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September 24, 2020 6:05 am

Bonds Building Bonds — Honoring Generations of Sound Investment

avatar by Deborah Fineblum / JNS.org

Opinion

David Ben-Gurion declares Israel’s independence, at the Tel Aviv Museum, May 14, 1948. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.orgIf anyone in your family celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah, a wedding, or the birth of a baby after September 3, 1950, then the chances are good at least one Israel bond was received as a gift.

It’s been exactly 70 years this month since Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced the concept of Israel Bonds to a group of leaders at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The following year (in 1951), he launched the US campaign from the stage of New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Since that time, more than $45 billion has been invested in the State of Israel from the sale of Israel Bonds, a flow of support in good times and bad. The organization continues to invite Diaspora Jewry, speaking with their investment dollars, to be a key partner in the blossoming of what was once a tiny beleaguered land into one of the world’s flourishing First World economies.

But how many of the millions on the receiving end of these bonds — and how many of those loving grandparents, aunts and uncles, second cousins (some once removed), and friends who purchased them could have known the miracles each bond performed? And the miracles they continue to perform.

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There is basically no area of Israel’s seismic growth and development that hasn’t benefited directly from bonds, the vast majority of them bought by Jews in the Diaspora over the last seven decades — a modern highway system, utilities that serve every part of the country, a network of excellent (and affordable) colleges and universities, Israel’s ever-expanding top-notch public-transportation system, including the fast rail that’s cut travel time from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in half and light-rail extensions currently underway in Jerusalem.

Growing up in the Jewish state, Israel Maimon was surrounded with this very infrastructure — only years later did he realize how much of it was funded by Diaspora Jews’ purchases of bonds.

“In the beginning, Israel was an isolated island,” he says. “Unlike other countries, where they have markets in their neighboring countries, we were surrounded by enemies who would not be trading partners.”

In the 1950s-1970s, Israel Bonds were “a key resource in the building of roads, bridges, and tunnels needed for industries to grow, for neighborhoods to grow, as well as the development of Israel’s entire economy,” says Maimon, who served as government secretary for prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert before moving to New York four years ago to take the job of president and CEO of Israel Bonds.

It was that initial infrastructure that the country’s phenomenal economic growth is built upon, he adds.

By 1950, two years after its birth, Israel was still hobbled by the aftereffects of its long and painful War of Independence and deflecting ongoing Arab attacks. Add to the costs of self-defense the influx of needy refugees — many of them Holocaust survivors — a scarcity of food and subpar health conditions, and the infant state’s economy was seriously stymied.

Ben-Gurion knew that. And though he met with some initial resistance — there were those who worried that the bonds wouldn’t be worth the paper they were written on — the leadership took an aggressive approach of canvassing Diaspora communities to sell them, making every purchaser a partner in the growth of the state.

But as visionary as Ben-Gurion proved to be, 70 years later Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Bonds supporters at last month’s virtual celebration that “even he, Israel’s founding prime minister, could not have foreseen the extraordinary success of Israel Bonds.”

And Ben-Gurion was not alone in championing the idea of a bonds campaign, says Ilan Troen, the Karl, Harry and Helen Stoll Professor of Israel Studies Emeritus at Brandeis University.

In a little-known piece of history, says Troen, “the person who imagined and should be credited with the concept of Israel Bonds is Henry Morgenthau Jr., the long-serving secretary of the treasury under [President] Franklin D. Roosevelt and head of the United Jewish Appeal after the war.”

Having had experience launching America’s “war bonds” (now known as savings bonds) just a few years earlier, Morgenthau “brought this option to Ben-Gurion’s attention even before the establishment of Israel in May 1948. Ben-Gurion ultimately adopted the idea and launched the first Israel Bonds campaign in 1951.”

Though the prime minister was at first resistant to the idea — his concern, explains Troen, was that making Israel an investment might water down the philanthropic momentum driving financial support by Diaspora Jewry; “it was only the dire needs of the new state with enormous demands on its inadequate resources for meeting development, immigration, and defense needs that persuaded Ben-Gurion to accept Morgenthau’s repeated attempts at persuasion.”

Once launched, early Bonds enthusiasts included American labor unions, most notably during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, along with state and municipal public-employee pension and treasury funds that have bought up billions of dollars’ worth over the years. And no less than investment maven billionaire and philanthropist Warren Buffett has purchased $5 million worth of the bonds, describing them as “a deserved endorsement of a remarkable country.”

“Golda [Meir] liked to use the line, ‘The day should come when Israel doesn’t need a handout, but the day should never come when Israel is not a good investment.’” So says longtime Bonds activist Susan Weikers, who was the first female national chair and currently serves on Israel Bonds’ National Campaign Advisory Council and as treasurer of its international board of directors.

So how does one keep the Jewish passion for Israel alive for the next generation? One of Weikers’ favorite tactics is approaching young adults at events to share stories of Jews, Israel, and survival. “I want them to begin to feel they own this story and this place — that Israelis are our brothers. And, if anyone says anything derogatory, that we need to tell them you don’t insult my brother.”

Indeed, Maimon reports the organization is grooming its next generation of leaders through mentoring, leadership-training programs, Israel trips, social-media campaigns, and events that cater to the young. Other attractors include the affordability (bonds start at $36).

Moreover, whereas other organizations are dealing with shortfalls in the wake of COVID-19, Israel’s Finance Ministry agreed to the request of Israel Bonds to extend its 2020 goal to $1.7 billion, which would be a record high.

The big difference? “We’re an investment,” states Maimon. “The economic forecast, despite temporary setbacks, is that Israel will rebound more quickly and stronger than other countries, so that although the debt is rising due to the pandemic, the ability of the country to repay it is better. And the will of the Jewish people to support Israel is strong, so it’s considered a good investment no matter what.”

One point of particular pride: Never once, even in times of war or recession or intifada, has Israel defaulted on its bonds. “After 70 years, everyone knows we will always stand behind them,” says Maimon. “And there’s no commission, so every penny is an investment in Israel’s strong future.”

In fact, bonds strengthen the bonds between Israel and Diaspora Jews, he notes. “These invisible but powerful ties go both ways. When you invest in something, you always check to see what’s going on with it; it’s important to you. And Israelis know that much of what they have now has been made possible by Jews living very different lives many miles away.”

So, when an Israeli bond is given for a wedding or new baby or bar or bat mitzvah, “it’s a double mitzvah,” emphasizes Maimon. “You’re buying into the Jewish homeland and giving it as a gift to the next generation.”

Deborah Fineblum is a contributing writer at JNS.

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