Power of donors over Israel discussion in Jewish community is ‘the $60 million question’

US Politics
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The most exciting element of the J Street conference I attended last weekend in Washington, for me anyway, was the open battle between older Jewish donors and young Jews about Israel. This battle was frequently explicit; as it was near the end of a panel on “Fault Lines” in the American Jewish community.

At minute 1:03 a young man asked the panel about donor pressure.

My question has to do with the growing divide between… young Jews and Jewish institutions. I think there exists an implicit notion that mainstream Jewish institutions will support whatever Israeli government is in power, and that has been isolating for a lot of young people. But a lot of people are aware of the fact that a lot of institutions are run by donors and donations. So how can we reconcile a populace that has different preconceptions and ideas surrounding specifically Israel than the donors who are funding the institutions? Primarily on campus how can we engage in these conversations, because it’s really tough when we can’t permeate the actual institutions, if the donors are saying otherwise?

Moderator Dov Waxman, author of Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, seized on the question. He asked Rabbi Shira Stutman, leader of the Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, to talk about the “the interests of donors and institutional power… versus the needs, the desire of young Jews in particular to have an open, uninhibited, not rule-bound conversation particularly around Israel but about Jewishness in general.”

Stutman said, “I didn’t want that question.” She then responded candidly:

When I’m not working at Sixth and I, I also serve as the scholar in residence for the National Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federations of North America. So I spend a lot of time on Federation missions [to Israel]. And if I tell you that’s atypical for a J Street supporter, that would be the understatement of the year.

I spend a lot of time with donors… And I think that is really the $60 million question, whatever the number is up to now. Because I think there is a tremendous disconnect. If you are asking me the question about how to bring into the community people who consider themselves non-Zionist, or anti-Zionist, that answer I can give you on one foot. But I think you already know it. It’s with dialogue, it’s with compassion, it’s with open arms– and the ability to make changes in your own opinions, by the way.

But if you’re asking about the disconnect between the laypeople and the donors, that’s as tough as it gets. And here’s what I would say.

I would say, whenever possible, get the people who are the activists in the room with the donors. The disconnect is tremendous. I told one of the women on the mission I was on two weeks ago in Israel that I was going to the West Bank this summer on Encounter, to talk– [Encounter is a Jewish organization that brings Jews to the Palestinian territories for dialogue.] And she said, “Why would you want to talk to them?” Now, she’s not representative of the Federation! She’s one person, right? But she’s a donor. Six figures a year, to Federation.

So what we want to do is get people in the room with each other. Do not walk away from the Federation system, just because you disagree with a lot of what they do and say. You are abdicating your own seat at the table as leftwing people. A lot– $900 million a year still goes through the Federation system. As people who are more leftleaning, whatever side of the position you find yourself, more towards the left, I find that we often tend to walk away quicker than the people on the right do. We are less open to dialogue than people on the right. Because we are correct, right? We think.

So I would beg you, don’t do it. Stay in the difficult conversations, whether it be with your grandparents, you know, or whether it be with the Federation donors, because that’s the only way that we’re going to bring ourselves closer together.

The Federation’s website makes clear how pro-Israel it is: “We stand by Israel’s side. Always.” With a lot of money…  Stutman and J Street are clearly to the left of the Federation; and of course rightwing Zionists have name-called J Street as traitors for criticizing Israel.

Note that Rabbi Stutman sets great store by communal cohesion; and of course the question I always raise here is, On what basis should a community maintain community bonds, if there is a fundamental values divide? Many young Jews are checking out of these institutions because they are questioning Zionism. (Though I’d also note that Stutman is open to discussions with anti-Zionists.)

The money question is a spiritual/sociological battle that must begin if the community is to deal honestly with its crucial support for Israel and the occupation. Money is clearly a large factor in the Democratic Party’s adherence to Zionism (Landing a big donor was the reason that a Democratic Party thinktank sucked up to Netanyahu. Keeping big donors happy was the reason the Clinton campaign spent so much time fighting BDS, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.) And at a deeper level, the battle reflects the changing status of Jews in the United States, as a group with establishment power; at a time when some advocates describe us as an “oppressed community”.

