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Putting a spotlight on Israeli international aid

On this week’s podcast episode, Dyonna Ginsburg and Tanyah Murkes discuss the work of their organizations — OLAM and SID Israel — and collaborators to provide much-needed development and relief around the world


Dyonna Ginsburg (left) and Tanyah Murkes

On this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s podcast, co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein are joined by Dyonna Ginsburg, CEO of OLAM, and Tanyah Murkes, CEO of the Society for International Development (SID) Israel, for a discussion on Jewish and Israeli development and humanitarian aid around the world. Both Ginsburg and Murkes were in Washington, D.C., this week for OLAM’s annual Focal Point summit, a gathering for Jewish service organizations to share ideas and advice. 

Below are selected portions of the conversation.

Jarrod Bernstein: So first off, tell us about your respective organizations, SID Israel and OLAM.

Dyonna Ginsburg: OLAM is a network of 71 self-identifying Jewish and/or Israeli organizations that are working in the fields of international development, humanitarian aid and global volunteering. And what we do is twofold: One, is bring together practitioners across the Jewish world, who are working in these fields, to enable them to network, learn, share best practices. And on the other hand, we also work with Jewish leaders, giving them the tools and also some of the connections to mobilize their own communities in support of some of the world’s most vulnerable. And so these are the two sides of our work, and we’re really proud to work very closely with the Society for International Development Israel, which is a strategic partner of ours.

Tanyah Murkes: So SID Israel, as Dyonna mentioned, is the Society for International Development, where the Israeli branch — there are several branches around the world — we convene Israeli action in the spheres of humanitarian assistance and international development. We’re an umbrella organization, bringing together individuals and organizations, NGOs, businesses, private sector, government agencies, academia and consultants. And we focus on three main aspects: policy and advocacy, cross sectoral partnerships, and professional development, really creating a professional network in these fields.


Bernstein: What do you guys see as the greatest challenges in this sphere of international development that you’re working in?

Murkes: I would answer that it’s the collaboration. It’s getting governments and policy and decision-makers more involved. Whether it’s on budget, whether it’s on legislation that’s relevant, whether it’s on strategic planning, that’s something that’s lacking. Another challenge is duplicity and different agencies working in either the same place or in the same field and getting them to work together, as I mentioned, in order to get a larger impact. And getting everybody in the same room to play ball by a certain standard as well, professional standard.

Ginsburg: I’ll add, I think, that from the Israeli perspective, there have been studies that have been done, which are a bit dated by now, but that look at giving patterns among average Israelis and the extent to which Israelis give globally as opposed to domestically, regardless of what the cause is. Whether it’s ailing Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe or tsunami victims somewhere in Asia, Israelis, compared to citizens of other Western countries, give far less, globally. And the authors of a study that was done a little bit over a decade ago tried to guess as to why that would be the case, and what they shared at the time was that Israeli society still sees itself as the beneficiary of the world’s largesse, in particular, I think of Jewish communal philanthropy from outside of the world, and we may not have yet reached a state of maturity of seeing ourselves as giving to the wider world.

There is a long-standing tradition of Israel and Israelis showing up for people in need around the world, but I think culturally, you don’t necessarily see that translate into giving, although it’s possible that there was an inflection point in the Ukraine crisis, which is unique in many ways, but I know from some of my colleagues at the Society for International Development Israel, that the private sector in Israel really stepped up in ways that it had never done before wanting to aid those in this particular crisis. So that might be a slight turning point in terms of a more globally minded Israeli citizenry.

Bernstein: That’s a really interesting answer, because I always got the impression that whenever there was a crisis, there were Israelis there doing good stuff. And it always seemed to me that, relative to the size of the population, Israel was everywhere when something bad happened to try and ease that suffering. But it sounds like, from what you’re telling me, that that actually may not be the case.

Rich Goldberg: Sounds like the government is there. The government’s deploying, we just saw the head of the rescue team just got honored in Turkey… for being there for the earthquake.

