track record in Israel’s periphery is not reassuring. For decades, both the Galilee and the Negev have been lagging in every social indicator — income, educational opportunity, housing and infrastructure. The massive budget cuts to social spending implemented by the previous government exacerbated the distance between the prosperous center and the periphery; now, with billions of shekels of war debt, can the government fulfill its promises to bridge the gaps?

The situation confronting Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up more than half the population in the north and who suffered 40% of the civilian fatalities resulting from the Hezbollah rockets, poses additional challenges. The lack of bomb shelters and warning sirens in these communities was an outrage during the war; now, Israeli Arabs confront a schism with their Jewish neighbors exacerbated by the unfounded but widely-publicized notion that Israeli Arab citizens wholeheartedly supported Hezbollah. (According to a survey by Mina Tzemach, Israel’s leading pollster, only 18% of Israeli Arabs supported Hezbollah, notwithstanding the inflammatory rhetoric employed by some Israeli-Arab politicians.) Clearly, the government — which has barely begun to implement the recommendations of the Or Commission — bears much responsibility for the increasing alienation and second-class status of Israel’s largest minority. Will the government address the existing inequities by providing needed infrastructure for schools, roads, sanitation and shelters, as it has promised to do? Or will the needs of the Jewish population, once again, be prioritized?

Diaspora Jews, who graciously emptied their wallets and filled the airwaves and newspaper opinion pages with unconditional support for the Israeli government’s decisions during the war, should ask some hard questions now. We can start by insisting that donated money be directed toward those efforts that will most dramatically change the social and economic realities dividing the center and the periphery. We can also encourage a thoughtful, rational discussion of the right balance between philanthropy and government responsibility.

From our experience working to enhance Israeli civil society, we know all too well that the failure of government services during the war was the result of years of neglect, not just a temporary lack of preparedness on the home front. Diaspora leaders must be more than a cheering section with a wallet. We must be committed entrepreneurs who encourage the tackling of difficult challenges. Israel cannot afford to overlook the problems laid bare by the recent crisis.

Larry Garber is the executive director of the New Israel Fund.


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