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Does Israel still need our help?

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Years ago, the question may have been considered heresy: should Israel get less money from Canadian Jewish federations?

You read that right: less for Israel, more for Canada.

Those of a certain age will remember an Israel where inflation chewed up salaries and drove up the prices of basic goods. The standard of living was noticeably lower than in Canada, and Israel’s needs were obvious.

That’s changed dramatically. The country’s tech-driven economy has glowed red hot for years. As the venerable magazine The Economist noted in 2016, since the 1990s, Israel’s economy has been “on a tear,” with real GDP growth averaging about four per cent a year between 2004 and 2013.

Juxtapose that against Jewish day schools in Canada, many of which are scrambling to sell buildings and consolidate programs just to keep afloat, and the question being quietly raised in many circles is becoming amplified: wouldn’t it make sense to re-direct more charitable allocations raised here to stay here?

Yes, say advocates for Jewish education in the Toronto area, where, over the past few years, at least five day schools have sold buildings, closed campuses and merged programs to counter rising tuition and costs.

Yossi Adler’s support for keeping more Federation dollars at home “is not to be construed in any way as a slight to our sacred need to support the State of Israel,” said the former day school parent of three kids who played a major role in the ultimately failed fight for government funding for faith-based schools in Ontario.

But support for Israel, he stressed, starts with a strong Jewish education.

“Without this foundation, Canadian Jews will be less likely to support Jewish and Zionist causes. And middle-class Canadian Jews certainly need more financial support to enrol their children in Jewish day schools,” Adler told The CJN.

Ira Walfish, who also advocated for state funding for Jewish schools in Ontario, agreed.

“Increasing the allocation of funds to Jewish schools is a win-win for the local Jewish community and for Israel,” he said. “If more Jewish children attend Jewish day school, they are more engaged in Jewish communal life and will be stronger advocates for Israel.”

While increasing funding for Jewish schools may take some money from Israel in the short term, “over the long run, Israel will benefit even more,”  Walfish added.

It used to be that the division of funds raised through United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and Combined Jewish Appeal (CJA) campaigns between local needs and Israel wasn’t up for debate. It was 50-50, sometimes even more for Israel, and suggesting that Israel get less was nearly taboo.

Yet funding for Israel has quietly declined over the years. It wasn’t a single event or campaign year that rejigged the allocations ratio, recalled Mark Gryfe, who headed Toronto’s UJA drive from 1986 to 1995.

“It was a constant chipping away, and that the campaign wasn’t growing in line with the needs of the local community,” Gryfe recounted. “As pressures grew from every agency and the school system (for more dollars), there was only one place to take it from, and that was the Israel pot.”

Today, virtually all surveys of Canadian Jews show a high level of connectedness to Israel, more so than their U.S. cousins. For example, the extensive 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada, which was released in March, showed that eight out of 10 Jewish Canadians under 45 have visited the Jewish state and nearly nine in 10 Canadian Jews view “caring for Israel” as either “essential” or “important” to their identity.

However, noted UJA Federation of Greater Toronto president and CEO Adam Minsky when the study came out, “a real concern” is the 20-point spread between younger and older Jews when it comes to the centrality of Israel as a core component of Jewish identity.

“Younger Jews are not seeing Israel as a central part of their Jewish identity,” Minsky conceded. “That’s something that we will have to address going forward.”

READ: NEW SURVEY REVEALS BEHAVIOURS AND ATTITUDES OF CANADIAN JEWS

It’s a trend that’s been noticed by Renan Levine, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who said that part of the reason for the decrease in allocations to Israel has been donor preference, whether determined by Israel’s strong economy or disagreement with its politics. Some donors, Levine said, not only think that there’s less of a need to help Israel, but have less of a desire to do so.

“We know that studies are suggesting that a lot of active members of the Jewish community feel less strong affinities for (Israel) and some of that has to do with the politics of the (Israeli) government,” Levine said.

He also sees a generational issue. Those who have been giving for decades still picture an Israel in dire straits – a state of affairs that’s “not necessarily reflecting current realities, but people’s memories of what Israel was,” Levine argued.

In any case, the 50-50 split between local needs and Israel ended years ago, Minsky told The CJN. The amount now going to Israel and overseas Jewish communities is between a quarter and a third of the total raised by UJA Federation, Minsky noted.

Of $51.6 million allocated from the 2017 campaign, “Fortifying Jewish education” received the largest chunk of funds: 34 per cent, or $17.3 million. The rest was split between “empowering Israel and global Jewish communities in need” (24 per cent, or $12.4 million), “fighting poverty and improving wellbeing” (18 per cent), “strengthening Jewish identity” (17 per cent) and “advocating on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people” (seven per cent).

