Around the same time as the Balfour Declaration and the fall of the Ottoman Empire set the Zionist movement on the road towards the founding of Israel, via some 30 years of British Mandate control, the people of Ireland were shaking off the shackles of British rule. Assistance for this endeavour, financial and political, arrived from the by now established Irish diaspora in the USA.
Within a single generation, Eire emerged from the shadow of the British Empire and World War II as a truly independent country. Meanwhile, Irish-Americans were becoming ever more assimilated into wider society, whilst their connection to the “homeland” was one of deep pride and affinity, built on shared culture, history and religion. But the idea of shared nationhood was already not a defining part of their identity – they were American first and foremost.
By the second generation of independence, funds would continue to flow, but the nature and size of them began to reflect this change in Ireland’s relationship with its diaspora. Gradually the country would be expected to fund its own welfare and social services, both through local taxation and donation. For this, a middle class had to emerge, and a stable polity capable of making long-term responsible decisions. A very different leadership would evolve to take the country from “survive” to “thrive”.
Three generations later, Ireland would be a successful member state of the European Union, having made a successful shift from agrarian economy to technology and services, despite being an island on the geographical periphery of its main market, and suffering, until recently, ongoing tension with its neighbour over territorial disputes.
Nearly 100 years since independence, it would now be inconceivable for the people of Dublin to be looking to their now-distant cousins in Boston to fund their ambulance service, or the folks of Cork to rely on Chicagoans to subsidise care for the most vulnerable in their society.
Whilst certain cultural organisations might well continue to have such relationships, and perhaps legacy endowments continue to provide secure income for certain projects, affinity is now expressed more in trade over aid, tourism to the dynamic and exciting cities as well as the spectacular countryside with its resonant place names for the diaspora visitor.
This by no means represents the end of a close relationship; in fact it may be seen as the beginning of one between two adults with deep shared history.
Irish visitors to the USA can still take advantage of an in-built network of sympathetic organisations and individuals, to help them move, do business, and socialise. But it has become a relationship of equals, with major Irish companies investing in American enterprise, and Irish-origin businessmen running multinational companies. To this day, Irish-Americans wield political influence to ensure a strong US-Eire compact.
Much charitable giving is more about the donor than the recipient. Weaning the latter off philanthropy is often easier than persuading the former not to keep providing it. The Irish government would not look a gift horse in the mouth for many years in regard to the flow of income through remittance, donations and soft investments, but it was always incumbent on them to declare an aspiration that the apron strings should and could be cut.
This analogy presents an interesting foreshadowing of the future dynamics of the Jewish Diaspora’s relationship with Israel. The dilemma is how both sides might actively seek to evolve a modern, forward-looking partnership to mutual benefit.
These questions are finally being asked by the American Jewish leadership, as much in response to fundamental changes in their own community’s demographics and political outlook as to Israel’s own evolution into a remarkable modern state.
It is fundamentally a matter of economics – broadly speaking, Israel receives each year some $2-3bn each of American state aid, Jewish philanthropic money (including Israel Bonds) and foreign investment in Israeli companies. Whilst the Jewish community is instrumental in working to maintain bipartisan support for the first, and contributes generously for the second, it is remarkably underweight in its participation in the third.
This is a classic “fish vs. fishing rod” debate. In any other part of their political or economic outlook, most Americans – Jewish or not – err towards trade over aid. Entering into a business relationship also happens to be the highest form of charity, according to Maimonides’ famous treatise, whilst the lowest (and rather more familiar) involves the recipient going cap in hand to the donor, whose identity is then public.
So a generational shift is needed, to ensure the continuity of funding for the good works that many NGOs are doing in Israel with American Jewish money, and the robustness of the Israeli Treasury to be able to afford state spending on public services.
Broadly speaking, if the Jewish community’s leading donors and endowments made a decision to invest two dollars in Israel for every dollar donated in the next ten years, across a sensible mix of asset classes, by the end of the period the income from this investment would be sufficient to provide perpetual contributions to the same causes.
This injection of some $30bn from Israel’s closest supporters over a decade would have an obvious “triple bottom line” too – a return on investment; the generation of jobs, tax revenue and a better local donor base; and the reinforcement of the Diaspora-Israeli relationship.
It is time for the American Jewish community to accept, as a loving parent must, that its Israel is no longer a sickly child, has come through the petulant teenage years, and is becoming an adult. This is hard for both sides to accept and adjust to – but it is inevitable.
This is the prologue to a series of articles over the coming weeks, looking at some potential solutions in further detail.
Readers from Israel, America and elsewhere are invited to join the conversation. If you would like to send off-record comments and thoughts, please contact the author at email@example.com.