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American Jews Are Reassessing Their Ties To Israel; Donations Are In Decline

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May-June 1997

"U.S. Jews Reassess Ties To Israel," was the headline on the front page of The Chicago Tribune of April 29, 1997.  

"The decision by San Francisco’s Jewish community to quietly slash its support for traditional Israeli charities by $1 million has alarmed supporters of Israel from Washington to Jerusalem," wrote reporters Stephen Franklin and Storer H. Rowley, "intensifying an already fierce debate among American Jews about Israel’s right-wing political and religious and policies."  

The San Francisco decision, announced in March, was described by the authors as "unprecedented" and one which "has stirred concerns that liberal, more secular American Jews are beginning to distance themselves from Israel’s hard-line political and religious leaders. More importantly, both critics and supporters of Israel are watching closely to see whether the San Francisco action is the harbinger of an historic change in the traditional funding methods by which American Jews have generously underwritten the very existence of the Jewish state for the last five decades, despite previous policy differences with Israeli governments."  

Interviews with prominent Jewish fundraisers and leaders across the country "indicate that a trend toward reduced giving is under way at a time when American Jewish organizations are in the midst of their annual fundraising efforts," the authors report.  

Of the $1 million originally allocated by the San Francisco Jewish community for Israel, the federation decided instead to spend half on local causes and to earmark the other half for liberal religious efforts. The San Francisco Examiner (May 21, 1997) notes that, "Local Jewish leaders . . . believe the nearly 17 percent funding reduction has come in response to two political trends in Israel: a bill to codify Orthodoxy as the only legitimate form of Jewish religion and moves by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that many American Jews perceive as threats to the peace process."  

The intensity of feeling on the issue is reflected in a letter distributed by Rabbi Ted Alexander of San Francisco’s B’nai Emunah congregation. The letter tells Jews to curtail their donations to Israel. "If we are not recognized by the people in Israel, they have no right to recognize our money," said Alexander. He urges those who want to donate to Israel to send the money to non-Orthodox institutions "so it does not end up in the hands of those who don’t recognize us as Jews."  

Wayne Feinstein, head of the San Francisco Jewish Federation, says that federations in Boston, Newark, Cleveland and several Florida cities are also scaling back their donations. He reports that the San Francisco Federation’s decision has received "near unanimous" support from donors to its annual fund-raising campaign.  

According to The Chicago Tribune, "One result of American Jews’ unease has been a flow of dollars to the New Israel Fund, a small group that supports liberal causes. Last year, its donations grew 20 percent for a total of $12.9 million, said Richard Zelin, head of its Chicago office. Many supporters, he said, were concerned that the ultra-Orthodox community is trying to ‘de-legitimize’ other Jews."

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