How Israel and the world's Jews can better the world

Today, Israel, together with the Jewish world, has unique value to offer the world in international development that stems from a combination of expertise and core commitment.

How Israel and the world's Jews can better the world

By DAPHNA KAUFMAN in Haaretz 05/04/2012

The concept of tikkun olam, literally "repairing the world," reflects a core Jewish value. This sense of higher responsibility has manifested in various ways throughout the course of Jewish civilization, and in the present day, includes the State of Israel's foreign assistance. Yet it is here, in Israel, that tikkun olam seems not to be an overwhelmingly popular idea.

The Knesset, for example, has failed three times to garner sufficient support even to vote on a bill that would mandate a minimum annual allocation for foreign aid. Opinion polling reflects similarly meager support among the public. For example, a 2008 Tel Aviv University poll, which did reflect support for certain types of foreign assistance, nevertheless found that only 17 percent of Israelis believe their country should provide such aid on an ongoing basis as well as in times of emergency or crisis. Additionally, 77 percent of the general public had never heard of Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation, MASHAV.

Why should we give to people in remote corners of the world, when we have so many problems here at home? - goes one logic. Who are we to give, when our country does not provide for the full rights of all of our citizens, not to mention for millions of Palestinians, for whom we are held responsible internationally? - goes another. And what is the point of giving, when whatever we do, "they" will continue to hate us? - still others ask.

A combination of changes ushered in by the 21st century undermines the logic of all three arguments against robust Israeli foreign assistance, and points to a new direction of global engagement as a critical national project for Israel and Israelis to mobilize behind.

First, in an increasingly interdependent world, giving is not a one-way street. A consistent tikkun olam effort can contribute to the security, identity and prosperity of Jews and Israelis globally: It can improve Israel's international image and standing, strengthen the common bonds of the Jewish people, and open up new export markets and economic opportunities. For example, more than 400 Israeli companies currently focus on issues of water supply - a problem that affects more than 2 billion people globally. Their know-how represents almost limitless potential to make a difference on this crucial issue.

Second, while engaging with its immediate neighborhood, especially through formal channels, may be challenging, Israel's international development cooperation should make it a priority to include partnerships in the region. Existing conflicts are not a reason for inaction. To the contrary: The value Israel can bring to humanitarian endeavors can only enhance its potential to evolve as an increasingly constructive force, both regionally and globally.

Finally, experience shows the value of foreign assistance in building relationships not only with other governments, but also with communities, social and business leaders, and organizations around the world. In Israel's foreign-assistance heyday, from 1959 to 1973, its development cooperation with dozens of countries garnered international recognition, collaboration and partnerships, and in many cases, won Israel friendships abroad that lasted long after formal diplomatic relations were broken off. In a world in which the role of civil society and individual social and business entrepreneurs steadily increases, the logic for forging global ties is even stronger.

Today, Israel, together with the Jewish world, has unique value to offer the world in international development that stems from a combination of expertise and core commitment. On the one hand, world Jewry strongly identifies with the ideal of tikkun olam, and Jewish organizations and social and business entrepreneurs are poised at the frontier of many local, national and global challenges. At the same time, Israel has established itself as a world leader in creatively dealing with global challenges in such fields as medicine, energy, food and water security, and large-scale immigration.

Herein lies a unique opportunity: to join the capacities of a state with the diversity and commitment of a global network of vibrant Jewish communities, for the purpose of making a significant, and distinctly Jewish and Israeli, global contribution.

Yet today, tikkun olam efforts in Israel and the Jewish world are not aligned for achieving global impact. What is lacking is a shared vision, policy or strategy that aims for an audacious goal of having a large-scale impact on humanity - for example, through collectively prioritizing and focusing on specific expertise or geographic areas.

Therefore, the Reut Institute is working to effectuate a vision for 21st-century tikkun olam, in which world Jewry and the State of Israel work together, guided by a vision of helping hundreds of millions of disadvantaged individuals around the world achieve a significant and sustainable improvement in their quality of life within one decade. As the culmination of an 18-month process, which included consultation with more than 100 governmental and nongovernment experts and practitioners in Israel and the United States, we have come up with 12 principles for Israel and Jewish global humanitarian action, for which we are now developing an implementation strategy.

By setting such an ambitious goal - and by elevating it to the level of a national project to harness the government of Israel, civil society, the private sector, academia and research, and philanthropy in Israel and across the Jewish world - we hope that the Jewish people and state can help to have a transformative effect on humanity's most pressing problems, and in doing so, to transform ourselves internally and in our global engagement.