(The Conversation) — Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judiciary overhauls and the continued erosion of Palestinian human rights for months.
It’s possible that what’s happening loudly and without precedent on the streets of Israel is having a quieter but significant effect in the United States – which has the largest Jewish community outside Israel.
American Jews may have concerns about the reforms themselves. In addition, the current Israeli administration counts among its supporters politicians who want to tighten restrictions on whom Israel considers to be Jewish in ways that would exclude some U.S. Jews. Many of Netanyahu’s allies are also anti-LGBTQ. While some American Jews might share these views, they are not representative.
Billions donated a year
Israeli nonprofits amassed US$35.3 billion in total income in 2015, roughly $45 billion in 2023 dollars, from all sources. That total included revenue like university tuition and concert ticket sales, as well as $4.4 billion – roughly $5.6 billion in 2023 dollars – in donations from all sources, foreign and domestic.
Donations from outside Israel accounted for $2.8 billion of those gifts, about two-thirds of this kind of funding. We analyzed Guidestar’s database of nonprofit tax records to identify U.S. organizations sending money to Israel.
Israeli nonprofits, such as Magen David Adom, or Red Shield – Israel’s equivalent to the Red Cross and Red Crescent – and the Foundation for the Welfare of Holocaust Victims, rely on foreign donors for more than half of their philanthropic funding.
Much of this money, but not all of it, comes from American Jews and Jewish organizations.
I am a researcher who focuses on how nonprofits get the resources they need to deliver their programs and services. I worked with Galia Feit and Osnat Hazan, scholars based at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for Law and Philanthropy, to get a clearer picture of this funding – which we studied because it was from the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available.
Many different interests
We’ve found that the donations that Israeli nonprofits get from the U.S. are notable in part for the variety of donors.
Israelis who now live outside of Israel, non-Israeli Jews who consider Israel a Jewish homeland, and people who are neither Israeli nor Jewish alike help fund these organizations.
For non-Jews, Israel represents what is known as a boundary object – different groups assign different meanings to the same thing. Depending on their particular religious and cultural identities, American Jews have many different ideas of what Israel represents. But nearly all of these ideas differ from the idea of Israel held by, for example, evangelical Christians.
No matter the motivation or rationale, the end result is that funds supporting Israel go to a wide array of nonprofits in the same country.
Collecting and parsing data
The first comprehensive study assessing giving to Israel focused on Jewish philanthropy. Published in 2012, using 2007 data, the authors estimated that 774 organizations raised $2.1 billion, which would be about $3.06 billion in 2023 dollars.
A study of evangelical Christian giving to Israeli nonprofits covering a longer time period – from 2008 through 2016 – identified 11 organizations donating an estimated total of $50 million to $65 million over the entire period – less than $82 million in 2023 dollars. While this is less than 3% of all of the funds Israeli nonprofits obtained in foreign donations, we believe it’s worth watching this trend in part because the amounts grew in the period we reviewed.
From this study we were able to identify 1,179 funding organizations granting a total of $1.8 billion to Israeli organizations.
3 main kinds of funders
We sorted funding organizations that support Israel into three main categories and one catchall.
These are major funders located outside Israel that distribute funds aggregated from multiple individuals and Jewish organizations. These include national organizations like the Jewish National Fund and the 146 local Jewish federations located in such places as Cleveland, New York City and Los Angeles that fund local causes such as Jewish summer camps and education about Israel and the Holocaust, and also send money abroad.
Other examples include BBYO, a national pluralistic movement for Jewish teens where I used to work; Hillel International, through which Jews on college campuses worship, connect and do service projects; and Birthright Israel, which provides free trips to young Jews to help them forge connections with Israel.
Centralized organizations have historically channeled most of the funds donated to Israeli organizations from abroad.
The 43 funders in this category represented only 4% of all funders but gave $707 million to Israeli nonprofits – 39% of the total donations.
‘Friends of’ organizations
These groups are smaller than centralized organizations. They mainly collect funds to support a single Israeli nonprofit, such as the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the American Friends of Hebrew University and the North American Friends of Israel Oceanographic Research.
The 349 friends of funders we identified accounted for 30% of all funders and $752 million, or 41%, of donations.
These charities are typically founded, funded and governed by members of a single family. Examples here include the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Bloomberg Family Foundation. Family foundations represent 25% of all funders and donated $87 million in 2015 – but only 5% of all the funds we assessed.
About 15% of the giving to Israeli nonprofits from the U.S. organizations we studied didn’t appear to originate in any of these three main categories.
4 categories of Israeli nonprofits
There is less data on the Israeli groups getting this funding as opposed to the foreign groups making the donations, but we found enough information to identify four main causes based on either the identity of the funders themselves or the groups they fund.
Jewish religious institutions
Israeli synagogues and yeshivas – Orthodox rabbinical seminaries – received $266 million, around 15% of all funds.
Donations to Israeli colleges and universities totaled $206 million, about 11% of the total.
Hospitals and medical research centers such as the Hadassah Medical Center and the Western Galilee Hospital obtained $81 million in donations, about 4% of all foreign philanthropic funds.
Christian-focused organizations, such as Outreach Foundation of the Presbyterian Church and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, donated $56.4 million.
This picture has no doubt changed. For example, the Central Fund of Israel is reportedly a major backer of the Kohelet Policy Forum that is pushing many of the judicial reforms. However, that charity did not provide this detail in the mandatory 990 form it filed with the Internal Revenue Service for 2015.
We are beginning to study data from 2017 and 2019, which is only now becoming available. A group called the American Friends of Kohelet Policy Forum does show up in the newer data. Its connection to the Central Fund of Israel is unknown, but its inclusion is notable for illustrating the influence that U.S. organizational donors may have in Israel.
There are signs that giving from Jewish organizations to causes in Israel is decreasing even as giving to Jewish causes outside of Israel increases. The Jewish Federation of North America’s shifting view on Ukraine is one example of this. Rather than viewing the war as a short-term emergency, the organization is planning for long-term, ongoing support.
And many of the nonprofits in our study were subject to the same pressures and problems many nonprofits experienced around the world at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic: an increased demand for services at odds with a reduction in donations, the loss of volunteers and a scramble for new ways to work when in-person operations became restricted or impossible.
Between heightened concerns over Israel’s policies, growing numbers of antisemitic incidents and increasingly pressing social justice issues at home, we believe that Jewish federations and other local funding groups that historically made fundraising for Israeli causes a high priority may experience more pressure from their donors to instead support groups doing work closer to home.
We have no doubt that the political situations in both Israel and the U.S. will only exacerbate these trends. Support from local communities and centralized organizations may shift along with changing political winds as American Jews face calls to take sides in Israeli current events.
Ultimately, what it means to support Israel, who gives, and what they are giving may be changing as American Jews grapple with what is happening in Israel.
(Jamie Levine Daniel, Associate Professor, Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)