Dark money, questionable partners behind new group fighting antisemitism
Visitors to the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement’s website are greeted with a ticker showing the number of people and organizations who have signed on to say they are that “all in” for this fight: 322,552 individuals and 321 groups as of Wednesday.
A page of “notable quotes” starts off with Presidents Biden, Trump, Obama and George W. Bush, then moves on to international heads of state and other politicians. It includes Rep. Steven Scalise, the Louisiana Republican who is minority whip in the House and who once reportedly pitched himself as “David Duke without the baggage,” and the late evangelical leader Billy Graham, who was once recorded telling President Richard Nixon that Jews were behind the pornography industry and their “stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”
The list of more than 300 partner organizations includes establishment stalwarts like the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Federations of North America as well as several far-right fringe groups focused on attacking Muslims. Though Combat Anti-Semitism says it is committed to fighting all hate, one such partner, the Clarion Project, was on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of anti-Muslim hate groups for three of the last five years.
And, unusually for a nonprofit, there’s no “donate” button anywhere to be found.
Combat Anti-Semitism, which co-hosted an interfaith Iftar dinner Wednesday featuring members of Congress and top diplomats, is part of an explosion of new, well-funded organizations created over the last few years, amid a surge in hateful speech and violent attacks against Jews. As progressive groups sought to tie synagogue shootings and other attacks to Trump and far-right Republicans, conservative Jewish philanthropists pushed back by launching groups that argue antisemitism is equally dispersed among neo-Nazis, foreign terrorists and leftist Democrats.
Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire and president of the World Jewish Congress, pledged $25 million in December 2019, for the Anti-Semitism Accountability Project, or ASAP, which includes a Super PAC that can back candidates. Earlier that year, Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, put up $21 million and got others to add $10 million more for the Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism, a group focused on leveraging social media and that is unrelated to the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement.
At least half a dozen organizations have sprung up in the last four years with the express mission of fighting antisemitism, and older pro-Israel organizations like StandWithUs have launched new initiatives focused on stopping discrimination against Jews.
It is difficult to estimate how much is being spent on these initiatives in total, because many are too new to have had detailed public filings, and some — EndJewHatred and StopAntisemitism.org, for example — do not appear to be tax-exempt nonprofits, which means their financing is opaque. But there is no question among those in the field that antisemitism has become an animating cause for donors, and that they share a conservative outlook on how to fight it.
“The money was coming in the last couple of years disproportionately from what I would call right-of-center Jews, as compared to what it was for many years,” said Abe Foxman, who retired in 2015 as head of the Anti-Defamation League, where he had worked for half a century.
An ‘arms race’ to define antisemitism
After decades in which this space was dominated by the ADL and centrist groups like the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, experts say that the fleet of new groups — which also includes smaller websites and standalone social-media accounts — is fueling the politicization of a cause that once united the Jewish community.
“Much of the conversation about antisemitism has nothing to do with the antisemitism, it’s actually about influencing and controlling the conversation inside the Jewish community,” said Andres Spokoiny, who is president of the Jewish Funders Network and has tracked the rise of these organizations, though not Combat Anti-Semitism in particular. “It’s an arms race to define what is antisemitism in the Jewish community,” he said, “which is, of course, stupid and it’s a waste of resources.”
Combat Anti-Semitism presents itself as a moderate voice among the new groups. It is less focused on naming and shaming individuals accused of antisemitism, as StopAntisemitism.org does, and it is not directly tied to a radical politician like Americans Against Antisemitism, which was created by former New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind.
It is the only public project of a foundation registered in Moundridge, Kan., (pop. 2,222), and has extensive ties to Adam E. Beren, a Midwest oil magnate and megadonor to both the Republican Party and local and national Jewish causes. But Combat Anti-Semitism won’t say who is paying for its staff and events, and at least one previous attempt to trace its origins was wiped from the internet.
(The group was founded in 2019 and has not yet had to file the 990 tax form on which nonprofits must publicly disclose their officers and major expenses.)
