Progressive philanthropy is missing in action – again – on Israel/Palestine


Charles Keidan


What should philanthropy be doing in the face of distressing scenes from Israel and Gaza? That’s the question many are asking. Yet the philanthropic world seems eerily silent, paralysed by inaction.

I can relate.

After devoting a large part of my career to creating space and building mutual understanding between Jews and Palestinians, it took me a decade to write about the profound failure of those efforts while director of the Pears Foundation.

But at least I tried. And will go on trying.

Now I have friends and former colleagues caught up in the crisis. One is a hostage*, the other going all out to avoid further bloodshed and secure the release of hostages.

But where are today’s progressive foundations? When we covered philanthropy’s contribution to peaceful development back in 2019, we noted that peace-related philanthropy was one per cent of all grantmaking – irresponsibly small given that armed conflict destroys lives, divides societies and ruins economies.

The people of Gaza are a case in point. With few exceptions, philanthropy has abandoned them.

Why doesn’t progressive philanthropy devote more resources to community-based peace building? As the crisis unfolds, I imagine that the staff of two prominent foundations – the Ford Foundation and the Skoll Foundation – may be asking the same question.

In the case of Ford, it closed its doors to Israel and Palestine in 2011. Up to that point, it had played an instrumental role in supporting progressive causes, such as bolstering human rights and dialogues across divides, through bulk funding of the New Israel Fund (NIF). NIF advocates a different vision of the region, one based on respect for human rights, equality, and democracy. When I caught up with Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation president earlier this year, I asked him about Ford’s departure from the region. Walker was plaintive but there was no indication that they were about to re-engage telling me ‘I regret the mistakes we made in not supporting our grantees in a way that would bring about better outcomes. We as a foundation failed in this regard. It was – it is – a terrible shame.’

A shame indeed.

The case of the Skoll Foundation is even more disappointing. The Foundation had the resources and the prescience in 2009 to set up a $100 million Global Threats Fund. They identified conflict in the Middle East, and in particular in Israel-Palestine, as one of five serious threats alongside climate change, pandemics, water security and nuclear proliferation. The Skoll Foundation hired a pioneering programme officer, Scott Field, who told me that they engaged in sophisticated power analysis and modelling as it sought out strategic intervention points to address and mitigate the threat posed by the conflict. They had a theory of change. And then the foundation leadership pulled the plug. The fearless Scott Field left in 2014 to take up a role with the UN in Syria before his untimely death. Jeff Skoll’s Global Threats Fund formally closed in 2017.

The threats remain.

Now, as I look at my community in the UK, fellow Jews beleaguered and embattled, I see the walls grow higher. I see fear setting in – fear for innocent people held captive; fear that Jews outside Israel will be next; and an unimaginable sense of grief, loss, and pain.

Elsewhere, I see the number of casualties in Gaza escalate, over 700 children among them. Campaigns in solidarity with the people of Gaza and the wider Palestinian cause grow with the latest stories of death and suffering.

Yet, there is no sign that people in these groups will truly see the humanity on the other side of wherever they stand on the issues. The leaders of Stop the War movement, for example, who see Palestinian suffering so acutely, show insufficient empathy for the massacre of Jews. And within my own community I am saddened by the limited concern for the fate of Palestinians, in Gaza or elsewhere. It’s not that they don’t care. They just don’t feel the suffering in quite the same way.

We need philanthropy to be different, to engage and to transcend tribal divisions buttressed by inter-generational trauma. Philanthropy can follow the lead of Antonio Guterres and Humza Yousaf – unequivocal in condemning terror while also demanding an end to Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe. But it can do so much more. It has the freedom and resources to do what it is built for – charting a course – paved with grants, programmes and partnerships or whatever – towards the love of humanity, everywhere.

During my decade-long career at the Pears Foundation I made over 30 visits to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Today, a dear former colleague and grantee, Vivian Silver* is held in Gaza. Another is in Qatar giving everything to secure her release.

Such are the times. I won’t remain silent. Nor should Philanthropy.

*Update 16 November 2023: Vivian Silver was confirmed killed in the attack on 7 October. This article is dedicated to her memory.

Charles Keidan is the executive editor at Alliance 

Tagged in: Editors' comment Israel-Palestine Conflict

Comments (2)

Stephen Pittam

Thanks Charles for the risks you took for peace, and for challenging the philanthropy sector to think about these issues.

Sarah S. Alfadl

Dear Charles, With respect, mutual respect and understanding are all very well at the level of individuals. However, what's needed for the long term is a political solution based on values such as justice, equity, dignity, etc. The current power imbalance and the ongoing oppression will continue to lead to renewed cycles of violence. I was born in 1956 and I'm sick and tired of seeing this all play out over and over for my entire life! Like you, I'm very anxious about the fate of dear Vivian Silver. Sincerely, Sarah S. Alfadl

Florencia Roitstein

Thanks Charles for your courage, for raising your voice and for sharing your importante reflections.

James Goldman

Today it looks like Israel has embarked on a new path beyond endless decades of Retribution. It's actually Brilliant ! Its no surprise it has history's best track record of peace in Ethnic hatred wars. Siege +Evacuation ends the "occupation". It works when forced and works when negotiated. Separation is powerful. Ask the Greek Turks 2 million person evacuation in 1923..Last years Azebajians and Armenians.,Sudentenland Germans 1 million shipped back to Germany 1946.No Body counts, Nobody gets bombing of Israeli soldiers lost in urban fighting...and people in Gaza move on from 60 years of misery which was always their choice. Now they are settled by the humanitarian aid of their rich bloodbrothers and co religionists ( Saudis, Egyptians Iraqis, Qatar etc>)as they should have been in 1948. Water food and recharging their Iphones along with a new future are not drop-shipped to their hopeless hovels , but efficiently packed and waiting for them on the ships. A siege is not a death sentence, it focuses attention, inaction is precarious and the parent's fault. Since the ticket out is free. A siege's detriments are a choice you make for your children, not your pride. THATS the humanitarian philanthropy destination for 2023. Who will join me in the Gazan's NewLife Fund?

hugh davidson

Thanks. Very thoughtful and balanced article which I found most helpful.

Jason Franklin

Really appreciate this reflection…thank you

Maria Chertok

Thnak you, Charles

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