Murkes: I mean, you do see the government involved in big, unfortunately big disasters. So yes, we did see Israeli missions in Haiti, in Nepal, in Ukraine and in Turkey. However, there’s quite a lot of disasters happening around the world that Israel doesn’t send official delegations to, but a lot of the civil society organizations are there. If we’re talking about hurricanes, if we’re talking about lots of natural disasters, if we’re talking about the war in Ethiopia, there’s, I mean, unfortunately, it’s endless. There’s many in Malawi, there are really endless disaster stricken areas around the world, and as you mentioned, there is an Israeli presence, it’s just not necessarily the official presence. I’ll go back to the last question as well and just say that there is this conflict between the internal Israeli problems and how do we contribute to tikkun olam and our responsibility as global citizens as well. But you do see Israelis, as you said, all over the world and first responding, and you see Israeli missions there, they’re just not necessarily always the official missions. And I think that’s fine. I don’t think the government of Israel needs to be everywhere, and we don’t have the capacity for that as well. And I think that the fact that civil society can take an active role, and we’re getting more and more civil society to take an active role in that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think it can either complement the government’s actions or actually just stand on its own in places that the State of Israel doesn’t work, just as we saw in Syria, where we don’t have obviously official relations with Syria, but yet, there was humanitarian assistance, Israeli humanitarian assistance to the Syrian population.


Goldberg: It’s always frustrating, at least to me, that Israel never gets credit for the amount of good stuff that’s going on around the world, that Israelis don’t get credit, that the Jewish community doesn’t get credit, and all people think of is bad things, violence, the Palestinian conflict, other issues like that. Does it frustrate you? Does it frustrate your partners? Is it a PR issue? Is it because you’re focused on the work and not on getting credit for it? Should there be a little bit more of people who work on helping you and your partners get more credit?

Murkes: Of course, always, but most of the organizations are quite small, and so they have to pick and choose where they put their efforts. Whether it’s working on the ground, whether it’s fundraising, whether it’s capacity building, or whether it’s PR. Some of what we’re doing in Society for International Development, is helping with raising awareness, raising public awareness as well. So it’s not just about the work that I do as an umbrella organization, but the work that all our individual partners do as well. Again, whether it’s an emergency or on an ongoing basis through their development work, and it’s really putting emphasis both internally within Israel, but also globally, so that their important work does get recognition. But any assistance and anybody who wants to help out with that is always welcome. It’s always a bracha.

Ginsburg: I’ll just add that I think in the American Jewish community, people often fall into one of two categories when it comes to this work. The cynic’s view this work as whitewashing, basically a distraction from other issues in Israeli society domestically. But I think even the advocates often see it as window dressing, meaning a nice story, a nice headline, but not core to Israel’s identity. And so I think the message that I would have is for those who see this work and are proud of this work, it’s not just to see this as window dressing — like a nice thing that Israel does, a headline here or there — but actually something that’s core to Israel’s identity dating back to Golda Meir in the early days. And I think part of the way to change that sort of narrative is for people to have a greater understanding of the work that’s being done. So it’s this virtuous circle where you need more stories out there so people can understand that this is core to what Israeli society is and what Israel is in the world.

Bonus lightning round: 

Favorite Israeli wine? Murkes: “There’s so many. In all honesty, I used to work with bringing delegations of decision makers to Israel, and I would end every delegation with a visit to a winery. So I got to taste and go to many wineries, and I think that it’s underrated the amount of good wine that we have in Israel.” Ginsburg: “I’m a grape juice-drinking family all the way. So I wish I could give you a good answer, but anyone who knows me knows that I am a total lightweight.” Murkes: “I was gonna say that there’s a great region, which is maybe underappreciated, which is in the Judean Hills, around Jerusalem, and there’s a few there. There’s Flam and Castel and Bravdo and Emek ha-Ela, so there you go.” Favorite Hebrew language guilty pleasure TV? Ginsburg: “My husband and I love ‘Master Chef.’ We are addicted to ‘Master Chef,’ the Israeli version. We try to make the recipes at home.” Murkes: “There’s “Kupa Rashit,” which is, it’s a sitcom about an Israeli supermarket. It’s actually, it’s hilarious, it’s not bad TV at all, but yeah, we watch that.” Craziest place in the world that no one would ever believe that a Jewish international development organization is working in? Murkes: “There are so many places. As I mentioned, Syria, I don’t think anybody would have thought that Israelis or Jews work and help Syrian children, mothers, families, with essential goods and even provide first aid.” Ginsburg: “I would say the person who at our last in-person conference came the farthest, was someone who was IsraAid’s representative in Vanuatu, which is [a Pacific] island nation far away, [and] continues to do work in Vanuatu, so there are Israeli individuals and organizations in lots of places around the world.”

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