“The highest level of tzedek, according to Maimonides, is anonymous,” Misha Galperin, who helped create the group and serves as a senior adviser, said to explain why it does not disclose its donors. He declined to name any backers, saying only that the group was “funded by a few people for whom this was important and who didn’t want their names and organizations and their foundations to be out front,” and that it has received donations “both large and small.”
Combat Anti-Semitism’s website lists a staff of nine based in the United States and Israel. Its online productions during the pandemic have been slickly produced, including the a major international summit for mayors last month, in which two freelance TV anchor women virtually hosted more than a dozen mayors in a television studio.
In addition to the leaders of cities like Amsterdam, Toronto and Pittsburgh, U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Nevada Democrat, joined the conference to discuss security and Nona Jones, a Facebook executive, came to talk about interfaith relations online. The summit’s “partners” included the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs.
Sacha Roytman Dratwa, the group’s executive director, said in an interview that Combat Anti-Semitism has no hidden agenda, but differs from groups like the ADL and others in the increasingly crowded field, because it is committed to eliminating — not just reducing — the world’s oldest hatred.
“The first philosophy of CAM is that the fight against antisemitism was not won in 3,000 years and we should do things differently,” he said. “You need to come with something new and clean.”
No longer a lonely field
Fighting antisemitism in the United States used to be lonely work. With American Jews thriving following World War II, it was often hard for communal organizations to get them worked up about the occasional flareup by neo-Nazis.
“We at the ADL issued, every year, reports on antisemitic incidents, and we did polling, but it was not taken seriously,” said Foxman. “It was: ‘OK, so it’s there, you’re doing it.’”
That started to change in the early 2000s, when virulent activism criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians on college campuses spawned dozens of new Jewish organizations committed to defending the Jewish state.
“Our Jewish college students and pro-Israel backers were really taken by surprise,” recalled Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “That was a real cold-water-in-the-face-moment for a lot of people.”
If the campus debates over whether to boycott Israel shook some Jewish leaders into action, the rise of the far-right under President Donald Trump and the killings of Jews in Pittsburgh, Poway and Jersey City in 2018 and 2019 mobilized the entire community. Last January, before the pandemic, more than 10,000 people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest a series of attacks on visibly Orthodox Jews.
“That was the turning point for a proliferation of organizations specifically dealing with antisemitism,” Foxman said of the violence.
By then, the ADL had lots of company. In the past, Foxman or his successor, Jonathan Greenblatt, would huddle with broad, mainstream groups like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress to hash out responses to especially egregious incidents. Now, a laundry list of organizations working exclusively on antisemitism frequently are the first to put out statements of outrage for even relatively minor attacks on Jewish institutions or individuals.
The ADL is not listed among Combat Anti-Semitism’s 300-plus “partners.” An ADL spokesperson declined to discuss the group specifically, but said the new organizations “who have good intentions in exposing and eliminating antisemitism are welcome to join this important cause.”
Not in Kansas anymore
The Combat Anti-Semitism Movement is part of the Combat Hate Foundation, which was created in 2019 and registered to Donna Stucky, chief financial officer of Berexco LLC, an oil and gas exploration and production firm. Berexco is owned by Beren, the third-generation scion of a Kansas oil family, who donated $312,500 to a pro-Trump PAC shortly before the 2016 election, according to Federal Election Commission records, along with $1.1 million to the Republican National Committee.
Trump appointed Beren to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in 2019.
The Combat Hate Foundation reported less than $50,000 in revenue in 2019, enabling it to file only an abbreviated electronic postcard with the Internal Revenue Service, rather than the more detailed Form 990 required of larger nonprofits. But the group appears to have since increased its budget.
For example, Congressional disclosure records show the foundation spent $35,000 in 2020 lobbying on “education and advocacy related to anti-Semitism,” using Robert Zucker of the Washington firm Winning Strategies. It has also spent $177,000 on Facebook ads since its inception, according to the social-media platform’s tracking database.
Roytman Dratwa, the executive director, joined a Zoom interview from his desk in a skyscraper with windows overlooking Tel Aviv, but Galperin said that it was not the group’s office.
