Study: Israelis are not as charitable as they think

Half the funds given to tzedakah come from abroad, research shows

By Nathan Jeffay, September 7, 2010
Volunteers at the Hazon Yeshaya soup kitchen prepare food

Volunteers at the Hazon Yeshaya soup kitchen prepare food

In the run up to Rosh Hashanah in Israel, as everywhere else in the Jewish world, charities have been busy trying to convince people to donate. But research shows that Israelis do not give as generously as people might think.

For several years, Israelis have had a reputation as the second most giving people in the world. The Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Civil Society Studies ranks Israel second only to America in terms of donations as a percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) – 1.34 per cent compared to America's 1.85 per cent.

But Nissan Limor, a lecturer on the "third sector" at Hebrew University, has calculated in an academic paper that almost half of the funds come from abroad, meaning that Israelis are only donating 0.8 per cent of their GDP, a figure that would rank Israel eighth - directly after the UK, which gives 0.84 per cent.

Experts on charitable giving in Israel say that given that Jews across the diaspora tend to be among the most generous givers in their countries, Israelis should be donating more.

"It is about time that the Jewish tradition of philanthropy translates into a philanthropic culture of some value in Israel, which still isn't happening," said Ben Gurion University professor Hagai Katz.

One of the researchers on Dr Limor's paper, Benjamin Gidron, who directs the Ben Gurion University's Centre for Third Sector Research, said that a mindset of dependence on diaspora donations restrains the growth of Israeli giving, and means that Israel is "the only country in the Western world that is importing philanthropy, not exporting".

But diaspora giving is far from the only factor holding Israelis back from putting their hands in their pockets.

In his paper Dr Limor points to the fact that Israel lags behind other Western countries in terms of tax incentives to give. Employees who pay all of their tax through PAYE cannot claim tax benefits on charitable donations, nor can charities claim tax relief on monies they receive, as they can in the UK.

Charities receive the most exposure in the Israeli media in the case of scandal, and Duby Arbel, executive director of Midot, an organisation that helps charities improve their fundraising ability, says that this contributes to a mindset where people mistrust the charitable sector as a whole.

"If you ask the common Israeli about charities they will say, 'they give money to their executives, not to people who need it'," he said.

Dr Katz believes that an important factor stunting Israeli giving is that citizens commonly see donating as a "zero sum game". Israel's welfare state has historically been very strong, but in recent years it has weakened, with successive government placing more onus on individual responsibility and non-profit organisations including charities.

His research indicates that many Israelis fear that donations to charities "encourage the government to step out of providing a safety net".

Last updated: 3:32pm, January 5 2011