In an April 11 opinion piece, Maya Haber of Partners for Progressive Israel asks, “Why did Goldman Sachs Charitable Gift Fund grant $18,000 to the Hebron Fund?”. There is a simple answer to this question: because in 2012, a current or retired employee of Goldman Sachs wanted to, and the Fund acceded to his or her request.
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Beyond this answer, though, lies a fundamental distinction between how private individuals and donor-advised charities disburse grants as opposed to the role of governments in funding non-governmental organization (NGOs) such as the Hebron Fund among many others.
For close to 15 years, NGO Monitor has conducted in-depth research into governmental and private financial support for NGOs involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. As our research shows, the Hebron Fund is far from the only conflict-related organization to benefit from the support of charitable funds affiliated with investment banks.
For instance, Jewish Voice for Peace, an American organization leading efforts to delegitimize Israel, promote BDS (boycotts, divestment, sanctions) campaigns, and inject anti-Zionist views into the public sphere, relies heavily on these private contributions. Although JVP is non-transparent about its donors, NGO Monitor has identified a variety of financial gifts coming directly from private individuals and funds.
One of the biggest such private charitable funds to fund JVP is the Schwab Charitable Fund, founded by the financial giant, Charles Schwab Corporation. From 2012-2014, SCF gave JVP $448,700, more than 15% of the grant money received by JVP during that period.
When approached about its support for JVP, SCF responded by stressing its role as a conduit for the charitable preferences of its clients: “Schwab Charitable account holders recommend grants to charities of their choice. These recommendations do not reflect the views of Schwab Charitable or its management. Schwab Charitable facilitates grants to eligible charities. The Internal Revenue Code defines eligibility status, and we rely on the IRS’s judgment.”
Put plainly, at least one individual who invests with Charles Schwab, as an expression of his or her freedom of speech and association, elected to donate to JVP. Charles Schwab was willing to facilitate this grant because JVP has 501(c)3 charitable status, given by U.S. tax authorities.
This may frustrate those who recognize JVP’s nefarious goal of reducing support for Israel among American Jews and leading the charge to challenge the Jewish State’s right to exist. At the same time, Schwab’s decision to “punt” eligibility decisions allows the foundation to establish non-ideological criteria and sidestep controversy, and to avoid policing their investors’ personal choices.
To be sure, some private donors claim to exercise greater discretion in selecting their grantees. Large foundations like the New Israel Fund or the Rockefeller Brothers Fund bankroll NGOs that ostensibly advance progressive values, according to ethical guidelines and buzzwords like “peacebuilding” and “social justice.” When grantees act in ways that contradict these values - for instance through participating in anti-peace BDS or immoral demonization - there is ample room to question why the funders violate their stated policies and commitments.
At the same time, private funding per se is hardly extraordinary and is channeled widely to diverse groups politically active in the Arab-Israeli conflict More broadly speaking, in democracies around the world, individuals are allowed to donate to causes they care for, be they political, environmental, or otherwise. So long as donors and recipients act in line with the laws and regulations of their respected countries, these contributions strengthen the democratic principle of civil involvement.
In sharp contrast, the magnitude and scale of the financial and political support provided by European governments to NGOs advancing only one, narrow agenda in the conflict, is unique.
The tens of millions of euros, pounds, krone, and Swiss francs donated annually to conflict-related NGOs by foreign governments primarily bolster a particular narrative of Israeli guilt and Palestinian victimhood.
This type of funding is fundamentally different than the charitable giving of private citizens around the world. Whereas individuals exercise their own personal freedom by contributing to an NGO, governments are expected to respect diplomatic processes and the sovereign decisions of fellow democracies. Government funding for political advocacy in foreign countries represents a gross manipulation of this basic principle of international relations.
Ultimately, private contributions to political organizations are part of democratic life. While there is room to criticize funders for causes they choose to support in terms of NGOs active in the conflict, undue focus on private funding will only lead to acrimonious accusations and counter-accusations by organizations on opposite sides of the political divide, leading nowhere.
Worse, it distracts attention from the fundamentally more pertinent issue of government funding and manipulations of sovereignty and democracy.
Naftali Balanson is Chief of Staff at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.