I just got a fund-raising letter for Bar-Ilan University in Israel. It was sent by the American Friends of Bar-Ilan University in New York, and exemplifies much about the relationship of the United States and Israel. Non-profit organizations of all kinds in Israel are significantly supported by Americans, just as the government of Israel is significantly supported by our government. Privately and publically, Americans, not only Jewish Americans, keep Israel going.
There are few similar relationships between independent nations. Our so-called special relationship with Great Britain, which developed over the entire 20th century, is not nearly as special as our relationship with Israel, which just celebrated its 65th birthday. The report “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel” of the Congressional Research Service begins by saying, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.”
About one-third of the American foreign-aid budget goes to Israel. Over the years 1949-1966, US government aid to Israel was the same as the total of US aid to all the countries of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean. The $3 billion annually that the government gives to Israel accounts for about 20% of the Israeli defense budget. In addition, Americans give about $1.5 billion annually in private contributions.
Israel is not a poor nation. Its gross domestic product per capita places it among the richest nations in the world, similar to France and Japan. It ranks tenth in the world in percentage of its population who are millionaires. But philanthropy is not as highly developed in Israel as it is in the US. Hebrew University professor Hillel Schmid found that in 2009 Israeli philanthropy constituted 0.74 percent of Israel’s GDP, compared to 2.1 percent in the United States. In that year, Israelis donated $3 billion, only two times what Americans donated to Israel.
Until 2009, Israeli non-profits received more money from abroad than they did from their own citizens.
Some of the funds that Americans send to Israel effectively oppose American foreign policy. The NY Times estimated that Americans donated about $200 million between 2000 and 2010 to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. American contributions to settlement outposts which are illegal under Israeli law are eligible for tax deductions under IRS rules.
The fund-raising letter notes Bar-Ilan’s unique character: “It is the only seat of higher learning in all of Israel that requires its students to complete a Judaic Studies curriculum.” Since Israel was founded as a state for Jews, lies right in the middle of a region where religion dominates public life, and is under permanent siege because of religious conflicts with Muslims, it might be surprising that its universities generally do not require religious instruction. Although religious conservatives exert disproportionate influence on Israeli politics, Israel is an outpost of secular Western values, such as the separation of temple and state, in the Middle East. This may be a good argument for supporting Israel, but does it mean that we should support Israel more than any other nation on earth?
I raise the question, does Israel need so much American aid? Does the economic development of Israel into one of the world’s richest nations suggest a shift in the nature of the special financial relationship between the US and Israel? Should wealthy Israelis shoulder more of the burden of supporting their own nation?
These legitimate questions are very difficult to discuss in our current political climate. Anyone advocating a change in the American relationship to Israel is accused of abandoning Jews to destruction by Hezbollah and other militant Muslim forces. Pointing out the facts about this relationship can bring accusations of antisemitism.
I am not arguing that we should reduce public or private aid to Israel, just providing some numbers. But these numbers should make us think about how we distribute American taxpayers’ money around the world, especially when we have enormous budget deficits. Does it make sense for us to cut domestic programs which help the poor, while we give so generously to a wealthy nation?
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 4, 2013