Is there anything more Jewish than helping Jews overseas?
It’s refreshing to see that sentiment alive and well in Israel, where Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman recently proposed that Israel spend a million dollars a day – $365 million a year – on behalf of Jewish education in the diaspora.
That is less than one half of one percent of Israel’s $110 billion annual government budget (and comparable to the approximately one percent of the federal budget the U.S. spends on foreign aid).
“It is just a matter of prioritizing Jewish education above all other issues,” he told visiting leaders of American Jewish organizations.
It’s good to see Jewish education placed at the top of Jewish communal priorities. That isn’t always the case when it comes to Jewish charitable contributions. As the Forward reported, less than 20 percent of traceable Jewish philanthropy (a category that excludes donations to synagogues and seminaries and some yeshivot, which as religious institutions do not have to file financial information with the IRS) goes to Jewish education; the vast majority, nearly 40 percent, goes to fund Israel institutions.
If Israelis shared American priorities, they would no doubt prioritize using their tax dollars to support universities, symphonies, parks, and recreational facilities for citizens at home, rather than helping Jews overseas.
If American Jews shared Mr. Lieberman’s priorities, local day schools would have much broader and deeper philanthropic support – but perhaps at a price of the connection between Israel and the diaspora generated by international philanthropy.
How effective a Jewish education program headquartered in Jerusalem actually can be is an open question. Birthright, with its mixture of Israeli and diaspora funding and its pluralistic implementation through competing contractors, provides one model of partnership that works. The Israeli emissaries sent through the World Zionist Organization provide another example, though there the dollars that pay the teachers’ salaries are, appropriately, American.
And this is not to say that Mr. Lieberman might not benefit from some American-style Jewish education of his own. His notion of an ethnically pure Jewish state could stand to be tempered by our experience living as a minority in an ethnically diverse country; the values of Israel’s Declaration of Independence demand no less.
But all those are details – details not to be sneered at, but whose hashing out will itself prove a profitable meeting of Israeli and diaspora minds. In the meantime, for sparking a discussion about priorities and partnership, Mr. Lieberman has earned our praise.