Philanthropy to Israel and Palestine – it’s time to change the framing

Nora Lester Murad

Earlier this year, Alliance Magazine set out to highlight philanthropy in the Israeli-Palestinian context as part of its special feature on Diaspora philanthropy. Short portraits of prominent Jewish philanthropists who support Israel – including Sheldon Adelson, Lynn Schusterman and Jacob Rothschild – were carefully placed alongside an interview with Palestinian philanthropist Omar Al-Qattan.

But presenting Jewish and Palestinian philanthropists in this way perpetuates the fiction that there are two equal sides, and that the best way to stay neutral is to give an impression of ‘balance’ when none in fact exists. In reality, this so-called ‘balanced approach’ hides much more than it illuminates and is part of the reason why a just peace is elusive.

'In reality, this so-called “balanced approach' hides much more than it illuminates and is part of the reason why a just peace is elusive.'

‘In reality, this so-called ‘balanced approach’ hides much more than it illuminates and is part of the reason why a just peace is elusive.’

The ‘balanced’ approach implies that both populations are working toward parallel goals of developing their societies. In practice, philanthropic funding for Israel directly undermines Palestinians’ right to development. That’s because Palestinians live under Israeli control, implemented through military occupation, colonization and expulsion. The ability of Palestinians outside the region to support those inside is also subject to Israeli restrictions.

The Alliance coverage stated that ‘the hopes and dreams of many Jewish philanthropists find expression in the support of a range of causes in Israel’. While technically true, the implicit suggestion is that all Jews support Israel’s Zionist objectives. This conflation of Jews and Zionists plays into the damaging narrative that if all Jews support Israel then, by extension, to criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic.

The philanthropic terrain is changing quickly. Jewish nationalism is losing support outside Israel and there are signs that new pathways of Jewish giving are emerging aimed at counteracting the effects of Zionist funders.

It also implies that alongside a Jewish diaspora funding Israel, there is a Palestinian diaspora supporting Palestine. But Jewish and Palestinian ‘diasporas’ are not the same. Jews anywhere in the world can visit or claim citizenship in Israel by virtue of being Jewish, receiving privileges that position them above the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian. On the other hand, Palestinians cannot return to their homeland – even if they were born there – without permission from the Israeli military, a privilege that is rarely granted.

Palestinians are not a diaspora, they are exiles and refugees.

The most accurate way to characterize the conflict is one between Zionists and anti-Zionists, and it’s critical to acknowledge that Jews hold prominent positions on both sides of this divide.

For example, some Jewish commentators have argued that Jewish identity is increasingly based more on ‘core beliefs about what is ethical and just … than the nationalism represented by the fact of a Jewish state.’ It follows that some Jews support Israel because they identify as Jews and others oppose Israel for the same reason – because they identify as Jews. In addition, there are some Jews who donate to projects in Israel to improve the treatment of Palestinians, but who do it for Israel, rather than just for Palestinians: They see trying to make Israel more ethical as a way to keep it strong. This might appear on the surface to be an anti-Zionist act, but it’s not, because it strengthens the Jewish character of Israel rather than promoting equality. Many Palestinian solidarity organisations say anecdotally that they receive support from Jews, although it isn’t tracked. Jewish anti-Zionist organisations have Palestinians among their supporters. And of course there are Jews and Palestinians who express their philanthropy through organisations that are not identified, like UNICEF or UNRWA, as well as giving to causes that have nothing at all to do with the Middle East.

Moreover, the philanthropic terrain is changing quickly. Jewish nationalism is losing support outside Israel and there are signs that new pathways of Jewish giving are emerging aimed at counteracting the effects of Zionist funders.

