Crisis with world Jewry could cost Israel billions, deputy minister warns
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6.35 percent of Israel's GDP comes from Diaspora Jews

Crisis with world Jewry could cost Israel billions, deputy minister warns

Amid alleged threats to cut donations, US-born Michael Oren says Diaspora Jews’ contributions and investments ‘almost equal our defense budget’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Ana and Steven Weisman and Stephanie Trump march to Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate during the 2012 'mega event' of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s mission of 700 people to Israel. (Randi Sidman-Moore/JTA)
Ana and Steven Weisman and Stephanie Trump march to Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate during the 2012 'mega event' of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s mission of 700 people to Israel. (Randi Sidman-Moore/JTA)

Jerusalem risks losing billions of shekels if Jewish communities across North America were to translate their anger at the government into limiting their donations to and investments in Israel, Deputy Minister Michael Oren warned Tuesday.

In the wake of the cabinet’s decision Sunday to advance a controversial conversion law and to freeze an agreement over the expansion of a pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall, several Jewish philanthropists have told Oren that they are seriously considering suspending their dealings with Israel, he said. Reports in the Hebrew media also cited senior officials in the US Jewish community considering cutting down their contributions to the Jewish state.

If these threats materialize and then snowball into a massive divestment from Israel, Jerusalem would lose a major source of income. The crisis could even jeopardize national security by reducing support for Israel among American Jewish politicians, Oren said.

“Alienating Diaspora Jewry, particularly the most affluent part of Diaspora Jewry, which are liberal American Jews who invest in and contribute to Israel very generously, will cost us potentially billions of shekels,” Oren, who grew up in a Conservative community in New Jersey, told The Times of Israel. “The current crisis makes it much harder for philanthropists to give to raise money for Israel.”

According to a recent report issued by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, Diaspora Jews are the source of some NIS 58 billion, which is 6.35 percent of the country’s GDP.

American Jews give NIS 8 billion in cash to Israel every year — that is 90 percent of all donations to the Jewish state, Oren said, citing the report. Together with the contributions they made through investments and venture capital, real estate holdings, exports and tourism, the amount US Jews put into the Israeli economy reaches nearly NIS 58 billion (about $14 billion), he explained, citing the report.

“A one percent dropoff in the Diaspora’s contribution to the Israeli economy will result in the loss of 1,800 Israeli jobs,” Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, said.

Twenty-seven percent of tourists to Israel are Diaspora Jews, he went on. If this number were to decrease by one percent, 160 Israeli jobs would be lost, he added.

Kulanu MK Michael Oren, who would later that year be appointed as Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's office in charge of public diplomacy, seen here on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Kulanu MK Michael Oren (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Diaspora Jewry’s contributions and investments to Israel almost equal our defense budget.” Oren said. “It will potentially cost of thousands of jobs and can impair our security by lessening our support among the representatives of American Jewry, including American Jews in Congress.”

About one in 10 US Congressmen is Jewish; none is Orthodox, he said.

Meanwhile, Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, a former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at Israel’s National Security Council, deemed the government’s controversial decision on conversion on the Western Wall on Sunday a “long-term threat to one of the foundational pillars of Israeli national security: namely, the willingness and ability of American Jewish organizations to stand by Israel in her hours of need, as they have done again and again since 1948.”

“Moreover,” Lerman wrote in a paper Wednesday for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, “to deliberately and brazenly alienate the non-Orthodox denominations — to force their rank and file to question whether their commitment to Israel and to Israel’s needs has won them any claim to attention amidst the rough and tumble of Israeli politics — is to jeopardize the prospect of mobilizing their help when (and it is when, not if) we will call on their help on issues central to our very survival. This is literally an act of sawing off the branch on which we sit.”

It did not take long, after Sunday’s cabinet vote, for Jewish leaders to warn that their constituencies’ anger might lead to the cancellation of planned donations or visits to Israel. However, many North American Federations said this week that their principled support for the Jewish state will continue notwithstanding their anger over the government’s policies.

“This is about being pained by bad decisions that impact the Jewish people. When people are pained, sometimes they react in different ways. I expect that I may have to deal with some of that [cancelled donations and trips], but not a whole lot,” Steven Nasatir, the president of the Jewish United Fund (JUF) / Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

According to a leaked cable from Israel’s consulate in New York, Gordon Hecker, CEO of the Columbus, Ohio, Jewish Federation, threatened to cease all donations to Israel in protest over Sunday’s government decision. Hecker on Wednesday denied that, telling The Times of Israel that he had merely said that “there are some people who will want to reconsider” their philanthropy in light of the government’s decision. His Federation remains staunchly supportive of Israel, he asserted.

The head of the Northern New Jersey Jewish Federation, Jason Shames, said it was likely to impact his federation’s relationships with the State of Israel, according to the leaked cable.

A scene on 41st Street, the shopping and dining district of Miami Beach’s Orthodox Jewish community, Oct. 14, 2016. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
A scene on 41st Street, the shopping and dining district of Miami Beach’s Orthodox Jewish community, Oct. 14, 2016. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

Army Radio claimed on Wednesday morning that the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s annual $2 million donation to Israel was “under threat,” and that the Atlanta Federation canceled a meeting with Israeli youths who wanted to fundraise for the Scouts.

But officials from both organizations adamantly denied these reports.

“We give far in excess of $2 million annually overseas, and there is no consideration whatsoever of cutting it or withholding it,” Jacob Solomon, the president and CEO of the Miami Federation, told The Times of Israel. “Furthermore, we are planning a big mission to Israel next year in honor of the 70th anniversary of the state. We already have 750 people signed up and there have been no cancellations at all as a result of the government actions on Sunday.”

So far, only one donor has openly considered canceling his contribution, Solomon said.

“I understand the impulsive reaction that some may have, but — if you think about it — it is precisely because of our consistent and ongoing engagement and support that we have the opportunity to make our voices and our concerns heard,” he went on. “Disengaging would mean giving up our hand and our voice in helping to shape the direction of this country, which is so incredibly precious to us all.”

However, he added that his organization is “extremely disappointed and frustrated” and will actively work to get the Jerusalem to reconsider its positions.

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