The donor war inside the Jewish community (won’t end the occupation)

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At the J Street conference last month in Washington, Mitchell Silver, a philosophy professor, rose to ask the central question: Why can’t the Jewish community take concrete action against the occupation?

What are the constraints within the Jewish community that… disallow certain conversations from taking place?… Clearly there is lip service against the occupation, but taking concrete action that would in fact have some effect perhaps seems to be disallowed even to the point of not allowing some conversations to take place within the councils. And I want to better understand from the perspective of people inside– I have leftist friends who say Oh it’s the donors, it’s all money controlled. Other people say it’s generational, and it’s Holocaust-traumatized. I would like your theory about what prevents genuine anti-occupation work from happening within organized Jewry.

The question came up again and again at the conference, and the general answer was: The older generation of Jews is conservative and even reactionary on Israel and is using its money to insure that Palestinians have no rights. But liberal Zionists are going to change that, because we are representative of the mass of (liberal) American Jews. At times, the conference felt like a tug of war inside Jewish communal life: We liberal Zionists need to show our financial muscle, and take over from the conservatives.

One of the themes of the conference was that a lot of conservative money is censoring criticism of Israel.

The scholar Dov Waxman asked Nancy Kaufman, the former head of the National Council of Jewish Women, why the Jewish community can’t tolerate a spectrum of opinions about Israel.

“Why do you think the organizations that proclaim their willingness to have a big tent consistently fail to do that and consistently exclude and marginalize certain voices and opinions?” Waxman said. “What’s standing in the way? Is it a small group of mega donors? Is it conservatism?”

Kaufman responded bluntly:

Money, money, money and lack of leadership… If you are willing to lead, others will follow. If you are willing to put your  leadership on the line and stand for something, people will come along. If you want to engage in a dialogue with people that are different–  we don’t do it. We’re in a bubble here. I love the bubble. But we’re in a bubble. They’re in a bubble in AIPAC when they come in the spring. So what, we’re 2500 strong, they’ll be 10,000 strong. .. It’s a bubble when it comes to Israel because the vast number of American Jews and Israeli Jews too … have closed their eyes and said, We’re just going to live our lives and we’re going to try to put one foot in front of the other. Worry about our careers, worry about our families.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah said that conservative money skews U.S. Jewish politics. “The majority of American Jews oppose any attempts to annex [the West Bank],” she said, support a two-state solution, and are “highly critical of the Israeli government.” But the right is better coordinated.

We know that the dominant voice that comes from the Jewish community– what in general both Jews and non-Jews think Jews think is actually a right wing Israel voice. That’s pushed forward by a number of communal organizations, by strong funding on the right, that actually doesn’t at all represent where most Jews including of course those of us in this room actually sit… It’s been frustrating to feel that that voice isn’t getting heard, the voice of the majority of Jews.

Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of the New Israel Fund said rabbis face a financial risk if they want to discuss Israel with the same “intellectual rigor” they direct at American issues:

I know that for rabbis there is a tremendous amount of pressure and intimidation to talk about Israel with less intellectual rigor and curiosity than almost everything else we talk about from the bima [altar]. And we fear and are frequently faced with intimidation and financial consequences when rabbis try to do that. For a lot of my colleagues I know it’s brave to even be here at this conference.

Cohen said the response is to avoid the issue in Jewish spaces, and even drop Israel from Hebrew school curricula.

A panel on Jewish education wrestled with the fact that older donors have helped to slant Israel education in Hebrew schools. Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, a Reform educator in Los Angeles, asked whether donors are “maybe legislating a little bit about what approach to Israel is taken in the education?” She said those legislators range from “big funders like Schusterman and Covenant, etc or it can be your synagogue donors, or your boards of directors.”

Lori Sagarin, an educator at Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, Illinois, responded that she’d just dealt with that very issue.

Literally days before I came here, I was asked to look at a curriculum that was created, by one of the big funders. It’s not public yet so I can’t say, but this is a a curriculum about the conflict and the difficult questions, and I was asked to look at it, less for copyediting, and more for, Are there things here that either are inaccurate or are there things here that are going to raise a red flag for one of those aforementioned big funders who might not want to fund this project? And I saw nothing. And so what I am hoping is that this will come out shortly, and will be the first of many, as again the tide is beginning to turn everywhere. People realize, even those sitting in the halls of Schusterman, Jim Joseph [foundation for Jewish learning], Covenant, Marcus, that we can’t avoid these topics. And I don’t want to use the term control the narrative. But if you want the quality of the material to be good then you need to throw money at it so the best and brightest can be creating it and allow for diverse and interesting and nuanced conversations.  So I am hopeful that there is a slight shift.

