Magazine article Tikkun

The Politics of Philanthropy

Magazine article Tikkun

The Politics of Philanthropy

Article excerpt

The United Jewish Appeal (UJA) is running scared. A full-page advertisement in the west coast edition of the New York Times shows a picture of an endearing young child with the heading, "He's Not Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. He's Poor and Hungry." The text warns: "Wherever you stand on the debate about religion in Israel, he's not the enemy. Don't make your Federation and the UJA the battlefield." As ultra-Orthodox groups, led by the Shas party of Morocco and Jews from other Arab lands, demand changes in the law to effectively freeze out the Reform and Conservative Movements from Israel, Jewish institutions in this country fear that, for the first time, American Jews may vote with their checkbooks.

Belying the ad's call for unity is the subtext of the photograph: the little boy is clearly Ashkenazi and not orthodox. The photograph thus contributes to the stereotyping the ad seeks to counter, and concedes that the battle has already been won by the forces of division: American Jews might give money for a poor Russian Jewish child, but cannot be expected to muster up the same sympathy for an orthodox child of Moroccan origin.

The UJA ad is a desperate response to a recent action by The Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties' which cut its UJA contribution from $6 million to $5 million. The $1 million difference is to be divided into two halves by the Federation: one half to local needs and the other half to special projects in Israel that promote Arab-Jewish relations and religious pluralism.

Although the action attracted widespread attention in the local press, it was not entirely unprecedented. Over a decade ago, the San Francisco Jewish Federation already drew opprobrium from the UJA by setting up its own philanthropic foundation in Israel, called Amuta, which was to make direct grants to worthy projects outside of the UJAJewish Agency bureaucracy. Moreover, other Federations have also cut their contributions to the UJA over the last few years as local needs become more pressing. It was the timing of the San Francisco action that drew the media's attention. The local newspapers speculated that the San Francisco Jews were trying to send a double message to the Netanyahu government: get serious about the peace process and keep your hands off the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.

If only it were true. In a full page ad that appeared in the Northern California Jewish Bulletin the same day as the UJA ad in the Times, the Federation took pains to distance itself from the media's interpretation. Entitled "A Message of Support for the People of Israel," the ad argues that the Federation's move was "not so much a result of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Israeli government or the influence of certain religious groups in Israel" as it was "a reflection of a desire to more efficiently fund programs in Israel. It was not designed to send a message."

Why this fear to "send a message" when a message is obviously being sent? Is there no policy of the Israeli government that would force this establishment to say loudly and publicly what it clearly says to itself privately? There is a dirty secret here: the Jewish Federations have painted themselves into a corner by predicating all their fundraising on foreign appeals, especially to assist Israel. They fear that if American Jews are dissuaded from giving money to Israel-whether for political or religious reasons-they will not give money to strengthen Jewish life in this country or support the bureaucrats' own well-padded jobs. …

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