Grantee Editorial: How did Israeli democracy come under threat? Follow the money

American Jewish donors have helped to subsidize Israel’s drift into illiberalism

Last week, 15 major American Jewish philanthropists released an open letter calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider the planned decimation of the Israeli Supreme Court, which would eliminate any system of checks and balances and allow the sitting government to carry out even more drastic measures to erode democracy.

It’s crucial that philanthropists and major Jewish leaders are beginning to speak out now. And it’s time for a reckoning about how American Jewish money has helped to drive the attack on democracy, including the ongoing occupation and the chipping away of basic civil rights. 

And it’s also time to be honest about the vacuum centrist and liberal Jews have created by either avoiding investment in Israel altogether, or by giving to projects perceived as apolitical. This vacuum has allowed these right-wing funders to drive Israel further and further toward fascism. Rather than walk away from Israel now, donors concerned about the future of Israel must respond by investing in human rights and civil society groups that have been fighting for democracy for years.

Progressive American Jews who criticize Israel are accustomed to hearing the complaint that one shouldn’t try to influence the policy of a country where they don’t live. This attack oozes with hypocrisy as right-wing donors have no compunction about pouring billions of dollars into advancing right-wing policies in Israel, funding settlement growth and even supporting the violent extremists who now have outsized power in the Israeli government. 

There has been no full accounting of the influence of U.S. Jewish money on Israeli politics, but a good place to start is with the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative Israeli think tank funded almost entirely by two American billionaires, Jeffrey Yass and Arthur Dantchik. As reported by Haaretz, the judicial overhaul bill that is driving Israelis to the streets was the brainchild of the Kohelet. Additional funding for Kohelet comes from the U.S.-based Tikvah Fund, best known for its financial support of the publication Tablet and for fellowships that teach conservative ideas to middle school through college students and Jewish educators. 

Over the past decade, Kohelet has been behind countless right-wing efforts in Israel, including drafting the nation-state law, which legalizes discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel; rewriting Israeli textbooks to push a right-wing religious Zionist perspective and advancing bills that would weaken the social safety net.

Right-wing American Jews have even funded the rise of Otzma Yehudit, the violent extremist party with outsized influence in the current government. Central Fund of Israel sends some $45 million a year to Israel, and has been the primary U.S. engine for donations to groups such as Honenu — a legal aid organization that defends Jewish Israelis accused of terrorism against Arabs, and the professional home of Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir — as well as for organizations that funnel cash to Lehava, a militant anti-assimilation group which engages in violence and incitement against Palestinians and leftist Israelis. 

This article was written by one of the Dorot Foundation’s grantees, Jill Jacobs, and was originally published on Forward’s website – you can see it here.

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