In January, close to 100 Jewish-American philanthropists gathered to hear 17 self-described pro-Israel organizations pitch their ideas for non-profit initiatives. This event – the first-ever Israel Summit – was modeled on the venture capital world, where “entrepreneurs try to win over deep-pocketed investors” with 20-minute sales pitches.
In some respects, the Israel Summit, organized by the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy, addressed real concerns. Major American gifts to Jewish federations and the Israeli government - which play crucial roles in Israel’s philanthropic backbone - are declining, according to a paper by Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Philanthropy in Israel. Instead, major gifts are generally given to major organizations like Taglit-Birthright Israel and Hasbara Fellowships. Indeed, large, right-leaning groups were well represented at this event.
However, the summit had one major drawback: It failed to address Israel’s diverse needs by conspicuously excluding left-leaning groups. Smaller groups, such as those that cater to migrant populations or Israel’s environmental communities, struggle to connect with American donors. While the Israel Summit sought to connect donors with Israeli organizations, which is in line with philanthropic trends, its political focus was worryingly narrow.
The groups at the Israel Summit ranged from centrist to far right. While relatively mainstream think tanks, such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pitched a Middle Eastern public opinion project, they were an ideological minority. Groups further to the right, such as StandWithUs, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and even Christians United for Israel, dominated the attendance.
Even seemingly unconnected groups served a right-wing political agenda. Fuente Latina, which works with Latin-American journalists and decision-makers, sought funding to help cover Pope Francis’ impending visit to Israel. The group’s presence was no coincidence. In a separate interview, Joseph Hyman, who ran the Israel Summit, labeled the influx of foreign journalists who will flock to Israel for the pope’s visit a “Hasbara Super Bowl.” For this, Hyman added, visiting journalists will need “guidance, tours and interviews.” Clearly he doesn’t mean tours of the sort Encounter or Breaking the Silence would provide.
Hyman acknowledged that progressive pro-Israel organizations were absent from the Israel Summit, but said the list of groups in attendance “reflected the wishes of the donors.” While unfortunate, this is not surprising, for the exclusion of left-leaning or progressive voices has permeated other aspects of American Jewish life: author David Harris-Gershon was disinvited from the Washington D.C. JCC because of comments made years earlier in support the Boycott Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement; the Museum of Jewish Heritage rescinded its invitation to journalist John Judis, who recently penned an exposé of Hillel’s rightward move on Israel and a book alleging that American Zionists forced President Truman to accept a Jewish state (although amid another backlash the museum reinstated the invitation); and Ramaz, a New York Jewish High School, rescinded a speaking invitation to celebrated Palestinian intellectual Rashid Khalidi.
The pattern in each situation was the same: a left-leaning speaker is invited to a Jewish institution, somebody makes a fuss behind closed doors, and the invitation is rescinded. Why? Donations. According to Peter Beinart, “so many Jewish institutions are reliant on a small group of very large donors, and they don’t have a large donor base anymore... Just one or two of them can strike terror into the hearts of a Jewish organization.”
While Hyman and the right-wing groups at his venture capital summit see wealthy, powerful donors as an incredible opportunity, Beinart is more concerned with the danger they pose. If Hyman’s model indeed represents the future of giving, what will happen to the vast array of American and Israeli progressive groups?
Last week, fellow Jewish World blogger Joel Braunold explicated Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett’s World Joint Jewry Initiative, a government program seeking to strengthen Israel-Diaspora ties. Braunold argued that Bennett’s is a “terrible idea,” because the Israeli government is incapable of seriously engaging the Diaspora’s complex and oftentimes critical relationship with Israel. Braunold is absolutely right, but there’s another step: the Diaspora needs to uphold its side of the bargain.
The Diaspora’s relationship with Israel and Israeli institutions will suffer until we in America promote political and philanthropic pluralism. Mobilizing philanthropy for right-leaning organizations denies Israel’s vast spectrum of organizations equal access to Jewish American funds. American donors should be given the opportunity – even encouraged – to support civil society organizations and left-leaning Israeli groups, too. Israel is far more complex and far more diverse than the 17 groups represented at the Israel Summit. As the self-appointed spokespersons of Jewish philanthropy, Jewish leaders like Hyman should take Israel’s many needs to heart, and embrace its complexity in future summits.
Benjy Cannon studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is deeply involved in collegiate Jewish life at Maryland Hillel, where he sits on the Board of Directors, and is a J Street U communications co-chair. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org