“We’ve been fortunate that our annual campaign has grown, and this year we’re adding greater resources to education, identity, poverty reduction and community security,” Minsky said. “So as a result, it makes the percentage going to Israel seem lower, but the actual dollars remain the same.”

He said he doesn’t see UJA Federation moving away from providing a generous amount of funding for Israeli and overseas projects. “What I do see is the nature of that allocation evolving with the changing nature of needs in Israel,” said Minsky.

Yet he is not hearing from parents of children in day schools asking for more funding for education. “I’m getting many more questions about what our money is doing in Israel and what the priorities are,” he said.

In Israel, the old joke among foreign investors was that the best way to make a small fortune there was to begin with a large one. “No longer,” The Economist wrote approvingly. “Relative to the size of the population, there are more researchers working in R&D in Israel than in any other country.” Venture-capital investment per person is the highest in the world and cybersecurity now generates more export revenue than arms do, according to the article.

Along some metrics, the economies of Canada and Israel are comparable. Canada’s gross domestic product per capita in 2017 was $58,542; in Israel, it was $52,283, according to Statistics Canada and the International Monetary Fund. Canada’s unemployment rate was 6.3 per cent; Israel’s was 4.2 per cent.

But Israel is still an expensive place to live. Consumer prices are an average of 18 per cent higher than in Canada and local purchasing power is 19 per cent lower in Israel, according to the website Numbeo.

And a major issue is the rate of poverty, which is more than twice as high in Israel than in Canada. The latest figures, from 2017, showed that just over 21 per cent of Israelis live in poverty – the highest rate among OECD countries. One Israeli MK called the report “a mark of Cain on the government.”

In Canada, the poverty rate was 9.5 per cent in 2017, a historic low.

Is reducing poverty in Israel a task for Canadian Jewish federations?

“It’s still absolutely a concern,” said Minsky. But how it’s approached has shifted.

In decades past, when a local federation chose a project in Israel – say, upgrading a community centre or a program for single mothers – the federation was on the hook for raising 100 per cent of the funds needed. Now, UJA Federation partners with NGOs, philanthropists and the Israeli government.

“Today, we would be funding a quarter of that project and the rest would come from matching funds from philanthropists and the government of Israel,” Minsky explained.

Allocations are a different story in Quebec, where the province subsidizes Jewish education. The latest annual report from Montreal’s Federation CJA shows that the community raised $53.5 million from 13,000 donors in 2017.

Budget allocations for 2018-19 total nearly $37.5 million, with 80 per cent of that, or $30.3 million, to be spent on local needs. Ten percent of funds, or about $3.8 million, go to Israel via United Israel Appeal, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other direct donations.

The 2018 survey of Canadian Jews found that Montreal was the most Zionist-minded city in Canada, with the highest proportion of Jews who feel very connected to Israel.

So why is Montreal’s allocation to Israel just 10 per cent of funds raised – the lowest ratio of the three Canadian federations The CJN examined?

Yair Szlak, CEO of Montreal’s Federation CJA, sent the following reply:

“In 2018-2019, Federation CJA invested $6.6 million in Israel from the annual campaign and supplemental giving strategy, representing close to 20 per cent of annual funds raised through the financial resource development department. Federation CJA continues to be committed to Israel through philanthropic investment as well as through initiatives such as the Montreal Mega Missions that saw over 1,600 Montrealers travel to Israel in 2014 and 2017. We are especially proud of our close to 30-year commitment to our partnership region of Be’er Sheva and B’nai Shimon, where, with our philanthropic partners, the Montreal Jewish community has invested $70 million in that region.

“Federation CJA is focused on the future of the Jewish community of Montreal, while maintaining its strong, traditional, longstanding relationship with Israel.”

McGill University Prof. Morton Weinfeld, who is among the most senior observers of Canadian Jewish trends, said that for some time, Israeli leaders have felt that it is fine to keep more money in the Diaspora to strengthen Jewish identity through education and other programs.

This would help Israel in the long run, in their view,” said Weinfeld, “and in mine.”

In Vancouver, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s 2017-18 annual report shows that it generated $18.6 million. That included $8.7 million from its annual campaign, as well as funding from the Jewish Community Foundation and “special project funding.”

Funds allocated for 2018-19 were $3.26 million locally, of which just over $1 million went to Jewish education. As well, $1.95 million was allocated to Israel and overseas, along with $405,000 in national spending.

When there is a successful annual campaign, about two-thirds of the increase is allocated domestically (local and national) and one-third to Israel and overseas programs, said Federation spokesperson Becky Saegert.

Asked whether there’s been pressure on the Federation to keep more money at home, Saegert said: “Not to my knowledge. There is always a balance to achieve between domestic and Israel and overseas needs.”