I’ll have more to report on the opposition of donors and idealists at J Street in days to come.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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9 Responses

  1. Keith
    March 2, 2017, 3:20 pm

    PHIL- “Note that Rabbi Stutman sets great store by communal cohesion….”

    All Zionists set great store by communal cohesion. That is, after all, the core purpose of Zionism.

  2. Maghlawatan
    March 2, 2017, 4:27 pm

    Donor is such a cute word. It is far less obnoxious than billionaire .

    But they can’t control reality.

    Prospero :

    “the baseless fabric of this vision,
    The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
    The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
    Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
    And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
    Leave not a rack behind”

    Zionism is going to be like that

    • JWalters
      March 2, 2017, 7:32 pm

      It’s also far less obnoxious than “extortionist”. “Investor” would also be appropriate. Major crimes require investors.

    • JWalters
      March 2, 2017, 7:49 pm

      Gonzalo:

      Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
      Would I not have; but Nature should bring forth,
      Of its own kind, all foisson, all abundance,
      To feed my innocent people.

    • Mooser
      March 3, 2017, 11:46 am

      “And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind”

      Exactly. Not even a six-pack.

  3. JLewisDickerson
    March 2, 2017, 7:27 pm

    RE: “Power of donors over Israel discussion in Jewish community is ‘the $60 million question’”

    SEE: “The ‘Israel First’ Industry and CEO Profiteering” | by James Petras | dissidentvoice.org | January 16th, 2014

    [EXCERPTS] During the first half of the 20th century, socially conscious Jews in the United States organized a large network of solidarity and charity associations financed mostly through small donations, raffles, and dues by working and lower middle class supporters. Many of these associations dealt with the everyday needs of Jewish workers, immigrants, and families in need. . .

    . . . Over the past fifty years a far-reaching transformation has taken place within Jewish organizations, among its leaders and their practices and policies. Currently, Jewish leaders have converted charities, social aid-societies and overseas programs for working class Jews into money machines for self-enrichment; converted charities funding health programs for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism into the funding of colonial settlements for armed Zionist zealots intent on uprooting Palestinians; and organized a powerful political machine which buys US Congress people and penetrates the Executive in order to serve Israeli military aims. From defending human rights and fighting fascism, the leaders of the principle Jewish organizations defend each and every Israeli violation of Palestinian human rights – from arbitrary arrests of non-violent dissidents to the detention of children in ‘cages.’ Israel’s Kafkaesque prolonged administration detention without trial is approved by contemporary leaders. In the past Jewish leaders, especially labor and socially-engaged activists had joined forces with Leftists in opposition to political bigots, McCarthyite purges and blacklists. Today’s leaders practice the very same bully, blackmail and blacklist politics against critics of Israel and its Zionist appendages.

    In the past Jewish leaders of social aid organizations received modest salaries . . .

    . . . The moderately social liberal Jewish weekly, The Forward, recently completed a survey of the salaries of Jewish “not-for profits” leaders, with the aid of a professor from the Wharton School of Business (University of Pennsylvania). Among the leading profiteers was Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) earning $688,280, Howard Kohr of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — $556,232, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) — $504,445, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) — $435,050, Janice Weinman of Hadassah — $410,000, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (PMJO) — $400,815, Mark Helfield of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society — $268,834 and Ann Toback of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring — $185,712. These salaries and perks put the Jewish leaders of non-profits in the upper 10% of US incomes — a far cry from the not-too-distant past. According to the analysis by the Forward and the Wharton team, ‘most leaders (CEOs) are vastly overpaid – earning more than twice what the head of an organization of their size would be expected to make”.

    While the membership has declined in many organizations, especially among working and lower middle class Jews, the funding has increased and most important the plutocratic leaders have embraced a virulent militarist foreign policy and repressive domestic policies. Forward describes Abraham Foxman as “diverting the ADL from its self-described mission of fighting all forms of bigotry in the US and abroad to putting the ADL firmly on the side of bigotry and intolerance.” . . .