“It’s someone else’s place that he hangs out,” explained Galperin, who is based in Brooklyn. He said that the nonprofit was “actually quite thin,” and that many advisers volunteered their time.
The 2019 IRS postcard listed only Stucky’s name and the address of a house she owns in Moundridge, a town about an hour north of Berexco’s Wichita headquarters that was originally named “Christian” and heavily settled by German Mennonites. Stucky is also listed in IRS forms as the record-keeper for the Adam E. Beren Foundation, which between 2001 and 2012 donated roughly $312,000 to the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation in Wichita and $143,000 to Galila, a charity serving the Galilee region in northern Israel. Asked whether Beren was in fact financing Combat Anti-Semitism, Galperin said, “we have a number of funders who want to stay anonymous, so it’s not anything that I would want to get into.”
The Beren family has deep roots in both oil and public affairs in Kansas. Adam Beren’s grandfather Israel Henry Beren helped found the Okmar Oil Company in the early 20th century and shepherded it through the Great Depression. Adam’s father, Robert Beren, created Berexco in the 1960s, a time when the city’s Jews were still barred from joining the Wichita Country Club or serving on the boards of certain local arts organizations.
Robert Beren served as president of the Wichita school board during a turbulent era, and worked with the Urban League and other Jewish community leaders to desegregate its elementary schools.
Today, there are about 2,700 Jews among Wichita’s 650,000 population. Its lone Hebrew school bears the name of Adam’s late mother, Joan, as does a campus opened last year that houses both the city’s Reform and Orthodox congregations. Yeshiva University’s Jewish Studies department, meanwhile, is named after Robert, who has focused much of his charitable giving on Jewish education, including funding a modern Orthodox day school in Houston.
Robert Beren, who is 95, has also long been a prolific Republican donor and Adam, 60, has followed in his footsteps, including donating $25,000 to the Republican Jewish Coalition last year. Before 2012, Adam also regularly donated to moderate Democrats, including former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who nows serves on Combat Anti-Semitism’s advisory board, and former Rep. Eric Fingerhut of Ohio, who now leads the Jewish Federations of North America, a Combat Anti-Semitism partner.
A low-profile megadonor
Beren did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him through Berexco. But he recently summarized his philosophy of Jewish philanthropy as he publicly pledged to donate, upon his death, at least half of his estate’s charitable giving to “the Jewish people and/or the State of Israel.”
“I am proud to be Jewish and of my ancestry that dates back thousands of years,” Beren wrote on the website of the Jewish Future Pledge, which launched two years ago with the goal of raising $630 billion for Jewish causes. “I want to do my part to sustain a strong and vibrant Jewish future to honor those who sacrificed so much before me.”
Beren maintains a low profile and does not appear to have granted interviews about his philanthropy, his politics or his Judaism. He was captain of the tennis team at Harvard, where his father endowed the tennis facility, and the student newspaper described young Adam as having “no interest in big-time capitalism.”
“The only reason I’d do that would be to make lots of money and give it all away,” he said. “The only way to make a lot of money in the corporate world is by winning, by stepping on other people to get to the top, and I no longer believe I can do that with a clear conscience.”
Beren lives in Wichita, with his wife, Ellen. Their son, Samuel, is a professional tennis player and investment analyst, according to his LinkedIn, and their daughter, Sophie, leads a nonprofit focused on cultivating civil discourse called Conversationalist.
Last year, amid a social-media campaign criticizing the idea that Jews enjoyed significant privilege in American society, Sophie spoke out about having been harassed for her identity while growing up in Wichita.
“#JewishPrivilege is being the only Jewish student in your high school and getting added to an anti-Semitic GroupMe called ‘Throw The Jew Down the Well’ and someone writes ‘I hear there is a Jew problem’ referring to you,” she wrote on Twitter. (GroupMe is another messaging platform.)
When a left-wing blog called Jewish Worker posted screenshots on Twitter in December 2019 connecting Adam Beren and Berexco to the Combat Hate Foundation, Twitter said it violated rules “against posting private information.”