Palestinians in Gaza participating in the Great Return March in April 2018 express support for BDS. Photo cdredit: bdsmovement.net

Palestinians in Gaza participating in the Great Return March in April 2018 express support for BDS. Photo cdredit: bdsmovement.net

One prominent example are the growing numbers of Jewish donors and activists supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, despite attempts to criminalize it. In an indication of this shift, the US-based Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS, has over 15,000 members and more than 60 chapters spread across the country. While these figures are relatively small compared to Jewish funding for Zionist causes, it does point to a potential sea change in the philanthropy of the Jewish community especially in the US. The trend is even more dramatic when we include non-monetary philanthropy, such as volunteerism and activism, which are integral to the definition of philanthropy.

But the change is hard to measure. That’s partly because most formal Jewish organisations don’t just remain doggedly Zionist but actively seek to limit and de-legitimise anti-Zionist causes within Jewish philanthropy. Without an outlet in their own communities, anti-Zionist Jews are often forced to direct their philanthropy through Palestinian organisations or through US and international organisations – none of which keep track of the ethnic or religious affiliation of the donor.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of Jewish donors are responding to a feeling of personal responsibility to change the status quo. They want to help resist violence against Palestinians carried out by the Jewish state in what they see as their name. Those may be motivated by Jewish identity to support Palestine. But many do not identify their giving as ‘Jewish’ and are driven to support Palestine and other human rights causes for broader reasons.

Scholar, author and member of JVP's academic council, Judith Butler, protests the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. Photo credit: jewishvoiceforpeace.org

Scholar, author and member of JVP’s academic council, Judith Butler, protests the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. Photo credit: jewishvoiceforpeace.org

Even looking at explicitly Jewish anti-Zionist organisations doesn’t tell us enough about Jewish giving. Organisations like Jewish Voice for Peace, although championed by Jewish anti-Zionist donors, are also supported by many non-Jews. They offer a place to donate without fear (or with less fear) of being called anti-Semitic; and to support resistance without risking running afoul of anti-terrorism laws that dramatically complicate direct giving to Palestine. To complicate matters, other organisations that are explicitly funded by Jewish donors whose philanthropy seems clearly to arise from their Jewish experience, like George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, do not identify as Jewish funders. Is their support for Palestinian rights ‘Jewish?’ And does it matter?

What we do know is that Christian Zionist giving to Israel has become increasingly important – a fact that is hidden when philanthropy is framed as Jewish or Palestinian. The impact of Christian Zionist support may not yet be significant in terms of dollars – around $200 million per year compared to $3 billion from Jewish philanthropies– but as political currency, Christian Zionist support is invaluable, including, for example, by funding Jewish migration to Israel. This is especially significant because recruiting Jewish immigrants is part of a long-standing demographic strategy by successive Israeli governments to preserve a Jewish majority and secure territorial claims.

Christian Zionist support for Israeli policy does not emanate from a love of Jews; many Christian Zionists are true anti-Semites. Instead, there is a deeply worrying convergence of right-wing interests at play. It risks eclipsing the critical contributions of progressive Christian groups as core supporters of Palestinian rights.

Christian Zionist support also matters because it reveals the sharply political nature of the philanthropy in question. Framing Zionist philanthropy as Jewish philanthropy gives the false impression that overseas funding in Israel is just an investment in welfare, culture, science and social progress. While much Jewish philanthropy to Israel does support anti-poverty programs, medical care, or educational programmes, Zionist philanthropy to Israel also has political intent and effects. Ostensibly charitable activities serve the role of maintaining Israeli dominance, and ability to present itself as a site of exciting advances in science and technology, culture and agriculture and, increasingly, international development. It permits Israel to counter claims that it is an apartheid state by pointing to Zionist-led efforts to ‘uplift’ Palestinians (and Africans, and migrant workers.) who are impoverished and underdeveloped without tackling the state and policy structures relating to immigration, land and resources responsible for these inequities.

So while Jewish and Zionist philanthropy serve a variety of roles and functions, what of Palestinian philanthropy?

Mapping of Donor Funding to The Occupied Palestinian Territories 2012 – 2014/15.

Mapping of Donor Funding to The Occupied Palestinian Territories 2012 – 2014/15.

