A survey of the Israeli public’s attitudes toward the United Jewish Appeal and the issue it deals with has brought reassuring news for officials at the premier Jewish philanthropy.
The survey reaffirmed “that we are relevant,” said Richard Pearlstone, national chairman of UJA, speaking on a telephone conference call from Israel on Tuesday.
The results of the survey were encouraging for both UJA and the Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-government body that is the primary recipient of money raised by UJA for Israel. Both organizations have taken a number of blows to their philanthropic pre-eminence in recent years.
American Jewish community federations, faced with flat campaigns and increased concern for local causes, have scaled back the amount of money they pass on UJA.
And last year, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin sent shockwaves through the philanthropic system when he bluntly told American Jews that it was time for UJA and the Jewish Agency to get out of the social welfare business in Israel.
As American leaders of UJA felt they were making strides in reforming the Jewish Agency in recent years, they began to worry that the body’s image in Israel was due for an overhaul.
The Jewish Agency Assembly, the organization’s governing body that met this week in Jerusalem, has is the past directed the Jewish Agency to allocate money toward improving its image in Israel.
The recent survey by Gallup Israel, conducted in May and June , was an effort to gauge recent attitudes.
“We have two markets,” said Brian Lurie, UJA’s executive vice president, citing both the American Jewish community, where the money is raised, and Israel, where UJA sponsors programs.
The survey found that 58 percent of the Israeli public considers the Jewish Agency to be fulfilling a very vital or vital role; 13 percent an average role; and 12 percent not a vital role. The remainder said they did not know.
A similar percentage of those surveyed affirmed that UJA plays a vital role. Not surprisingly, Israelis were less familiar with UJA, which raises money in the Diaspora, than the Jewish Agency, which delivers the services in Israel.
In the telephone interview, UJA leaders expressed pleasure that 23 percent of respondent correctly identified UJA’s role as “funds collection.” Another 25 percent had heard of UJA, but could not identify its function.
The survey also adds fuel to the debate raging over the future of the World Zionist Organization. Jewish leaders gathered in Jerusalem last week for WZO’s Zionist General Council and for the Jewish Agency Assembly this week spent much of their time focused on the likely merger of us two organizations by the year 1997.
Two-thirds of the Israelis surveyed were unable to define the role of WZO, whose chief mission is to promote aliyah and Zionist activities, primarily in Western countries.
WZO was also listed as least vital compared to UJA and the Jewish Agency: Fully 35 percent said it was fulfilling a vital role, against 16 percent saying its role was not vital.
According to Lurie, the poll refutes Beilin’s notion that Israelis do not want American charity.
However, the poll did not ask about the importance of Diaspora assistance to Youth Aliyah programs or Project Renewal neighborhoods — the sort of social welfare projects Beilin thinks should be handled by the Israeli government.
Instead, the poll examined Israelis’ attitudes toward the emerging, post-Beilin agenda of the Jewish Agency, an agenda in which the emphasis is on continuing the aliyah from the former Soviet Union and building a “living bridge” between Israel and the Diaspora.
On those fronts, UJA and the Jewish Agency seem to have won strong endorsement for their new directions.
Asked which Jewish issue should be first priority on Israel’s agenda, 36 percent of the Israelis surveyed chose immigration.
The Jewish Agency funds immigration for Jews in danger. This has been the agency’s central priority since the beginning of mass aliyah from the former Soviet Union.
Preventing assimilation was chosen as the top priority Jewish issue for Israel by 29 percent of those surveyed, while 22 percent chose tightening the bond between Jews in the Diaspora and Israel.
Only 6 percent said activation of Jews as a political lobby in their respective countries should be the first priority.
Asked about factors threatening the continuity of the Jewish people, assimilation of Diaspora Jews was mentioned by 36 percent, the mixing of religion and politics by 29 percent, abandoning the religion by 25 percent and anti-Semitism by 25 percent.
As a measure of Israelis’ identification with Diaspora Jews, the survey asked respondents whether they define themselves as Jewish or Israeli. The majority – - 57 percent — defined themselves first as Jewish, while 22 percent defined themselves as Israeli first. Eighteen percent defined themselves as equally Jewish and Israeli.
Nearly half agreed with the statement that “the Jewish Agency represents all parts of the Jewish people abroad and therefore acts as a parliament of the Diaspora Jews,” but more than a quarter disagreed.
The survey showed a split on the question of whether the Jewish Agency should confine its activities to promoting immigration to Israel.
Forty-five percent agreed with the proposition that the Jewish Agency should only work for immigration, but 36 percent opposed that notion.
In a question reflecting concern by American Jews as to why Israel’s increased prosperity has not sparked a growth of philanthropy in that country, the survey asked Israelis the likelihood of their donating to various causes.
Forty-three percent said the chances were good that they would donate to neighborhood and youth centers in impoverished Israeli development towns. Such programs were at the heart of the Jewish Agency’s Project Renewal program, which linked American Jewish communities to development towns in Israel.
But slightly more — 48 percent — said they would reach into their pockets to assist needy Jews in the Diaspora.
The survey, part of Gallup Israel’s regular polling of the Israeli public, included a sample of more than 600 Jewish adults. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.