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Behind the Headlines: for Israelis Accustomed to Receiving, a New `culture of Giving’ Takes Shape

President Ezer Weizman recently donated $1.000 to a 15-year-old boy suffering form juvenile rheumatic arthritis who must travel to London for an operation in which all of his joints will be replaced.

In publicizing the report, the Israeli press included and appeal for public contributions and the bank account number in which to deposit them.

Such public appeals for sick children or needy families or new immigrants are fairly common here and usually elicit a generous response form Israelis, especially religious Jews, according to fund-raising experts.

But, say the same experts, non-observant Israelis lag behind American Jews in the world of systematic, organized philanthropy.

“I believe Israelis are charitable,” said Avinoam Armoni, Israel director of the New Israel Fund, which provides grants to voluntary organizations working for social change.

“However, Israelis don’t plan their giving and do not regard it as a strategic investment in social change to social improvement” in the way many Diaspora Jews do, he said.

In an effort of enhance the “culture of giving” in Israel, the New Israel Fund is one of several organizations engaged in efforts to increase charitable donations from Israelis.

The new pitch for Israeli giving, particularly form organizations that raise most of their money from Diaspora Jews, represents a sea change in attitudes and yet another new development in Israeli-Diaspora relations.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin can be give some credit for putting the issue on the map.

Earlier this year, he sent shock waves through the Diaspora Jewish fund-raising establishment when he said Israel no longer needs Diaspora charity.

His remarks were rejected vehemently by Israeli officialdom from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on down.

When the dust cleared, Beilin slightly altered his stance, saying he was calling for a fundamental realignment of the Israel-Diaspora relationship based on Israel’s growing economic strength.

Israel wants to be a partner with the Diaspora rather than automatically be on the receiving end of its donations, he argued.

The message was a challenge to Israelis to step in and pick some of the responsibility the Diaspora has shouldered for decades when it comes to philanthropic causes in Israel.

Israel care showing signs they are ready to rise to the challenge.

The New Israel Fund recently held a conference for the voluntary and non-profit sector on enhancing the culture of giving. Despite a heavy downpour, 300 people came to hear a series of speakers on the subject, including Beilin.

And the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has spearheaded, in cooperation with the Economics Ministry, a new project, Operation Social Development, which promotes corporate giving to community projects benefiting the needy.

A conference sponsored by the JDC over the summer drew hundreds from the corporate sector, many of whom seemed to be hearing about discussions about the connection between business and social responsibility for the first time.

In another sign of changing times, United Way International has decided socioeconomic conditions are ripe enough to establish a United Way Israel, Under the leadership of JDC and the Voluntary and Non-Profit Sector, an umbrella organization supported by JDC.

Though fund-raising data is scant and inconsistent, figures that do exist point to a large gap between actual and potential contributions.

Corporate donors contributed about $43 million to philanthropic causes last year, according to the Finance Ministry. The ministry has no figures on individual giving, according to the Voluntary and Non-Profit Sector.

Conducting its own research, United Way International found an estimated $17 million in annual charitable donations by Israelis, excluding donations to religious institutions.

But United Way estimated the potential for yearly contributions to non- religious causes at more than $67 million.

“The current approaches to fund raising in Israel `hardly scratch the surface’ of potential,” a United Way report concluded. “Much of it remains untapped.”

In Israel. 0.6 percent of the gross national goes to charity, compared to 2.8 percent in the United States, according to Ami Bergman, deputy chairman of the Voluntary and Non-Profit Sector and one of the key JDC figures behind the establishment of United Way Israel and Operation Social Development.

“We have a lot to do to catch up,” said Bergman, who is also the director of JDC operations in Turkey and Egypt.

But all agree that tapping the potential for giving requires overcoming many barriers.

These barriers include relatively low salaries ($16,000 on average annually before taxes), high tax rates, mandatory military service, and a tax code that does little to help the voluntary sector or encourage giving.

Also, Israel was born as a welfare state dedicated to meeting the basic needs of all its citizens. As a result, private philanthropy was a distasteful concept.

“Philanthropy used to be seen as begging in Israel, it had a very bad connotation,” said Yisrael Sela, former director of the Voluntary and Non- Profit Sector umbrella group and how the director of JDC’s operations in Hungary.

“But it’s matter of time, maturity and growth,” he added.

Israeli philanthropy and volunteerism have “to be put into the perspective of Israeli society,” agreed Menachem Revivi, director-general of the United Israel Office for United Israel Appeal, Council for Jewish Federations and United Jewish Appeal.

“My father came in the ’30s as a pioneer,” Revivi said. “For them, the highest manifestation of the Zionist dream was to establish a state and give to the state the responsibilities of education, health, welfare and security. Then it was time to do for ourselves.”

Israelis must also defeat the tradition and psychology of dependency, said Debra London Ben-Ami, who was hired earlier this year as the first development officer for the Bat-Sheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv.

For years, “Israelis were, and to a degree still are, dependent on money form rich Jews from abroad with the sense that `We deserve it,’ ” she said.

There was a sense among many that “our lives are so hard here, we deserve to be supported and rewarded for living here, and they have the money,” Ben-Ami said.

But times are changing, said Ben-Ami. “The Israeli public is starting to a accept being asked to give money to different cause,” rather than relying only on outside sources.

Other barriers to giving are bound up with legal and tax codes in Israel.

According to the United Way report, the United States, Canada and England have created a “more hospitable environment” for philanthropy, “primarily through the legal framework which defines tax incentives both for donors and donees.”

In Israel, the report said, “the picture is mixed and still evolving.”

Both Shmuel Eyal, who replaced Sela as head of the Israeli Voluntary and Non- Profit Sector, and Armoni of the New Israel Fund, are waging a fight to ease the tax restrictions that discourage giving.

For example, the government defines a public institution narrowly, covering only half of Israel’s non-profit organizations. Public institutions are eligible to receive government funding and to give tax credits to donors.

But organizations that are considered political are ineligible for this designation, which in effect excludes many social action and civil rights organizations.

In a addition, Israeli non-profit organizations are not tax-exempt, as are many of their Western counterparts. They must pay duty on imports, a value-added tax, and an employer’s tax of 7.8 percent for each salary paid.

Eyal said he has received a written pledge from Finance Minister Avraham Shohat to eliminate the employer’s tax, although no date was attached to the pledge.

Meanwhile, Eyal and his organization have been working closely with Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet to raise the ceiling for corporate tax-deductible contributions to charity.

Shetreet recently raised the ceiling from $60,000 to $100,000, and now is working to raise it to $2000,000 and to tie it to inflation, according to Eyal.

Meanwhile, Shetreet described Operation Social Development, which he helped create, as part of an effort to build a “new culture” where business assumes a higher profile in contributing to the community.

The time is ripe for cultivating such a relationship because “the Israeli economy is much more confident,” said the minister.

“It’s not philanthropy,” he added. “It’s social responsibility, and it’s mutually beneficial.”

As Israelis become stronger financially and move toward a more peaceful society, Israelis “should start committing themselves they believe in,” said Joanna Yehiel, New Israel Fund’s development director.

Israelis should give “not instead of the Diaspora, but beside it, in a partnership,” she said.

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