With the Right Wing in Charge in Israel, Jewish Donors Can't Afford to Turn Away

Israelis protest the Netanyahu government in early 2023. Photo: RnDmS/shutterstock

Philanthropic giving for Israel from American Jews totals hundreds of millions of dollars annually, though exact numbers are hard to come by. But the trend in recent years has been to keep more American Jewish philanthropy at home. It is estimated that only about 25% of U.S. Jewish giving goes to overseas support, with almost all of that landing in Israel. 

That percentage will likely decline even more with the election of a far-right Israeli government committed to enacting policies contrary to the values of the majority of American Jews. 

That would be a shame. Now, more than ever, it’s critical for liberal-minded Jews who care about Israel to engage and give. Though it’s understandable given recent political developments, it would be a mistake for Jewish donors, especially those who hold liberal and progressive values, to disengage from giving to Israel out of frustration, anger or perhaps even some confusion. 

Instead, think back to the beginning of the Trump years and how liberal donors vastly upped their giving to causes threatened by the Trump agenda. It’s urgent to replicate this across the ocean.

For decades, a small group of right-wing donors has spent significant dollars to change the public debate in Israel. They succeeded. Whether it was the Adelson family creating a free pro-Netanyahu propaganda newspaper in Hebrew and English, or the American billionaires Jeffrey Yass and Arthur Dantchik funding a think tank called the Kohelet Forum that nurtures ultra-right-wing politicians and legislative ideas, right-wing donors have been willing to spend their dollars year after year to alter the political landscape in Israel. In fact, the Netanyahu government’s current legislative proposals calling for a complete rehaul of the judicial system, privatizing education and for a ban on unions’ right to strike — and more — were all formulated by the Kohelet Forum. 

Indeed, these right-wing donors have shown the power of philanthropy when donors are willing to bet on a cause and make it happen, even if it takes years and years.

On the other hand, there are a number of donors from the center-left who support issues related to equality, religious pluralism, LGBTQ rights, antiracism, women’s rights, human rights, Arab equality and more. One such progressive cause inside Israel has been heavily impacted by American donors in particular. Known as “shared society,” this field has given rise to a network of nonprofits that seek to create a more just society for both Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Individual donors, family foundations and Jewish Federations have all played a significant part in the creation and sustenance of this field. Additional funding also comes from U.S. and European governmental bodies. In addition, a shrinking group of donors support anti-occupation efforts and efforts to promote a two-state solution. 

There is another significant pot of money that comes from American donors to Israel — for the arts, higher education, hospitals, and of course, Birthright Israel. These funds are the closest thing to a values-neutral form of giving from donors who want to support Israel.

But to remain values-neutral and fund as usual just won’t be enough anymore. We have entered new terrain as Israel faces an existential crisis of democracy. It may be throwing money away to simply give to a hospital without also supporting the right to medical care for all Israelis (current government ministers have expressed interest in denying service to someone because of their beliefs or who they are), or to support arts organizations without also supporting the freedom of Israeli artists to create. The new culture minister is supporting a loyalty oath for arts funding, challenging theaters that support Arab culture or question the government, and demanding that local cinemas adhere to similar loyalty oaths, just as an example of the current climate.

We have never seen a government like the current one in Israel’s 75 years of existence. And for those donors who have causes to which they are already wedded, just as folks did during the Trump years, it’s time to ramp up the giving, target it strategically, and not turn away.

Here are some steps to take.

  1. Do the research or hire someone who can help you do the research. Israel has a dense civil society. But there are experts in Israel or the U.S. who can help advise you and map out organizations to support.

  2. Consider funding operating and capital costs with multiyear grants. There are myriad nonprofits in Israel for every cause and every social ill. But except for the large standouts like the “Friends Of” organizations, most of them are woefully underfunded and chasing minimal grants. They need sustaining funds for infrastructure and operating budgets, especially now.

  3. Fund advocacy. The right wing has been doing this for decades.

  4. Fund mass media for Israelis. When Sheldon Adelson kept a spigot open for the prime minister’s publicists to create a free new newspaper — Israel Hayom — he changed the country’s media ecosystem. There have been good-faith efforts on the part of progressives to accomplish something similar, but nothing has reached the public like Israel Hayom.

  5. Be bold, but don’t expect immediate returns, maybe not even in your lifetime.

  6. If you have a favored advocacy organization (or your family member does) that you are funding in the U.S., look for its counterpart organization in Israel.

  7. Look for donor partnerships in Israel. While there is no tradition of giving in Israel comparable to that in the United States, and Israeli boards are not composed like U.S. nonprofit boards to “give or get,” the culture of giving in Israel has had a dramatic shift in the last decade or so. More philanthropists are home-grown; U.S. and Israeli donors have created more partnerships; and more nonprofit boards are professionalizing. More professionals work in the foundation field in Israel representing both Israeli and non-Israeli philanthropies. There is the Forum on Foundations that represents foundation professionals working in Israel, a branch of the Jewish Funders Network, and a network of DAFs (donor-advised funds). These are all tremendously important additions.

  8. Be prepared for this new government to try to legislate change regarding philanthropy and taxation. There is no tax incentive in Israel, as it is, for philanthropic giving as in the U.S. And now, the Netanyahu government has suggested new punitive taxes on external philanthropy, the intention of which is to greatly deplete the donations the nonprofit sector so desperately needs. Don’t let them do this. A previous Netanyahu government legislated that nonprofits in Israel must “advertise” that they get a significant portion of their funds from an outside government. This was intended especially to try to intimidate the peace, human rights and civil rights organizations that rely heavily on money from the E.U. Now, this newly floated proposal could further dry up funds for civil society.

  9. Finally, employ all means possible to promote your philanthropy and your favorite causes. Even if you want to give anonymously, work with your grantees so that their work can be amplified with strategic communications that influence the landscape, just as the right wing has done so well. 

Jo-Ann Mort is a writer and strategic consultant with decades of engagement in Israel and the Jewish community. She is CEO of ChangeCommunications.