Accurate statistics are essentially impossible to obtain. While Jewish and Christian donors sent $4.5 billion to Israel last year – including to the government – it’s virtually impossible to calculate how much philanthropy goes to Palestinians. Recent efforts are unable to distinguish funding given to Palestinian versus international organizations, nor can they accurately determine the source of the funds. Philanthropic data is fragmented and non-transparent.

Palestinian philanthropy generally supports immediate needs for food, water, shelter, and electricity. As Omar al-Qattan noted obliquely in Alliance’s interview, spending millions to build the Palestinian Museum was both poignant – touching the deep wish for institutional recognition of Palestine’s history and people hood – and somewhat dissonant in the face of existential crisis. For this reason, it is more likely to find Palestinians sending remittances to their families, sending Zakat (Muslim obligatory charitable giving) for the destitute, and contributing to humanitarian aid. In the face of daily violence, it is logical to fund heath care for injured Palestinians and school supplies for refugee children, but the fact is, these are not nation-building activities. These are survival activities.

The framing of ‘Jewish and Palestinian philanthropy,’ as if they are two sides of the same coin, distorts reality. They are linked, but not parallel in their intent or content. The philanthropy sector denies this, quite literally, at the cost of Palestinian lives.

Philanthropy to Palestine, particularly from the US, is also tightly constrained by anti-terrorism laws that potentially construe almost all Muslim religious giving, and many civil society investments, as ‘material aid to terrorists.’

The outcome of these restrictions is that Palestinians cannot easily and safely donate through Muslim intermediaries. Even international organisations are constrained. Zionist donors face few of these challenges when they send funds to Israel. Witness for example the existence of the American Friends of the Israel Defense Forces as a bona fide US Public Charity 501c3. Yet, Palestinians cannot even send money to their own families without risk of triggering a damaging investigation. Nor can they easily donate to organisations doing political work in Palestine, whether state-building or simply challenging violations of international law. In these cases, the infrastructure of philanthropy is rigged against Palestinians.

The framing of ‘Jewish and Palestinian philanthropy,’ as if they are two sides of the same coin, distorts reality. They are linked, but not parallel in their intent or content. The philanthropy sector denies this, quite literally, at the cost of Palestinian lives.

_

Nora Lester Murad is a writer and activist. She is co-founder of the Dalia Association, Palestine’s first community foundation, and Aid Watch Palestine, a community-driven aid accountability initiative. She blogs at The View From My Window in Palestine and can be reached at @NoraInPalestine. Her first book, Rest in My Shade, is forthcoming from Interlink Publishing.

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Comments (4)

jixiang

"The Alliance coverage stated that ‘the hopes and dreams of many Jewish philanthropists find expression in the support of a range of causes in Israel’. While technically true, the implicit suggestion is that all Jews support Israel’s Zionist objectives. This conflation of Jews and Zionists plays into the damaging narrative that if all Jews support Israel then, by extension, to criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic." I am still confused as to how the author managed to take an innocent sentence like ‘the hopes and dreams of many Jewish philanthropists find expression in the support of a range of causes in Israel’, and turned into something that plays into a "damaging narrative". There is certainly some charitable giving that goes towards building settlements in the West Bank and other dubious causes, but there is also much charity that goes to perfectly legitimate causes within Israel, like helping the poorer sections of society or protecting the environment.


John Healy

This is a welcome contribution to an important debate. It is balanced and reasonable and raises uncomfortable questions.


Atallah Kuttab

Your article Nora, cuts deep into key political and social issues and tackles the problems of inequity and power imbalances. This is timely piece when the Israeli Kenesset (Parliament) has two days ago modified its basic state laws to differentiate between its citizens based on ethnicity and religion giving supremacy of one on the others.


Avila

A very thoughtful and timely contribution which highlights the dilemmas (and opportunities) for the engagement of philanthropy with social justice and conflict transformation in the context of power imbalance and violent conflict.


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