The Diaspora Roadblock to Peace

The Diaspora Roadblock to Peace

West Bank settlements, 2011 (Montecruz Foto/Flickr)

For the American Jewish community, the Jewish National Fund’s blue boxes are ubiquitous, a sign of communal strength and affluence and a testament to the community’s commitment to the Jewish state. But they also represent one of the American Jewish community’s greatest failures: its refusal to acknowledge its role in financing and supporting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and its inability to take responsibility for its part in the corrosion of Israeli democracy.

By donating to organizations like the JNF, American Jews have provided economic support and political legitimacy to the settlements and to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. Their money has built brick-and-mortar roadblocks to peace, thwarting their own State Department’s attempts to find a just resolution to the conflict, strengthening the Israeli far right, and weakening Israeli civil society.

It has never been a secret that American Jews contribute to settlements in the West Bank. But the big-name donors like Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moskowitz—the former of whom gave $25 million to Ariel University and the latter an estimated $2 million to the settler group Ateret Cohanim—are not your average American supporters of Israel’s occupation. Most American Jews whose dollars end up across the Green Line are neither billionaires nor connected to politicians. Mainly, they are ordinary members of congregations across the country who for decades have put their money into the JNF’s blue boxes as a token gesture of ethno-religious solidarity.

There is undoubtedly a segment of the American Jewish community that celebrates its support for the settlement project and deliberately funds the systematic subjugation and dispossession of Palestinians in the West Bank. But they constitute a small group of very loud voices in a large room of many other voices that are too often silent on matters like the settlements and the occupation. What makes the massive contributions by the JNF and other organizations to projects in the West Bank so insidious is the seemingly innocuous, apolitical façade that it presents to American Jews who do not care to ask where their donations go.

The JNF’s contributions to the settlements are difficult to track. (Part of this may be that no one in the United States is really trying to track them.) While donors have some degree of choice in where their money goes—for example, there are several fundraising campaigns dedicated to specific geographic regions like the Negev desert or Sderot, a development town adjacent to Gaza—it is unclear where the money from a general donation goes. In its annual reports, the JNF does not distinguish between projects located within Israel proper and those located in the West Bank. Despite listing the Gush Etzion Visitor Center as a major project on its website, the words “West Bank” do not appear once on the page. The fund’s most recently available “Year in Review” details its successes in Be’er Sheva and in the Negev alongside its efforts in settlements in the Etzion bloc. A JNF representative could not be reached for comment.

The JNF’s records remain closed even to the Israeli government. This past May, after Israel’s State Comptroller Joseph Shapira called for an audit of the JNF, members of the Knesset voted down a bill to open the organization to review by an external party. The Jewish National Fund, Shapira said, has become “a state within a state.” “To say that the JNF should not be audited is not suited for the twenty-first century,” Shapira told the Israeli business paper Globes. In June, the JNF reportedly agreed to allow for “limited transparency,” but the extent of the comptroller’s oversight and the subject of his scrutiny remain unclear; in addition to concerns about mismanagement, the JNF has come under increasing international criticism for its refusal to lease or sell the land it owns to non-Jews.

The best indication of the JNF’s role in the West Bank comes from a leaked document found by Israeli investigative journalist Raviv Drucker. In projects across the West Bank, the JNF has provided what amounts to millions of dollars: a 2-million-shekel amphitheater in Shilo, 4.5 million shekels in infrastructure projects in Ariel, 2.5 million shekels for a park in Avnei Hefetz, 1.5 million shekels for a promenade in Kfar Adumim, and nearly 1 million shekels for a project in Har Bracha, to name only some of the settlements detailed in the document Drucker obtained.

In the context of American Jewish involvement in Israel, support for the occupation is not an exception: it is the norm. The JNF’s boxes appear in almost every community, and the JNF is one of the few organizations to which American Jews across denominations readily donate. With seemingly good intentions and often unwittingly, American Jews put both Israeli and Palestinian lives in danger by sustaining the occupation—military rule and the absence of rights for Palestinians—indefinitely and undermining the possibility of a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The JNF is far from the only organization sending money to the West Bank. The New York Times reported that American groups have sent more than $200 million in tax-deductible donations to West Bank settlements over the past decade. Thousands of American students study in West Bank yeshivas and educational programs every year. The Masa Israel website, an organization that provides subsidies for programs that allow students from outside of Israel to study and volunteer in various contexts, lists dozens of programs over the Green Line without a critical eye to the occupation around them. While some of these students choose to study in the West Bank for religious and ideological reasons, others simply no longer distinguish between the state of Israel and the territories Israel militarily occupies.

Even the “mainstream” Jewish press is deeply linked to settlements in the West Bank. Morton Landowne, the executive director of Tablet Magazine’s parent company, Nextbook, has close ties to the West Bank settlement of Efrat and Shlomo Riskin, Efrat’s founding rabbi. Landowne serves as vice-president of Ohr Torah Stone educational institutions—a series of yeshivas, post-high school, and post-graduate programs located almost exclusively over the Green Line. Similarly, the Tikvah Fund, which publishes the Jewish Review of Books, runs a leadership institute in the West Bank settlement of Alon.

This cash pipeline that flows from the United States to the West Bank has deep political foundations on both sides of the Atlantic. The settler group Ateret Cohanim’s executive vice president is Shoshana Hikind, the wife of New York state assemblyman Dov Hikind. The disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to a New York Times report, tried to pass off a six-figure contribution to finance a paramilitary operation in the Beitar Illit settlement as a donation for “education and athletic” purposes. Mega-donors like Adelson and Moskowitz contribute both to Republican candidates and right-wing think tanks and to projects in West Bank settlements.

American Jews’ support for the Israeli government’s building of settlements in the West Bank, both tacit and explicit, has done more to harm than help Israeli democracy. The JNF, unaccountable and undemocratic, is outside the bounds of the Israeli government; there is no real way to check for malfeasance and corruption or to investigate where money is allocated. By strengthening the settlements, American Jews send money away from the needy and at-risk populations within Israel, where the poverty rate is the highest among the OECD member countries. Support for the settlements also brings money and clout to Israel’s territorial maximalists, who have little concern for democracy and even less for the rights of Palestinians. Ultra-rich Americans like Adelson and Moskowitz give the far right a massive political advantage and do real damage to the country’s basic democratic institutions. (Adelson’s free newspaper, for example, has thrown the Israeli press into a serious crisis.)

American participation in and support for the settlement project is not only dangerous, hypocritical, and unjust. It also directly contravenes official U.S. foreign policy. By donating to organizations that send money across the Green Line, American citizens defy their own State Department’s regional objectives and actively violate international law. Financial support for West Bank settlements is an affront to both Israeli and American interests. And yet, the New York-to-West Bank pipeline shows no signs of shutting down.

Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer told the New York Times “that while the private donations could not sustain the settler enterprise on their own, ‘a couple of hundred million dollars makes a huge difference,’ and if carefully focused ‘creates a new reality on the ground.’”

This new reality is one in which a two-state solution looks increasingly unviable. Alongside the vast sums of money sent to the settlements, Jewish communal leaders’ verbal commitments to a two-state solution are, in actuality, little more than lip service.

The latest round of peace talks were doomed to fail because of continued settlement building in the West Bank. And as the dust settles from the latest Gaza war, historians will look back and assign blame for the collapse of peace talks and the most recent conflagration not only to the intransigent Israelis or Palestinians, but also to the American Jews who refused to be honest about their support for the occupation.

Joshua Leifer is a member of All That’s Left, an anti-occupation collective. He is currently pursuing a B.A. in history at Princeton University. He tweets @over_serious.