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Sheldon Adelson Takes Surprisingly Modest Approach in Campus Initiative

Framed as the biggest Jewish communal effort yet to battle anti-Israel sentiments on campus, the Maccabee Task Force has ended its first year of work as a modest, cautious operation.

A more “sober” approach has set in at the task force’s Las Vegas headquarters, according to David Brog, its executive director, following initial reports in the media and talk among some donors of a $50 million budget.

As things turned out, the fund doled out about $9 million this past school year to various campus groups. And its budget, which was initially expected to win support from the community’s biggest donors, is now reliant on a single philanthropist — Las Vegas billionaire and Republican funder Sheldon Adelson.

“Those who wanted to see us dump a lot of money could be disappointed,” said Brog, in an interview with the Forward last month. “The headlines got ahead of reality.” Brog added: “Fifty million right away was never Sheldon Adelson’s model. Our model is to start small, identify what works, and build from there.”

This low-key gradual approach—seemingly in contrast to the initial spirit of the initiative—may actually prove valuable in assuaging concerns voiced by Jewish organizations already active on the campus scene. In the lead-up to the program’s launch many of these groups expressed unease with a major new player, flush with cash, stepping into the already crowded field of pro-Israel campus activism.

“Everybody anticipated a much faster ramp-up,” said a top official at a pro-Israel organization that is also actively working to block anti-Israel efforts on college campuses. “The big surprise is how slow it is happening.” The organizational official, who asked not to be named due to the group’s policy of not airing differences with other Jewish organizations in public, said that based on MTF’s limited activities this year, “there was nothing there that raised concerns for us.”

With only a few months to organize after its launch in the summer of 2015, the Maccabee Task Force, also known by its acronym, MTF, concentrated on six California campuses with visible pro-Palestinian activism during the past school year.

The group’s roll-out, according to Brog, began with outreach to groups already working on campus. After listening to their needs, MTF gave out grants to selected existing programs and funded new initiatives specific to each college’s circumstances.

“They asked the students: ‘If you had unlimited resources, what would you like to do?’” recalled Liora Zimerman, who served as the Jewish Agency for Israel fellow at University of California Santa Cruz Hillel and collaborated with MTF in promoting pro-Israel programs.

On Zimerman’s campus, one result of this brainstorming was the “Israel palooza,” celebrating Israel’s independence day, with graffiti artists and advocacy booths funded by MTF.

Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of the Hillel at UCLA, another school where MTF ran its pilot program, described a similar experience. “Our students were invited to suggest programs to expand awareness about Israel,” he said, adding that the outside funding from Adelson’s group “has helped UCLA Hillel grow the pro-Israel community on our campus.”

MTF’s most ambitious project is a Birthright-style all-expenses-paid trip to Israel for groups of students, made up primarily of non-Jewish campus leaders. “There’s pressure on these students not to go because they will be brainwashed,” Brog said. To counter these claims, students were taken to meet Palestinians, including representatives in Ramallah of the Palestinian Authority, which governs some areas on the West Bank under Israeli aegis. Tour members also met, he said, with representatives of different points of view within Jewish Israeli society.

Another program sponsored by MTF seeks to offer a counter-narrative to pro-Palestinian events on campus known, on some campuses, as the “Israel apartheid week.” MTF’s polling has found that students respond better to positive messages and are turned off by anger and hate, and therefore the group framed its events as the “Israel peace week.” The program does not encourage students to seek confrontation with pro-Palestinian peers, but instead offers free falafel, T-shirts, and a message that “you may not like the Israeli presence in the West Bank, and that’s fine, but to put all the blame for it on Israel is not,” said Brog.

The Maccabees Task Force was launched last June at a secretive invitee-only two-day event hosted by Adelson at his Venetian hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Standing alongside Adelson at the launch of the initiative was Israeli-American Hollywood billionaire Haim Saban. Among the invitees were representatives of some 50 Jewish organizations as well as major Jewish donors. The latter were invited to a “Mega Philanthropists Session” at which opening pledge minimums were set at $1 million.

Within months, friction between the staunch Republican Adelson, who is set to be Donald Trump’s largest contributor this year, and Saban, a friend and top donor to Democrat Hillary Clinton, led Saban to withdraw from the project. Other mega-donors also chose not to take part in the initiative leaving Adelson as the prime sponsor.

A year after its launch, the group, which is registered as a tax deductible charity under the IRS code, is still reluctant to provide full information about its finances and the scope of its activity. Brog said MTF’s budget in its first year of operation was “under $10 million, maybe under $9 million.” He declined to name all six California campuses on which the group had operated in the last school year.

MTF’s first-year tax return, which would offer precise information on this, is not yet publicly available.

In making its funding choices, MTF focused on local organizations such as the Spartans for Israel in San Jose, Bruins for Israel at UCLA, Students Supporting Israel, local Chabad campus groups, AEPi fraternities, Christians United for Israel, and several campus Hillel groups. National Jewish organizations, such as Hillel international, were not considered for support, at least at this stage.

Brog stated that MTF surprised its partners “when they saw we did not come with ideological baggage.” Adelson rejects a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and occupation of the West Bank, and generally opposes Israeli territorial concessions. But Brog stressed that Adelson’s did not ask to impose his political views on groups MTF intends to partner with.

Nevertheless, MTF still upholds a policy of refusing to partner with J StreetU, the campus arm of the dovish pro-Israel lobby, which opposes boycotts of Israel but is openly critical of its policies towards the Palestinians.

“There is no reason we should take positions the divide the community,” said Brog.” For the Maccabee Task Force this means trying to counter the pro-Palestinian narrative on campus. When the question of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank comes up, Brog said he responds that “this is a simplistic approach that ignores the reality of repeated offers made by Israel and rejected by the Palestinians.”

MTF’s promise of revolutionizing the anti-BDS field has evolved into single-funder operation taking baby-steps toward becoming a player on the already-packed pro-Israel campus field.

Brog said that his group now has a “tried and tested action plan” that will allow it to expand to 20 campuses this fall. MTF will also try this coming school year to broaden its financial support base by soliciting other donors rather than rely exclusively on Adelson, its founder.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman

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