JERUSALEM — Israeli doctors were among the first to set up emergency hospitals in Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake. Israel also swiftly dispatched water-purification experts to Japan following the 2011 tsunami and trauma experts to Boston after the recent marathon bombings.
Yet despite such high-profile disaster assistance, Israel ranks near the bottom among leading free-market economies in providing foreign aid to developing nations.
Along with Mexico and Chile, Israel gives the least as a percentage of gross national income among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Israel gives one-tenth of the U.N.'s target rate, lagging behind Turkey, Poland, Slovakia and even Greece during its debt crisis, according to OECD data.
On an individual basis, Israelis are also less likely to send donations abroad compared with citizens of most European countries and the U.S., according to a study by Hebrew University's Center for the Study of Philanthropy in Israel. Over the last decade, 0.1% of individual charitable funds raised in Israel went to international relief, compared with 48% in Belgium, 13% in Italy and 5% in the U.S.
In an interview Wednesday in Jerusalem, Hillel Schmid, head of the center, told The Times that Israelis can and should give more if they want to be accepted as global citizens.
Q: Why don't Israelis give more internationally?
A: Israelis in general are not so generous in giving, internationally and even inside Israel. People are suspicious about giving money. There's an anti-philanthropist feeling. Even though Israel was built by philanthropists, today surveys show that Israelis think philanthropies are self-interested, political and wasteful.
And though Israelis see themselves as part of the larger world, they see themselves as beneficiaries, not contributors. Israelis are a little bit selfish in this way. We've been educated through the years to expect that money will be imported from the Jewry in the rest of the world, like New York and Los Angeles.
Q: Is it surprising that Israelis don't give more considering the emphasis on charity in Judaism and Israel's roots as a socialist state?
A: There's a proverb, "The poor come first." It means you should take care of your own people first before giving money to others and running overseas. It would be strange for an Israeli to send money to Africa when they feel there are still so many projects here.
Q: So do Israelis give a lot of money domestically?
A: No. Individual philanthropy inside Israel — for things like social programs, education, art, culture — is less than 0.7% of the GDP. In the U.S., it's about 2.5%. Though Israel is not socialist anymore, people still think it's the role of the government to provide these things, not philanthropy. They feel, "We pay taxes. We serve in the army. Why should we give more?"
Total philanthropy in Israel is $5.5 billion a year, but much of that money originates from (foreign sources). We are the biggest importer of philanthropy money in the world. Ten years ago, 72% of Israel's philanthropy came from overseas. Today it's about 62%.
Q: Is the problem that Israelis simply can't afford it?
A: No. For several years the government has been declaring almost every day how strong the economy is. But the wealth of Israel is not reflected in the giving. They can afford to give much more. There was a recent report that there are 500 multimillionaires in Israel and several billionaires. Look at people like [American billionaires Bill] Gates and [Warren] Buffett and others who are giving their assets to generous foundations. You don't find an Israeli who is giving away his capital like that to help a hospital in South Africa.
Q: Yet internationally, the Israeli government was more much aggressive about giving in past decades. When it was still a developing nation itself in the 1950s and 1960s, Israel's track record for providing technical assistance and sending doctors or agriculture experts to Africa rivaled larger developed nations. What changed?
A: First, we don't have political relations anymore with most of the countries in Africa.
Q: True. And it was their decision to take part in the Arab boycott, so you can't blame Israel for that.
A: Right. But back then, aid was seen as a government interest. Not anymore. The government today has no policy about philanthropy. But I think it should because Israel is not in good shape in terms of legitimacy, the Palestinian territories and all this stuff. You've seen the polls that rank Israel fourth as the most-hated country after Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. Philanthropy abroad is not only for ideological and humanitarian reasons, but there is some self-interest as well.
Q: Does that really work? Israel showered Africa with assistance in the hopes that it could forge diplomatic relationships, yet those countries still boycotted Israel.
A: I think it does. We are isolated in the world. We can actually legitimize the state of Israel as a part of the world family by giving more to support other people. But we need to develop a culture of giving. Education should start in elementary school. The Israeli rate for volunteerism is not very high, except in wars and disasters. And the government needs to do more to encourage philanthropy, such as providing better tax benefits.
Q: Is there any sense of national shame that Israel ranks so low in this area?
A: We don't want to be last in terms of poverty or education, or to rank lower than Turkey or Greece in those areas. But I don't think if you ask someone on the street, that they would say it bothers them that we don't give more.