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How did Israeli democracy come under threat? Follow the money

American Jewish donors have helped to subsidize Israel’s drift into illiberalism

Last week, 15 major American Jewish philanthropists released an open letter calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider the planned decimation of the Israeli Supreme Court, which would eliminate any system of checks and balances and allow the sitting government to carry out even more drastic measures to erode democracy.

It’s crucial that philanthropists and major Jewish leaders are beginning to speak out now. And it’s time for a reckoning about how American Jewish money has helped to drive the attack on democracy, including the ongoing occupation and the chipping away of basic civil rights. 

And it’s also time to be honest about the vacuum centrist and liberal Jews have created by either avoiding investment in Israel altogether, or by giving to projects perceived as apolitical. This vacuum has allowed these right-wing funders to drive Israel further and further toward fascism. Rather than walk away from Israel now, donors concerned about the future of Israel must respond by investing in human rights and civil society groups that have been fighting for democracy for years.

Progressive American Jews who criticize Israel are accustomed to hearing the complaint that one shouldn’t try to influence the policy of a country where they don’t live. This attack oozes with hypocrisy as right-wing donors have no compunction about pouring billions of dollars into advancing right-wing policies in Israel, funding settlement growth and even supporting the violent extremists who now have outsized power in the Israeli government. 

There has been no full accounting of the influence of U.S. Jewish money on Israeli politics, but a good place to start is with the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative Israeli think tank funded almost entirely by two American billionaires, Jeffrey Yass and Arthur Dantchik. As reported by Haaretz, the judicial overhaul bill that is driving Israelis to the streets was the brainchild of the Kohelet. Additional funding for Kohelet comes from the U.S.-based Tikvah Fund, best known for its financial support of the publication Tablet and for fellowships that teach conservative ideas to middle school through college students and Jewish educators. 

Over the past decade, Kohelet has been behind countless right-wing efforts in Israel, including drafting the nation-state law, which legalizes discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel; rewriting Israeli textbooks to push a right-wing religious Zionist perspective and advancing bills that would weaken the social safety net.

Right-wing American Jews have even funded the rise of Otzma Yehudit, the violent extremist party with outsized influence in the current government. Central Fund of Israel sends some $45 million a year to Israel, and has been the primary U.S. engine for donations to groups such as Honenu — a legal aid organization that defends Jewish Israelis accused of terrorism against Arabs, and the professional home of Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir — as well as for organizations that funnel cash to Lehava, a militant anti-assimilation group which engages in violence and incitement against Palestinians and leftist Israelis. 

Another recipient of CFI funds is the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva (whose rabbis are well known for incitement) located in Yitzhar, the home of many of the 400 Israeli settlers who carried out a pogrom in the village of Huwara last Sunday. Over the past few years, T’ruah — the rabbinic human rights organization of which I am CEO —  has asked the IRS to investigate CFI based on the fact that some of the organizations it funds are successors to groups named by the State Department as foreign terrorist organizations. We have also asked Jewish Communal Fund of New York to stop allowing donor-advised funding to go to CFI.

American donors are also changing the reality on the ground by investing in the expansion of Israeli settlements. The Hebron Fund sends approximately $1.7 million a year to one of the most hardline settlements planted in the heart of a Palestinian city. American Friends of Ateret Cohanim and Friends of Ir David, which force the expulsion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, collectively invest more than $30 million a year there. The One Israel Fund puts more than $3 million a year into West Bank settlements, and many more settlements and settlement-based yeshivot boast their own “American Friends” organizations, all U.S. based nonprofits with tax-deductible donations that support the entrenchment of occupation.

This accounting doesn’t even include the individual American billionaires who have poured their assets into turning Israel into an undemocratic power. These include the late Sheldon Adelson and his Israeli wife Miriam, who have sunk close to hundreds of millions of dollars into a free newspaper that has been credited with reviving Netanyahu’s career. The Panama papers revealed in 2019 that the Falics, a Miami-based Jewish family, sent millions of dollars through Panama to the West Bank, including funneling money to Lehava.

And it doesn’t count the American organizations, such as AIPAC, Conference of Presidents, Stand With US, and the Zionist Organization of America that control hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. money, that have long defended violations of human and civil rights in Israel, and that have had little but congratulations for the new government. 

Rather than focusing on the real and present danger to Israel, American donors too often either avoid donating to Israel altogether or give to causes that seem apolitical, such as social services. Or they fixate on the role of Israel in American Jewish identity, or on the discourse in the Jewish community. If this pattern continues, many of these philanthropists will fund policy papers, convenings, efforts to create a more open discourse and educational initiatives. There is nothing wrong with supporting social services or increased dialogue. But abstaining from funding ways that will actively fight fascism only cedes to right wing donors the power to shape Israel’s future. 

Right-wing billionaires will not stop investing in right-wing and anti-democratic policies in Israel. Those of us who are committed to a democratic Israel, to an end to occupation, and to human rights and economic justice for everyone in the region must invest for the long term in building the movements, both in the United States and in Israel, that will fight for these values.  

That shouldn’t mean starting from scratch. We can and should invest in the human rights and civil society organizations in Israel and the United States that for decades have been doing the work of building democratic infrastructure and advocating for democracy in Israel. Nor should we fall victim to the accusation that such groups are “political.” Every funding choice is political. It is because of the organized attacks over decades, including by the last Netanyahu administration and by parts of the American Jewish establishment, that human rights and civil society organizations are perceived as “political” while right-wing organizations are not. 

American Jewish donors must also not shy away from supporting organizations that talk openly and clearly about occupation. There is no way to talk about democracy without talking about the fact that some 5 million people live under Israel’s jurisdiction without the right to vote for the government with the most power over their lives. And, as we have seen, this government is using their power not only to neuter the high court, but also to carry out de jure annexation of the West Bank, to authorize new settlements and outposts, and to incite violence such as in the village of Huwara this week. 

It’s time to stop being afraid of being too “political” and start putting our money where our values are.

To contact the author, email [email protected]

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