However forward-looking that curriculum is, it needs to be emphasized that it is liberal Zionist in its orientation. The foundations Sagarin mentioned as potential change agents, Schusterman, Jim Joseph, Covenant, and Marcus, are all hardline in their support for Israel. The big tent that Dov Waxman calls for only goes so far in the Jewish community. Rabbi Joel Mosbacher told of the shattering experience of seeing a toddler on his father’s shoulders at a checkpoint in Palestine, but when it comes to breaking the news to his synagogue, Mosbacher said that’s like turning an aircraft carrier around. “They need to trust and  know that you are not going to take them off the deep end.” (His sermon on Israel reflects love of Israel.)

Anti-Zionists are off the deep end at J Street– or a useful foil. Jonathan Golden, leader of a progressive Hebrew academy in the Boston area, said that donors are now tolerating Palestinian voices in his curriculum because he explains to them that students need to be prepared for college campuses where that viewpoint proliferates.

J Street asserts, justly, that it represents American Jews because Jews are overwhelmingly pro-Israel and three-fourths vote Democrat and more than three-fourths favor a two-state solution and a Palestinian state (and two-thirds support a return to the Iran deal). Not coincidentally, J Street can also justly say that it represents the Democratic Party on Israel: leaders Schumer and Pelosi appeared at its conference.

But even mild opposition to the occupation is heretical inside the American Jewish establishment; and as long as J Street is organizing the Jewish community, it can’t get too far in front of itself. A Boston University student named Katie rose at a young leadership panel to say that the B.U. Hillel had for a year been blocking her effort to start a J Street college chapter and making her feel that she is “not a good Jew” because she wants to call out the occupation.

“The Hillel at BU is very powerful and very established and influences a lot of students,” Katie said.

Sheila Katz, the head of the National Council of Jewish Women, who is in her mid-thirties, responded by hammering the donor question.

I worked at Hillel for over a decade and dealt with this exact issue at BU… four years ago… If they’re not letting you in, there’s a reason they’re not letting you in. I’m not saying it’s valid. Find out what it is. Is it because of a particular donor?… What’s going on that’s causing the disconnect? They get money from somebody who is going to be really pissed off, and I think money is a topic we didn’t get to, and it’s real, the power of particular donors over certain organizations. Let’s just not dismiss it, let’s find out so we can solve the question.

The older generation has financial clout but also a strong motivation, the historical experience of trauma. Olivia Szabo, a J Street activist at Stanford, said her Holocaust ancestry has left her with “intergenerational trauma,” uncertain about her own beliefs.

I can talk about health care and prison reform very easily and with a lot of fluidity with my friends. But I still feel so much fear when talking about Israel even with my current board members. I feel that I can’t talk about my feelings when it comes to Israel and my connection to the state. I feel like I can never judge my feelings of what is right and what is wrong.

Part of the learning all of this is pushing through the intergenerational pain and trauma experienced by my parents who were children of Holocaust survivors and how they pushed that trauma, of fear that there is going to be a second return, or that there is going to be something else that is going to destroy the Jewish people, and how they have drawn the line of being progressive on all issues that come to America but they have drawn the line when it comes to anything Israel.

Adam Basciano of the Israel Policy Forum warned progressives on a young leadership panel that you can’t organize in the Jewish community unless you acknowledge the trauma– and express concerns for Israel’s security.

We shouldn’t neglect what drives a lot of communties forward and the perspectives, and… the prevalence of trauma and fear and how that does propel a lot of the work forward that leaders and organizations do.

Conservative American Jewish wealth is also shaping Israeli politics. Nadav Tamir, a former official in Israel center-left governments, said that long before Netanyahu, Israelis have depended on conservative American wealth. So liberal Jews need to take that power on.

I think most Israelis still treat all of you in a very instrumental way– that North American Jews are meant to be an ATM for Israel, a lobby for Israel and a source of Aliyah. When you treat someone in an instrumental way, you cannot expect them to be an extended family….

Many people here probably don’t like Sheldon Adelson. But you have to give him credit, he put his money where his mouth is. Why isn’t there a lefty newspaper in Israel? I would say be proactive… When people want their money they know exactly how to come. But when you give them criticism all of a sudden they shut you away. There are ways to check that and reverse that.