“Someone got Twitter to force me to delete my tweets specifically about this topic,” explained the editor of Jewish Worker, who blogs and tweets anonymously and spoke on the condition that be maintained.
Asked about the secrecy, Galperin said the group’s donors preferred anonymity to keep the focus on antisemitism — rather than on themselves or their specific politics. “It’s not about transparency, it’s about not wanting an ego to be part of the thing,” he said.
Israel central to group’s advocacy
Combat Anti-Semitism hosts and honors both Democrats and Republicans, but it was founded at a time when addressing antisemitism is being increasingly politicized, both in relation to Israel and in assessing the relative threats to Jews coming from the right and left.
One proxy for this struggle has been over the very definition of antisemitism. Conservative groups and much of the Jewish establishment has been urging the Biden Administration, colleges and other entities to enshrine the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition, which suggests that most attacks on Zionism are inherently antisemitic. Progressive Jewish groups and their allies on the left have pushed back, campaigning against the codification of the IHRA language and promoting an alternate definition released in March.
The IHRA definition is central to Combat Anti-Semitism’s work and specifically to its “pledge,” which individuals and organizations who want to join the movement must sign. The pledge itself is brief: “The targeting of Jews must be stopped. I pledge to help combat anti-Semitism.” But the organization says that the language is “based on” the IHRA definition, which it promotes elsewhere on its website.
The organization’s tagline is “for the Jewish people, their homeland and humanity,” and Galperin said that defending Israel is central to its mission. He said that the group does not see criticism of the Israeli government as antisemitic. However, calling for a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would take away Jewish sovereignty in Israel, he said, is unacceptable.
“The question of the existence of the state, and our right to have one, is where in fact we draw the line,” said Galperin, who is also chief of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
When it launched in 2019, CAM’s original mission statement prominently featured the defense of Israel, stating that “one of the most pernicious forms of modern anti-Semitism is the effort to deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, Israel.” Last summer, the group removed that language. The statement now focuses on supporting the IHRA definition and mentions fighting discrimination “against the Jewish people and the Jewish State of Israel.”
Much of Combat Anti-Semitism’s advocacy centers on obvious bigotry, like swastika graffiti or editorial cartoons about Israel that feature blatant antisemitic caricatures. In one video that won a prize from the group, students from across the world describe peers joking about wanting to kill Jews or making crude references to the Holocaust.
None of the anecdotes in the video touch on Israel, but toward the end of the video, an Israeli student reads a statement that defines anti-Zionism as antisemitism. Another then describes Israel as the “only the place in the world that Jews can feel safe.”
The group’s “personal stories” section likewise mixes the experience of a British Jew who was told “we should have gassed the lot of you” with a California high school student’s criticism of the group “Jewish Voice For Peace and their Anti-Semitism.”
Roytman Dratwa, the group’s director, and two other staff members, served in the Israel Defense Forces; Danny Danon, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, and Isaac Herzog, a longtime Knesset member who is now chairman of the Jewish Agency, both serve on CAM’s advisory council.
Combat Anti-Semitism presents its defense of Jewish sovereignty in Israel as both integral to opposing antisemitism and also beyond the realm of politics. Roytman Dratwa said that questions about how to balance the right of Jews to control the state of Israel with that of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are irrelevant.
“The right to self-determination of the Jewish people is the right of the Jewish people,” Roytman Dratwa said. “You poke around about the Palestinians,” he added. “This is a political debate that we don’t touch.”
Navigating a politicized space
Progressives are suspicious of Combat Anti-Semitism and similar organizations created during the Trump administration. Bend the Arc, a liberal Jewish organization, compiled a report in late 2019 that called it and similar groups part of “Jewish right-wing narrative-making machinery.”
The internal report, which was shared with the Forward, compared several of these organizations to Russian government efforts to target Black voters in the 2016 election with “confusing and polarizing messages.” Besides Combat Anti-Semitism, the report listed the Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism, the Anti-Semitism Accountability Project, Americans Against Antisemitism and several now-defunct outfits like Kippah United and Democrats Against Anti-Semitism.
