Study: Nearly 50% of Israeli citizens volunteered during first weeks of war

Far-reaching Hebrew University analysis shows ‘pre-existing social divisions set aside’ to create over 1,000 diverse civil initiatives

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

The eruption of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7 saw nearly half the Israeli population engaged in some form of volunteer work during the first two weeks of the conflict, according to an academic study released Thursday.

“This is a mega-event for Israel and for Israel’s civil society. The scale of activities, the areas of activities… there are things that we haven’t seen before. We’ve had wars, military operations and the COVID crisis, but the scale and the magnitude [here] are very different,” Prof. Michal Almog-Bar, Head of the Institute for the Study of Civil Society and Philanthropy in Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lead author of the study, told The Times of Israel.

The authors of “Civil Society Engagement in Israel During the Iron Swords War: Emerging Trends and Preliminary Insights” found that “approximately 48.6% of the Israeli population engaged in volunteering during this critical period” and that “volunteers played a significant role in effectively addressing the multitude of needs that emerged on the ground during the initial two weeks of the war.”

The conflict broke out on October 7, when 3,000 Hamas terrorists burst through the Gaza border, running rampant for hours in Israeli communities adjacent to Gaza. The terrorists committed brutal atrocities and pogroms before Israeli security forces restored order to the area. In the end, some 1,400 people were killed, most of them civilians massacred in their homes and at an outdoor music festival, and at least 240 taken hostage by Hamas, including young children and the elderly.

Israel declared war on Hamas and engaged in a massive call-up of IDF reservists, one of the largest in the country’s history, while simultaneously evacuating citizens living around Gaza and along the northern border with Lebanon as confrontations flared there. The resulting movement of people – some 360,000 reservists reporting for duty, combined with around 250,000 internally displaced – has been unprecedented in modern Israeli history.

“We mapped more than 1,000 new civil initiatives related to the war — which is a lot — in only the first two weeks. It’s very varied, these initiatives cover so many areas: helping soldiers, sending equipment, helping people who were evacuated, and psychological treatments for people dealing with trauma… In every field you can think of there is activity, including among the Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations,” Almog-Bar explained.

Volunteers at the Civilian Operations Hub, Expo Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Among those 48.6% who have volunteered to lend a hand, 28% had not previously volunteered. There is a “high number of newcomers… these are people who spontaneously volunteered,” she said.

The volunteers were “diverse and inclusive” from across all age groups, the study found. “Remarkably, the rates of volunteerism were almost equal for both men and women, as well as for individuals with religious and secular affiliations. The utilization of technological tools that facilitate digital volunteering played a pivotal role in expanding volunteerism to reach remote or mobility-limited populations,” the authors wrote.

The study was a collaborative effort between the Institute for the Study of Civil Society and Philanthropy in Israel at Hebrew University, the Israeli Council for Volunteering, Civic Leadership, the umbrella organization of Israeli nonprofit organizations, and the Forum of Foundations in Israel. The survey of volunteering during the first two weeks of the war was administered by the Geocartographia company and included 1,000 participants constituting a representative sample of the adult population of Israel aged 18 and over.

Professor Michal Almog-Bar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

Almog-Bar noted the huge role of technology. “It is critical for these initiatives. The groups recruited people using devices and social media. They worked through and with technology to implement their activities.”

Technology has also been important for philanthropic efforts, as crowdfunding campaigns of various kinds, most of them grassroots efforts promoted online with donations by average citizens, raised an estimated NIS 100 million ($25 million) during the two weeks covered by the study.

“This is something we haven’t seen before,” Almog-Bar said.

Israeli NGOs and other domestic philanthropic organizations have donated “tens of millions of dollars,” she added, while “donations from North American Jewry are estimated to be [in the range of] hundreds of millions of dollars… a very, very high level of philanthropy.”

“Pre-existing social divisions were set aside as many individuals were urged to partake in these mobilization efforts, encompassing both military and civilian support across both Israel and the Diaspora. These endeavors were orchestrated by nonprofit organizations, voluntary initiatives, philanthropic entities, and dedicated individuals,” the study stated.

The high level of engagement by Israeli civil society — which she defines as ”non-government, non-military, and non-business” efforts — can be explained by a few factors, Almog-Bar said.

One important element is the various protest organizations, who over the months before the war’s outbreak were engaged in efforts to block the far-right government’s planned judicial reform proposals. These groups already were well-organized, close-knit and motivated and so were able to immediately turn their infrastructure to support the war effort.

A similar phenomenon was found among other kinds of groups — parents’ organizations, youth sports teams and neighborhood associations — that were able to quickly mobilize their members into grassroots efforts in their way.

Another major point is that Israel is “a very familial society, we feel very attached to each other and the communities we live in — that’s why when there is a need and a dramatic event, the first thing people ask is, ‘How can I help?’” she said.

Almog-Bar noted that over the last decade or so, trust in government institutions to solve problems has dropped, but “people here feel they have strong social networks which would help them in times of need.”

Expanded civil efforts in times of crisis is a known and studied sociological phenomenon and goes hand in hand with the “inherent difference between civil society and government bureaucracy,” Almog-Bar explained. “Government takes a lot of time to make decisions and allocate funding, this is a known fact. It’s easier for civil society to organize and do things.”

But this point also underlies some of the peril in the current moment for the massive volunteer effort. Today’s pace of volunteering and donating can’t be maintained, and as the economy slowly gets back on track, people will have to go back to working and making a living — meaning that the government will have to effectively step in to cover some of the needs that the civil effort has been taking care of.

Volunteers take a sunscreen break while picking pomegranates on a farm in Ashkelon, Israel, October 27, 2023. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Also, Almog-Bar stressed, the very nature of the quickly organized grassroots effort means that there is no supervision, so sometimes tasks are duplicated between groups or logistical problems overlap and could be solved better with more coordination, something the government could do. There have been many cases of donated food being thrown away or toiletries being unused, she says.

The lack of supervision can also lead to further difficult situations, as there have been cases of volunteers unprepared to deal with traumatized survivors or even instances of abuse, Almog-Bar explained.

“People are good-hearted and want to help and give, but when there is no coordination, when everyone is doing what they can, it can turn out to be messy sometimes,” Almog-Bar concluded. “But people have really saved lives, especially in terms of helping evacuees with their needs and giving psychological support, all these services have been so needed.”

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