Rami Hod, an Israeli Laborite public figure, asserted that the majority of Israeli Jews don’t support the settlement enterprise, but rich conservative American Jews have swayed Israeli politics:

So what the right did is… they have built a new political organizational ideological machine that sometimes we in the left both in Israel and in the United States. don’t really understand and I’m not referring to Sheldon Adelson funding a propaganda newspaper for the temporary prime minister [Netanyahu]. I’m referring to a political machine that is constantly trying to push the political debate in Israel to the right… Where did the political word [annexation] come from? It came from this political machine of thinktanks, educational organization, training organizations, funded by American conservative Jews that are doing two basic things: one, pushing the debate to the right, promoting their radical fanatic ideas, and second thing which is less well known but I think is the most important thing the right is doing in the last decade, trying to put the right people in the right places, trying to retake power, trying to be in the public service in the army the media in local government in national government, places we kind of neglected.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, responded by picking up “the issue of money.”

[T]he flows of money between the rightwing here and the rightwing in Israel… [are] involved in settlement activity, they’re involved in landgrabs… They’re facilitating and pushing creeping annexation.

Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street at the October 2019 conference.

Jill Jacobs said conservatives cemented the occupation.

Conservative donors in the U.S. put hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars into building settlements and transforming the Israeli media landscape and into directing public policy… American conservative money is entrenching the occupation, is building thinktanks, and is importing the worst of rightwing American ideas into Israel. That’s mostly Jewish, also evangelical Christian conservatives.

It seemed as if the liberal Zionists were mounting an arms race inside Jewish life over money. Jacobs urged the audience to support a liberal Zionist “Hatikvah” slate to the World Zionist Congress elections. “It’s a body that controls $1 billion, that is billion with a b, whch is no small amount of money,” she said. While Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund called on the audience to battle the conservatives by putting money into the “Progressive Jewish Fund,” through “donor advised” contributions. He went on:

What we realized was that no one has put together a values-driven collective Jewish progressive home for all our philanthropy in Israel and the United States. The truth is philanthopy and money are ways to build power. When we build power here, it makes it easier to push our elected’s at home [pointing at City Councilman Brad Lander] and makes it easier for us to support people who are by their own description radical or walking between the raindrops. It’s all about courage and about building a bigger toolbox.

J Street’s definition of radical courage is an Israeli Jewish one: supporting organizations that have been a thorn in the side of the rightwing Israeli government, and subject to attack by the Israeli government. As for Brad Lander, he has been a staunch defender of Israel, albeit with recent criticism.

When it comes to concrete action– sanctions against Israeli activities– J Street is skeptical. While Jeremy Ben-Ami is proud that J Street has provided a forum for Democratic presidential candidates to say they will condition aid to Israel over the occupation, the organization has not endorsed such action (except, prospectively, against annexation), or anything that smacks of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The liberal Zionist organizaton is conservative compared to the stirrings on the left of Jewish life: young Jews who declare themselves anti-Zionist or pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. “There are no democratic [representative] institutions inside the Jewish community,” Jacob Plitman of Jewish Currents said at an anti-Zionist panel in New York in September. “The community is by-and-large run by a donor class, like every other community is run by an oligarchy.”

The J Street conference at times seemed like a battle inside the oligarchy over which Zionism will dominate, liberal or conservative support for Israel.

Just yesterday a congressman on a J Street trip to Palestine expressed moral outrage over settlers stealing Palestinian lands in Susiya near Hebron. “It was simply incredible. As angry as the situation made me, the resilience of the Palestinian villagers left an even stronger impression,” Rep. Andy Levin wrote. “Yet we watched the government utility, right before our eyes, lay in pipes right across the village’s land to deliver tap water to an illegal Israeli outpost nearby.”

Will that amount to anything more than lip service? I don’t think so.

Thanks to Annie Robbins and Adam Horowitz.

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… Jill Jacobs said conservatives cemented the occupation. Conservative donors in the U.S. put hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars into building settlements and transforming the Israeli media landscape and into directing public policy… American conservative money is entrenching the occupation, is building thinktanks, and is importing the… Read more »

Only an outsider would translate “bima” as altar. The accepted translation is pulpit.

I would suggest that there is no clarity among liberal Zionists regarding what steps to take. Many liberal Zionists, which means those who oppose and are uncomfortable with the occupation, are also uncomfortable with “If Not Now” asking Democratic candidates, “What will you do to pressure Israel?” Peter Beinart says… Read more »

I would suggest that there is no clarity among liberal Zionists regarding what steps to take. Many liberal Zionists, which means those who oppose and are uncomfortable with the occupation, are also uncomfortable with “If Not Now” asking Democratic candidates, “What will you do to pressure Israel?” Peter Beinart says… Read more »

There is no such thing as “liberal Zionism”. There is no Jewish state in Palestine without perpetrating the decidedly illiberal practices of ethnic cleansing, dispossession, disenfranchisement and de-development and “liberal” Jill Jacobs is proof. “Tone-policing Palestinians mortified by what is happening in their homeland is unethical. It’s a classic… Read more »