“It’s not clear whether these astroturf antisemitism efforts are trying to influence voters or distract from how Trump and the GOP mainstreamed rhetoric that incited the deadliest massacre of Jews in this country’s history,” the report stated.
Combat Anti-Semitism has proudly gone after both sides of the political spectrum. It called out Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who is tied to the QAnon conspiracy movement and once suggested the Rothchilds were to blame for wildfires, as well as Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat who has tied political support for Israel to political contributions.
Roytman Dratwa cited Marine La Pen’s National Front party as an antisemitic threat from the right in France, and the organization has also spoken out against right-wing antisemitism in Poland.
“The question of what is worse or where the most danger is coming from is probably not very meaningful to us,” said Galperin. “Antisemitism is one area where a lot of the extremists happen to agree.”
Many on the left balk at this language, saying that a focus on “both sides” risks equating far-right figures like Richard Spencer with elected Democrats like Omar. Sophie Ellman-Golan, who founded Jewish Against White Nationalism in 2019, argues that such an approach falsely presents the Republican Party as a safe haven for Jews and gives a pass to GOP officials like Rep. Matt Gaetz, who once invited a Holocaust denier to the State of the Union.
“It’s a gross misrepresentation,” Ellman-Golan said, “but it also eliminates an entire category of Republican officials who are actively promoting antisemitism.”
Partners from the center to the far-right
Combat Anti-Semitism is both global — the mayor’s summit was held in partnership with the German city of Frankfurt, and its staff recently presented at a United Nations conference — and hyper-local. Roytman Dratwa becomes most impassioned when discussing the group’s future. He sees it as an international movement, and said there are plans to launch websites in Spanish and possibly French by the end of the year, with future programming also in Italian, Russian and other languages.
“You need to fight it locally but you need to have global answers,” he explained. “We are still two years old, so we can’t be everywhere in two years. But hopefully in 10 years we will be.”
Key to that ambition is amassing a large number of partner organizations, including many longtime community stalwarts like the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America. The coalition also includes a smattering of Jewish day schools, local Hillel affiliates and Muslim and Christian groups.
One of the five Muslim groups, the Muslim Reform Movement, is led by M. Zuhdi Jasser, who has clashed with mainstream Muslim organizations in the United States, including the Council for American-Islamic Relations, and once narrated a film claiming that America was under threat from a “cultural jihad” by radical Muslims seeking to “infiltrate and undermine our society from within.”
The coalition generally stretches from the center to the far-right of the political spectrum, and includes a clutch of radical anti-Muslim organizations, including the Clarion Project, which the Southern Poverty Law Center listed as a hate group in 2016 and 2017, the same year that an interfaith coalition got Clarion booted from its Washington offices, and again in 2019.
The Clarion Project is best known for producing and distributing anti-Muslim propaganda films, and also hosts the Fuqra Files, which claim to expose a network of Black Muslim sleeper cells “anticipating a nationwide armed uprising,” according to its website.
Adam Beren donated $50,000 to the Clarion Project in 2014 through a family foundation called the Beren Sea Foundation, controlled by Adam and his wife, Ellen, according to the foundation’s tax filings. The same year, the couple donated $52,000 to ACT! for America, another organization deemed an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. ACT, which is not part of the Combat Anti-Semitism coalition, organized a series of “March Against Shariah” rallies in 2017 attended by extremists including neo-Nazis, according to SPLC.
Another controversial CAM partner is Americans for Peace and Tolerance, whose leader, Charles Jacobs, has harshly criticized the Anti-Defamation League for its defense of Muslims and Arabs as part of its civil-rights work. Jacobs suggested in a 2019 video that the ADL be renamed the Al-Defamation League, aping a frequently used prefix in Arabic that means “the,” because of what he described as the group’s desire to prioritize Arabs and Muslims over Jews.
Galperin said Combat Anti-Semitism rejects Islamophobia and cited its presentation of an award to Sheikh Dr. Mohammed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, after that group adopted the IHRA definition.
