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