Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently formed a new government with several parties that are either Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) or on the fringes of Israeli politics. Sadly, these parties’ perspective on Diaspora Jewry is either misguided due to ignorance or downright prejudiced. I am an Israeli citizen and ardent Zionist who formerly served in the Israel Defense Forces. I put my life on the line in a combat unit to protect my fellow Israelis, regardless of whether they were Jews, Arab Muslims, Christians, Druze, members of the LGBTQ+ community, secular, religious or people of color. That is one of the reasons why I continue to be disturbed by the endless fray of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) that has caused our homeland’s downfall on multiple occasions.
But I am not writing this piece to fret about the Israeli political scene. Rather, I am concerned about voices across the Diaspora, including in my own community, calling not only for disengagement from Israel but also for withdrawal of charitable support that enables our own Jewish charitable institutions to provide life-enhancing and, in some cases, lifesaving services. Many community members feel that withdrawing their support sends a disapproving message to the newly elected government in Israel. With all due respect to this intention, American Jews decreasing their charitable support won’t change Israeli government policy; rather, decreasing charitable support may have the reverse effect.
First and foremost, withdrawing support may reduce the influence we already have on pluralism in Israel through collaborations such as the Israel Religious Expression Platform (iRep). iRep is a consortium of Jewish Federations — including Pittsburgh’s — working to advance meaningful change to the secular/religious status quo and to promote pluralism and diversity of Jewish expression in Israel. The iRep committee makes decisions on strategy, budget and allocations to support Israeli NGOs that promote Jewish religious pluralism in Israel. iRep has four primary areas of focus: (1) marriage freedom (i.e., civil marriages and ability to get married outside the Rabbinate); (2) pluralistic options for b’nei mitzvah; (3) meaningful options for all Jewish Israelis to celebrate Jewish holidays; and (4) working with decision-makers (especially elected officials) to promote Jewish diversity. iRep also serves a unique role as a convener for the NGOs at the forefront of the battle for religious pluralism in Israel.
Support for iRep, together with Federation support for the different streams of Judaism in Israel, is crucial to ensuring religious pluralism in Israel. Support for Federation helps our overseas core partner the Jewish Agency for Israel influence the Israeli government and gives Diaspora Jews a voice. JAFI has led the charge for egalitarian prayer space and freedom of worship at the Kotel, an ongoing challenge that is likely to intensify under the new government. Our Federation also does important work in partnership with JAFI and Jewish Federations of North America by educating members of Knesset on the importance of a strong and reciprocal Diaspora relationship with Israel. In fact, pre-pandemic, a delegation made up of members of Knesset from across the political/religious spectrum visited our community to learn about the vibrancy and diversity of Jewish Pittsburgh. Moreover, JAFI is our seat at the proverbial table with the Israeli government and gives Diaspora Jews a much-deserved voice, and it is more important now than ever to be heard loud and clear.
Withdrawing support also puts at risk the progress we have made in shared society between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. Whether it is providing the seed funding for the first Arab/Jewish kindergarten in the Galilee, working with Moona to teach STEM to Arabs and Jews in the Karmiel and Misgav region, or supporting vocational training for Arabs and Jews at NICAT (Northern Israel Center for Arts and Technology), our Federation is making important investments in the present and future of the state of Israel. Shared society also extends to the anti-discrimination laws protecting the rights of the LGBTQ community, religious and secular Jews, women, Ethiopian Israelis and other people of color. Our work educating and lobbying Israeli government officials will be extremely important to uplift the voices and rights of these communities.
If American Jews withdraw charitable support, they will put at risk progress in integrating Haredi Jews (12% of Israeli society) into the workforce. Our investment over the years — programs that promote and support Haredi soldiers serving in the IDF as well as the JDC Hanoch program that helps to integrate Haredi Jews into the workforce without removing them from their community — and other such initiatives ensure the Haredi sector can contribute productively to the Israeli economy.
Reducing charitable support also impedes our focus on aliyah, a centerpiece of Zionism that has enabled Israel to absorb 75,000 Jews in 2022 alone. As a result of the ongoing war, 17,000 Ukrainian Jews made aliyah in 2022, an additional 37,000 and counting have left Russia for Israel, and by year’s end an additional 3,000 Jews will have arrived from Ethiopia on the heels of a civil war. Our core overseas partner, JAFI, is uniquely positioned to lead the charge of protecting the “grandparent clause” to Israel’s Law of Return. They have spoken out repeatedly and recently shared their concerns in an unusually direct missive to the newly elected prime minister, along with the JFNA and World Zionist Organization. We will continue advocating to protect this vital tenant of Zionism.
Not only does cutting funding for Federations prove counterproductive in Israel, but it also shortchanges people in North America. With immersive Israel experiences that have a profound impact on Jewish identity; life-enhancing work helping people in need; community relations efforts to combat surging antisemitism; and Jewish community security programs to protect you, your family, and our entire Jewish community, Jewish Federations keep everyone in our community included, supported and inspired. Reducing support for Federations puts the important work that we do here and in Israel in jeopardy at a time when it is more important than ever.
At this moment, we must lean into our historic relationship that precedes the founding of the state. Withdrawing or reducing support will likely be counterproductive, short-sighted, and harmful both to Diaspora Jews’ voice in Israel and to those who need charitable support the most through our collective impact. By using resources that are made possible through our community’s charitable contributions, we can instead strive to live our values, speak up for the most vulnerable and protect the rights that make Israel the just, vibrant and diverse Jewish homeland it is and has always strived to be. PJC
Brian Eglash is the chief development officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.