“We don’t condone hate and we don’t agree with Islamophobes,” Galperin said. “But there are extremists on all sides. There are people among Muslims who are racist and hateful and there are those among Jews.”
“Neither one has a place in the world,” he added.
The Combat Anti-Semitism coalition includes other fringe organizations, like the evangelical American Pastors Network, which is currently campaigning against the COVID-19 vaccine and publishing blog posts promoting the false claim that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may cause sterility in women. The coalition is also home to the far-right organization Im Tirtzu, which is known for running television ads tagging Israeli human right activists as traitors.
“As you can see, we’re open to everyone,” Roytman Dratwa said. “If you don’t want to be a part of it you don’t have to be a part of it. But we want to give a chance to everyone.”
But that openness seems to only extend to the right side of the political spectrum. Asked whether left-wing organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace or Students for Justice in Palestine would be welcome in CAM’s coalition, Galperin said no, explaining that groups that “decide that Israel has no right to exist” could not be accepted.
Roytman Dratwa cited Aleph, the Jewish renewal movement, as an example of a liberal organization he has partnered with, and pointed to a panel his group hosted on antisemitism that featured Arizona State Rep. Alma Hernandez, a progressive Jewish lawmaker, and Rabbi Sandra Lawson, the diversity director of Reconstructing Judaism, the Reconstructionist movement’s umbrella organization.
It is also unclear what being part of this coalition means beyond signing the pledge.
Joel Rubin, who became director of the American Jewish Congress last fall, he “literally” has “not engaged them at all during my time here, nor has anyone even mentioned them,” adding: “they don’t speak for us in any form whatsoever.”
Alicia Post, a spokesman for the American Zionist Movement said her group was “listed because of our work to combat antisemitism, not because of others listed.”
Rebecca Dinar, spokeswoman for Jewish Federations of North America, said of CAM, “We believe they are doing important work to combat antisemitism.” And Holly Huffnagle of the American Jewish Committee, praised the mayor’s summit.
“We don’t necessarily have to agree with everyone in a coalition on every issue or method of advocacy,” Huffnagle said in a statement.
Eric Ward, director of the Western States Center, which tracks domestic extremism, acknowledged that “coalitions are broad tents by their very nature, and they are complicated, and they are hard.”.
But Ward said that taking on antisemitism cannot be done in a vacuum and that partnering with people who promote Islamophobia is counterproductive, for moral and strategic reasons, since antisemitism is connected to other forms of racism.
“I would not see myself ever being part of a coalition that includes members who participate in the dehumanization of others,” Ward said. “I do have to wonder how effective that coalition can be.”
Dreaming of a world without antisemitism
The leaders of Combat Anti-Semitism said they are not concerned about those who question the group’s motives, and argue that its strategy of building a large coalition to tackle antisemitism is working. While the IHRA definition has become a battleground in the United States, Combat Anti-Semitism has cheered on its adoption by an increasing number of governments and institutions in Europe and around the world.
Roytman Dratwa said the group holds weekly meetings with its staff and slate of advisers focused on the goal of reducing the number of antisemitic incidents across the world. Practically, he said, that means helping cities crack down on local bigotry and creating spaces for interfaith dialogue.
“I would like to see a world where Jews, Christians and Muslims know each other,” he said. “I would like to make sure every Muslim would have the chance to discuss with a Jew about their life.”
“We’re dreaming about it,” he said.
In the meantime, the coalition keeps growing. Twenty-one organizations and 20,952 individuals have signed Combat Anti-Semitism’s pledge since the start of the year.
Galperin said the organization is building a movement akin to the ones that freed Soviet Jews and ended South African apartheid in the 1980s, and that he believes that antisemitism can truly be eradicated.
“I’m often mocked for that notion,” Galperin said, “and even some of our partners and advisers don’t believe that to be the case. But I do.”
Clarification: The original version of this article included Americans Against Antisemitism among the groups whose funding is unclear because they do not appear to be incorporated as nonprofits. In fact, that group has been a 501(c)(3) nonprofit since 2019, though it is incorporated with a hyphen in anti-semitism, while the organization does not generally use the hyphen elsewhere.