When United Methodists converge on Tampa, Florida this Spring, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) holds its general assembly in early July, the question of divestment from companies that profit off of the Israeli occupation will once again attract significant attention. Delegates at these church wide meetings will be confronted by an array of attacks on any resolution that promotes divestment as one route to pressure Israel and its control over the occupied Palestinian territories. And a familiar face to the delegates will be leading the fight against these resolutions: Sister Ruth Lautt, the national director of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East (CFWME).
Lautt is a member of the Dominican sisters order of nuns (Roman Catholic) and a former lawyer. Her organization, which she runs on her own (though there is a board), says it “advocate[s]” for “fairness” in American church dealings related to Israel/Palestine. In practice, this has meant leading delegations to Israel, promoting “positive investment” in the region instead of divestment, and working “behind-the-scenes” at religious conventions, “helping opponents of divestment draft motions [and] applying persuasion at the subcommittee and committee levels,” as the New York Times has reported.
But an analysis of donations to the organization reveals a much more complicated picture that raises questions about CFWME’s professed mission and their role in church politics on Israel. My investigation of donation tax records to CFWME show that the organization's budget has more than doubled since its founding through the support of funders linked to illegal West Bank settlements and promoting Islamophobia in the U.S.
The settlement-funders who contribute to CFWME stand in stark contrast to the Dominican order's position on Israel/Palestine. An Israel/Palestine briefing on a Dominican order website, part of the order's "call to justice" which Lautt's New York-based branch signed onto, calls for prayer and support for the Palestinian United Nations bid for statehood. It also expressed firm support for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which does BDS work.
Lautt did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Her organization’s website is filled with appeals to fairness, the two-state solution, the peace process and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians--nothing that on its face would seem to contradict the Dominican order's take on the conflict. CFWME also routinely issues press releases blasting any church action or rhetoric in support of boycotts or divestment from illegal Israeli settlements.
Their most recent press release quotes a religious leader saying that “Fair Witness supports both the Israelis and Palestinians in their quest for peace. We therefore encourage Israel to continue to accept the Quartet proposal and we strongly urge the Palestinians to also accept the Quartet's plan and sit down and negotiate directly with Israel. This is the only way peace can come to this region.”
It is a decidedly different Christian pro-Israel take than the usual fire and brimstone rhetoric from Christian Zionists.
“It gears itself, I think, towards otherwise liberal congregations,” said David Wildman, a longtime proponent of divestment who is the executive secretary for Human Rights & Racial Justice at the United Methodist Church's Board of Global Ministries. But Wildman, a critic of CFWME, also described the organization as an “attack group” that seeks to “block other efforts at achieving a just peace.”
A New York Times profile of Lautt published in 2008 says that she “disassociates herself from Christian Zionists of the theological and political right...openly criticizes [the] occupation of the West Bank and laments Palestinian suffering.” The profile also reported that Lautt has “little contact with Jewish advocacy groups, none with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby.”
Sister Ruth Lautt
(Photo: G. Paul Burnett/New York Times)
But that’s not true. According to the organization’s tax filings, donations to CFWME have steadily increased since the group was founded in December 2005, from $82,432 in 2006 to over $200,000 in 2008, although donations have decreased since then (in 2010, the group received $119,652 in donations). And right-wing Zionist, settler-funding philanthropic groups have contributed to the organization’s increase in funds.
Take, for example, the funding received from the Newton D. & Rochelle F. Becker Foundation, a group that gives to anti-Muslim, right-wing Zionist and neoconservative causes. In 2006, the foundation gave Lautt’s group $16,342, as well as giving $25,000 to the Central Fund of Israel (CFI), which the New York Times described as a multimillion dollar “vehicle” used to “channel donations” to West Bank settlements. A 2009 column by Akiva Eldar in Ha’aretz reported that the CFI gave money to the extremist yeshiva in a West Bank settlement “whose rabbi said it's okay to kill gentile babies.” This foundation and its affiliated groups were identified by the Center for American Progress as one of the top donors to anti-Muslim causes in the U.S., giving $1.1 million to Islamophobic groups from 2001-2009.
Similarly, CFWME received $5,000 from the William Rosenwald Family Fund in 2006, a philanthropic group that has also contributed to neoconservative groups like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Commentary magazine. The foundation was also identified by the Center for American Progress as a main funder of anti-Muslim groups.
Other philanthropic groups that fund the organization tend to give to a wide array of causes, including liberal causes domestically, but also to groups tied to West Bank settlements. For example, in 2008 the Rosenfeld Foundation gave CFWME $1,500, as well as money to the American Jewish Committee, the Innocence Project, Middlebury college and more. The foundation also donated $1,000 to AISH New York, linked to the pro-settler Aish HaTorah network. A representative for Aish once publicly wished for the death of “a hundred Arabs or a thousand Arabs for every one Jew they kill.”
Another philanthropic group that gives to CFWME is the Jewish Communal Fund, which gave CFWME $2,000 in 2006 and $2,500 in 2007. The Jewish Communal Fund gave $18,000 to the Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, a Christian Zionist group that promotes settlements in the West Bank and has given money for settlement infrastructure. The fund has also doled out tens of thousands of dollars to the Aish network. And Jared Malsin recently reported in Salon that the fund also gives to the Hebron Fund, a group Malsin linked to incidents of settler violence against Palestinians in Hebron.
Further linking CFWME to right-wing Zionist causes is the fact that Dexter Van Zile, who has worked for the David Project and currently works for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), has served on CFWME’s board. Many of the philanthropic organizations funding CFWME also fund CAMERA and the David Project. Van Zile declined a request for an interview, and said on Twitter that he has not been “involved with the organization for several years.”
According to Wildman, Van Zile is a constant presence at divestment battles in churches, lobbying against divestment efforts. The David Project helped lobby to reverse a pro-divestment Presbyterian church resolution in 2006. and CAMERA frequently issues statements against BDS and blasts church divestment initiatives.
The funding revelations complicate the image CFWME projects as a liberal group working for a just peace in Israel/Palestine. Instead, CFWME is being funded by groups that are linked to anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. and that are partners in Israel’s West Bank colonization project. And Lautt’s advocacy is being bankrolled by people strongly opposed to the Dominican order’s view of the conflict, which calls for solidarity with Palestinian Christians.