American Jewish donors: Use your influence now. Confront Israel’s radical government


Ron Gerlitz


America’s Jewish leadership must speak out forcefully against the takeover of official centers of power by ultra-racist forces in Israeli society. And Jewish philanthropy must project its power to constrain and defeat those forces.

Israel’s radical new government threatens so much of the core values and institutions in which Diaspora Jewish philanthropy has invested for decades. What constitutes normative and legitimate behavior and opinion are in flux; the coming months in Israel and among Israel’s supporters abroad will be decisive.

A narrow window of opportunity – to insist unflinchingly that governance must not be ceded to the ultra-racist, Kahanists forces – is rapidly closing. Silence now is acquiescence and will function to legitimate the darkest forces in Israeli society.

We need to go back to basics. Donors have leverage – to influence, to give with a conscious agenda to protect rights and values. But they need the will to enter the fray over Israel’s future.

Philanthropy needs new ways to directly confront and weaken those working to damage the rights of Arab citizens and sabotage equality and partnership.

This may be new and challenging territory for many philanthropies but, absent such efforts, reversing the damage to Israeli society may take years. “Doing good” is more consensual, more mainstream and less controversial. It also feels good. But what we need now is different: Confronting the bad.

There is a precedent: Jewish philanthropy has already been through one revolution with related to Jewish-Arabs relation in Israel. About 20 years ago, after decades of Jewish philanthropic investment in Israel directed solely at the Jewish population and its institutions, leading figures in North American Jewish philanthropy undertook an impressive series of philanthropic investments designed to reduce discrimination, seek equality for Arab citizens and promote a shared society for Jews and Arabs.

They realized that previous philanthropic priorities had ended up exacerbating inequalities between Jewish and Arab citizens, and that it was time for a rethink.

These new priorities have proven not just laudable but also effective, supporting Israel’s civil society organizations and their decisive role in promoting equality for Arab citizens, including by effectively pressuring the Israeli government to reduce unequal budgeting that harmed Arab citizens.

While discrimination against Arab citizens still exists, progress has been substantial: fewer disparities, less discrimination, more social and economic integration, more visibility for Arabic, and more Arab citizens in positions of influence, including in government, politics, the arts and the media. This record reflects perhaps the most significant, positive shift in Israeli government policy and society in recent decades.

Sadly, these processes also led to an ongoing backlash from social and political sectors in Israel dismayed by the resulting changes. Those opponents see the entry of Arab society into centers of power as a threat to their own rights and identity.

Social psychology teaches us that such backlash is natural and foreseeable. People generally don’t relinquish their privileges voluntarily; meaningful changes in power relations create anxiety. History shows that this backlash can lead to strenuous efforts to perpetuate the social dominance of the already empowered group.

When in 2021 an Arab party joined the coalition, bringing about a regime change, the backlash became a tsunami, one key factor in the victory of Netanyahu’s coalition.

The most racist forces in Israeli society have now captured powerful positions in the government and will now wield unprecedented power and channel enormous resources to their civil society partners. It seems inevitable that progress toward an equal and shared society will be set back decades; escalated conflict and violence could certainly follow.

This is very bad news indeed. All of us in the world of NGOs and philanthropy will have to rethink our plans and revise what we are doing. Once more, Jewish philanthropic power need to rethink its priorities.

There are three new areas that should inform donors’ decisions.

Finding ways to confront and defang evil actors, head on.

Philanthropy has supported much that is good in promoting an equal and shared society for Jewish and Arab citizens. Additional philanthropic efforts are needed now: New, synergistic strategies to weaken racist anti-Arab forces, reduce their popular support, and dilute their influence; sophisticated integrative processes formulated to target entities, actors and organizations that threaten equality and partnership; effective tactics to reveal their methods of operation, and counter the fake news they spread, expose their illegal use of state funds, and drain their power to influence the Israeli reality.

This new direction will be harder and more confrontational than the efforts traditionally funded by philanthropy. Success is less assured and the way forward to effectively confront anti-Arab forces still needs to be found. Requests for proposals issued by philanthropy could be an excellent starting point.

Ensuring that the growth of spaces shared by Jews and Arabs, mainly in the workplace, on campuses and in shared urban areas, become not battlegrounds but rather building blocks for a future equal and shared society.

The new government’s policies could lead to a round of additional violence between Jewish and Arab citizens, reprising May 2021, or worse. Given this looming threat, reinforcing the resilience of our shared spaces is supremely important.

Civil society organizations must offer sophisticated, detailed guidance and tools to help local leaders to maintain their communities and institutions as spaces for cooperation and tolerance, not arenas for violent escalation. Private employers need the infrastructure and tools to effectively address tensions and conflicts between Jewish and Arab employees.

Universities and colleges rely on appropriate infrastructure and tools to defuse tensions and conflicts between Jewish and Arab students. Municipal leaders likewise require infrastructure, tools and incentives to reduce tensions and conflicts between Jewish and Arab residents.

The alternative is that the positive intergroup relations so carefully nurtured in our shared spaces will break down and will lead to potentially new cycles of violence.

Speaking out is action, and so is silence; neutrality is not an option now.

Jewish philanthropy and Jewish leadership in North America and elsewhere must speak out forcefully against the takeover of official centers of power by ultra-racist forces in Israeli society. Despite the unfamiliarity and the discomfort, keeping quiet now will function as appeasement.

These are existentially critical moments for Jewish philanthropy in the struggle to promote a just and equal society in Israel for all its citizens. As philanthropy has so crucially supported significant steps thus far toward the equal and shared society envisioned for our future, so must it now summon and project its power to constrain and defeat the forces rising to threaten that future.

This article was first published in Haaretz on 2 February 2023. It is being re-shared in Alliance with permission.

Ron Gerlitz is the CEO of aChord – Social Psychology for Social Change. 

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *