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Hartman Institute received major donations from U.S. billionaires funding attack on Israeli judiciary

For 10 years, the Hartman Institute received more than $25 million in donations from the CLAWS Foundation, the major financial backers of the conservative-libertarian Kohelet Policy Forum

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

The American-Jewish billionaires behind the controversial think tank that is pushing for an overhaul of Israel’s judiciary are also major donors to the Shalom Hartman Institute – an educational center dedicated to Jewish pluralism and liberal Zionism.

Public records show that for a decade, the Hartman Institute received more than $25 million in donations from the CLAWS Foundation. That organization is headed by Jeffrey Yass and Arthur Dantchik, the main funders of the Kohelet Policy Forum – the conservative-libertarian think tank that built the groundwork for the plan to weaken Israel’s court system.

The Knesset is currently discussing legislation submitted by Justice Minister Yariv Levin that would give parliament the power to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority, provide the governing coalition with a majority on the committee that appoints judges and do away with the standard of reasonability in court rulings.

The legislation draws much of its inspiration from policy papers drafted over the years by Kohelet, and Israel’s new far-right government is working full speed to push it through despite fierce public opposition and fears that it could spell the end of democracy in the Jewish state.

Among those who have spoken out publicly against the plan is Donniel Hartman, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, which was founded by his father.

On a podcast he co-hosts, Hartman said last week that his opposition to the judiciary overhaul had prompted him to take to the streets for the first time in his life, joining hundreds of thousands of other Israelis taking part in the weekly Saturday night protests around the country.

“For those of us who oppose this government’s far-reaching plans to weaken the independence of our judiciary by making it subservient to the politicians, this is one of those essential moments that we feel are determining the face of our nation,” Hartman said.

A 2021 Haaretz investigation traced donations to Kohelet back to Yass and Dantchik, who until then had been anonymous benefactors. The American business partners control Susquehanna International Group, a securities trading firm, and are both major donors to the U.S. Republican Party.

Public records show that between 2010 and 2020, virtually every single year, their CLAWS Foundation also donated to the Hartman Institute. Most years, the annual donation was $3.25 million. That makes CLAWS one of the biggest, if not the biggest, single donor to the Hartman Institute during this period. In some years, donations from CLAWS accounted for nearly half to a third of its total fundraising from private organizations.

When asked how he could take money from a foundation that supports the Kohelet Forum when he is so opposed to its judicial agenda, Hartman said: “I don’t talk about people I receive money from. The only thing I would say to you is that people might be a little more complicated and a little more multidimensional than you give them credit for.”

Referring to the CLAWS Foundation as “very good friends,” he insisted they had no influence on the agenda of the Hartman Institute. “Our record speaks for itself,” he said.

Professor Lila Corwin Berman, who holds a chair in American Jewish history at Temple University, said the U.S. experience has shown that the source of funding does matter. “Big donors, like Kohelet’s funders, whose primary causes are privatization and deregulation churn their money into anti-democratic policies,” she said. “Even if they also support a museum wing or another institution that seemingly strays from their message, they are being validated by a system that offers no true democratic check on their actions.”

A prominent authority on American Jewish philanthropy, Corwin Berman said the Hartman Institute could respond to an expected backlash against revelations concerning its donors in one of two ways. “It can effectively say that it does good work with the money it is given, no matter what the source, or it can say that the money is connected to the world it is trying to build.”

She added, “The first response is validated by American law, which asks for only minimal transparency in return for maximal tax benefits. The second response, however, might be a requirement of our moment, when we should be asking whether democracy can possibly sustain the assault of dark money that floods the zone of law and policy.”

The mission of the Hartman Institute, as described on its website, is “to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity and pluralism; to enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel; and to ensure that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century.”

The institute, headquartered in Jerusalem, comprises five independent centers, including two high schools in Jerusalem and the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Thousands of Diaspora Jews have attended programs it sponsors, including interfaith activities and programs on gender inequality.

When contacted by Haaretz, Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, declined to comment.

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