    . . . The overwhelming response of the Jewish readers to the Forward’s survey was one of indignation, disgust, and anger. As one reader commented, “The economic disconnect between their (CEOs) salaries and the average incomes of those who contribute to their charities is unacceptable”. Another indignant reader remarked succinctly: “Gonifs! (Thieves!)”. Many announced they could cut off future donations. One formerly orthodox reader stated, “I would rather give to a street beggar than to any of these”.

    The drop-off of donations from lower-middle class Jews, however, will have little effect in reducing the salaries of the ‘non-profit’ CEO’s or changing the politics of their ‘non-profits; because they increasingly depend on six and seven digit contributions from Jewish millionaires and billionaires. Moreover, the contributions by big donors are linked to the politics of repression at home and securing multi-billion dollar military aid and trade programs for Israel from the US Treasury. The billionaire donors have no objection to funding the millionaire leaders – as long as they concentrate their efforts on buying the votes of US Congress members and aligning their politics with Israel’s war aims. . .

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://dissidentvoice.org/2014/01/the-israel-first-industry-and-ceo-profiteering/

  4. JWalters
    March 2, 2017, 7:27 pm

    The wealthy donors may be so blind to the immorality of Israel’s crimes because they are making a lot of money from Israel’s crimes. Some financial tactics used to do just that are explained in the excellent comment by YoniFalic in the following discussion thread –
    http://mondoweiss.net/2017/02/dependence-pressure-hostility/

    If wealthy donors believe the victims of their piracy are lesser beings in the eyes of God (“Why would you want to talk to them?”), and that God wants wealthy donors to murder and plunder their victims (Deuteronomy), then rational conversation with such wealthy donors will be, for practical purposes, literally impossible.

    Keep trying to talk with them, of course. But don’t expect that to have more than marginal effects.

  5. AddictionMyth
    March 2, 2017, 7:37 pm

    Back in June I told the NY Fed to retract their support for Cuomo’s anti-BDS order. They refused. I demanded an answer – they gave a long winded sermon about how BDS is terrorism and offered to put my money towards Holocaust victims. I said I’m trying to prevent the next Holocaust! They then ignored my repeated calls and emails. Oh well I guess I’m just a little pischer to them.

  6. pabelmont
    March 3, 2017, 1:12 pm

    Yes, the history of Zionism and the more-or-less concurrent history of the subversion of American Jewish organizations is terrible.

    I’d like to ask everyone, and especially the “donors”, if they believe that money (or the ability and willingness to donate or spend a lot of money) is the equivalent of morality, wisdom, value-as-a-person, information, well-informedness ? And this is exactly the same question we should also pose to all Americans.

    Our Supreme Court, bless their well-meaning-but-shriveled hearts, have decided a series of cases whose joint effect on the USA is that money is (or buys) the kind of speech which is protected by the First Amendment and THEREFORE cannot be regulated ANY MORE than speech in a private living room or unamplified public speech from a soap-box on a street corner can be regulated, and EVEN LESS, because the latter speech can be regulated for many things such as “time, place, and manner” although not for “content”. The court has not bought — if indeed it has ever been offered — the argument that big-money acts not a speech but as an AMPLIFIER or LOUD-SPEAKER for speech and can be regulated just as could a truck driving through your town shrilly and deafeningly putting forth a political message.

    Big money folks have a wonderful quality which the rest of us do not, but it is not “morality, wisdom, value-as-a-person, information, well-infoformedness”. What is it? It is “having”-money.

    Now, last time I checked, some religions (but is this a matter of religion, after all, or of ethics or morality?) believe and teach and act-as-if having a lot of money (“success”) is a sign of having God’s favor; but Judaism is not one of them.

    Am I wrong on this today? Would I have been wrong on this in 1900? And if I’m right, why should Jews give big-money folks the right to dictate anything to anyone else?

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