September 17, 2019

Israel’s dependence on Daddy Warbucks

In human years, 66-year-old Israel should be deep in middle age — accomplished, semi-retiring, with a beach house and ample stock options. 

But in nation-building years, 60-plus is still young, and modern Israel seems more like a talented 20-something, handy with a tank and brilliant at tech, turning out new startups faster than new storefronts declare “Starbucks” — and, she’s still totally dependent on her Jewish Daddy Warbucks.

For all her aptitude and potential, Israel’s economic dependence is one way the country remains a child. Unable to cut the umbilical cord from Uncle Sam, who pays some of her bills, or American Jews, who pave her way, the “Start-Up Nation” is stuck on social security.

According to a report just released by the Congressional Research Service, a legislative branch agency of the Library of Congress that prepares policy analysis for Congress, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.” Since its creation, author Jeremy M. Sharp wrote, “[T]he United States has provided Israel $121 billion (noninflation-adjusted dollars) in bilateral assistance.”

The once-scrappy collectivist nation, whose enterprise, resourcefulness and strength made a dry desert verdant, is now a billionaire heiress, savvy but beholden. Does this make Daddy proud?

“I believe that we can now say that Israel has reached childhood’s end, that it has matured enough to begin approaching a state of self-reliance,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a joint session of Congress — in July 1996. His surprisingly frank remarks were rather forward nearly two decades ago, when Israel was just pushing 50 (in nation years, a teen). “We are committed to turning Israel’s economy into a free market of goods and ideas, which is the only way to bring ourselves to true economic independence,” Netanyahu said.

Bold words danced toward that bright hope. But almost two decades later, not much has changed. 

Israeli-born USC sociologist Dan Lainer-Vos, author of the 2013 book “Sinews of the Nation: Constructing Irish and Zionist Bonds in the United States,” compared his native country to a vassal state. “Kind of dependent on the feudal lords,” he quipped in an interview.

In addition to the estimated $3 billion in U.S. foreign aid Israel receives annually, most of which goes to its military, Israel receives untold sums of American Jewish philanthropic money for social, cultural and civic institutions throughout the country. If those funds were to dry up, Lainer-Vos told me, Israel’s civic society “would simply disappear.” 

“It may throw Israel into economic crisis, but it would not risk Israel’s existence,” he added, suggesting there would be a benefit to forcing Israel’s maturity. “If you take away American Jewish money, it will be a huge blow for Israel’s civic society in the short term, but what you [would] see in the long term is that people will start developing Israeli philanthropy — in the same way that today [American Jews] have Jewish federations and all kinds of very powerful organizations that can do this miraculous trick of getting into somebody’s wallet and getting out the dollars.”

In today’s global economy, the notion of complete economic independence seems almost “anachronistic,” Lainer-Vos said. Consider American debt to the Chinese, for example, or what would happen if the United States and Europe jointly froze Russian-held assets (the blustery Putin would cry in his Crimea). 

But Israeli dependence on American Jewish philanthropy has created a debt loop that is truly unique. For decades, it has enabled the formation of two distinct masculine Jewish identities — that of American Jews as wealthy and generous, and Israeli Jews as strong and heroic — and has sustained a free-market competition to determine who is the true leader of the Jewish world. Is it the American Jewish Supermensch or the Israeli Machomensch?

Those are the terms Lainer-Vos used in his 2014 paper “Masculinities in Interaction,” which traces the roots of the encounter between American Jewish men and Israeli Jewish men at American fundraising events from the 1950s. It was there that these conflicting masculine self-images met, setting up a passive-aggressive future of enabling the other’s weakness.

“American Jews struggled with the stereotype of Jewish men as cerebral and effeminate,” Lainer-Vos wrote. “For these men, association with the Zionist model of tough masculinity was highly attractive.” 

If the tough-talking, tank-driving, deep-chested Israelis were intimidating in strength and virility, those wimpy American Jews could even the score with their pocketbooks. And if the taut-limbed, land-building Israelis felt emasculated by begging, they’d construe American philanthropy as a “constructive investment” — surely it was wise for American Jews to put stock in Israel, a sturdy safe haven if ever the day should come …

Half a century later, this endless tête-à-tête over testosterone has left the Israeli child lagging behind, her economic engines de-incentivized for growth. Today, many of Israel’s best and brightest are decamping for America, to make their masculine fortunes and prove that their fitness extends beyond muscles.

“Being dependent is usually associated with femininity,” Lainer-Vos said, alluding to the great irony of his macho theory. “If you are dependent, you can’t be a man” — and yet it was men who created this dependence.

American Jewish philanthropy was once critical in building the state. But the notion that it is still needed to “save” Israel is too tied to those American Jewish men who need to save face.

Maybe it’s time to let the mothers do the child rearing. And teach the men something called tough love.