American Jews, money and the Israel-Palestine conflict

The American Jewish community has a complex philanthropic and political relationship with Israel. On the one-hand, substantial American Jewish money flows into Israel, often directed at causes that explicitly or implicitly contribute to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, American Jews, particularly the younger generation, overwhelmingly support a peace deal that would grant Palestinian independence and end the occupation of Palestinian lands. So while American Jewish funding for Israeli human rights organizations pales in comparison to other causes in Israel, many Jews are pushing for a political solution consonant with the goals of human rights activists.

American-Jewish Giving to Israel

A 2012 study from Brandeis University estimated that in 2007, American Jews donated just over $2 billion to organizations in Israel, while a more recent articlein the Forward estimated the number  at 1.7 billion annually.

Where does all that money go? In 2007, the largest category (worth about $500 million) fell into a conglomerate of “traditional Zionist groups.” These groups include an Emergency Fund for the Second Lebanon war; the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which plants trees and develops land in Israel and in areas beyondthe Green Line; and Birthright  Israel, which runs tours for young Jewish adults. The JNF and Birthright seem to have innocuous, or even laudable goals, which helps explain their tremendous fundraising power. However, activists have criticized the JNF and Birthright for their complicity in human rights abuses andindifference to the occupation, respectively.

Conversely, the Brandeis study listed “Progressive” organizations – which deal with human rights issues in Israel and the West Bank -- as the second smallest beneficiaries of American Jewish money, with about $46 million in funds in 2007. While this sum is significant, it is far less than the money going to other causes.

But money only tells half the story. The progressive American Jewish grassroots, particularly the younger generation, is passionate about solving the Israeli Palestinian conflict. 

Changing Political Tides

In “Funding cannot stop rights abuses,” American anthropologist Lori Allen concludes that while human rights organizations do incredible work documenting and publicizing human rights issues in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, these measures are ultimately insufficient. Rather, only a political solution can secure a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians, and end the occupation.

Allen is absolutely right, and American Jews increasingly agree. There is a growing movement – particularly amongst young people – in support of a comprehensive, two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. These young Jews are also clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead. Just 23% of non-orthodox American Jews aged 18-29 believe that the Israeli government is sincerely pursuing peace, and a mere 17% of all American Jews believe that the settlement project in the West Bank – a focal point of the Palestinian struggle for human rights – is good for Israel. A whopping 76% of young non-Orthodox Jews believes that a Jewish, democratic Israel, and a free, sovereign Palestine, can live side by side in peace and security.

On the surface, support for a two state solution and Palestinian human rights are not necessarily the same thing. However, the politics of Jewish America indicate a deep sensitivity to human rights issues. According to Pew, 38% of American Jews identify as liberal, which makes us the second most liberal religious denomination in the country, behind Buddhists. Domestically, American Jews are actively tuned in to issues of discrimination against the LGBTQ community, Muslims and African Americans, with large majorities asserting that these groups face “a lot” of discrimination. In contrast, less than 50% of the US general public believes that Muslims and African Americans face significant discrimination.

The politically progressive tendencies of America’s Jews are beginning to manifest themselves in political activism around Israel/Palestine. Given both the history of Jewish involvement in human rights work and attitudes towards discrimination in the US, many American Jews believe that Israel should live up to their values. Supporting a peace agreement in Israel also means supporting an Israel that upholds the basic tenets of justice and egalitarianism that undergird their domestic political leanings. We see this trend reflected in the rise of the progressive Israel lobby.

Expressly pro-Israel, pro-peace American Jewish groups, such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund have flourished in recent years. Sara Sorcher and Elahe Izadi’s recent piece in the National Journaldetails the rise of J Street, which is dedicated  to the resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Sorcher and Izadi argue that J Street has “changed the landscape” of what it means to be pro-Israel in the United States. J Street has created a space for both American Jews and elected officials to challenge the policies of Bibi Netanyahu’s government when it makes peace more difficult or advances detrimental policies. J Street’s political action committee (PAC) was the largest pro-Israel donor in the 2012 election cycle, and Vice President Joe Biden spoke at their most recent conference. Of the over 3,000 attendees, 900 were students, demonstrating the appeal of pro-peace activism for younger Jews.

J Street, The New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now and other like-minded groups still face opposition. Politically active American Jews are by no means united behind progressive pro-peace activism. However, the rapid growth of their organizations and age of their supporters is a positive indicator going forward. 

The rise of J Street demonstrates the presence of organized people and organized money in progressive Jewish American politics. While J Street and its allies posses a political, rather than specifically human rights oriented focus, their language and policy goals seek to promote Palestinian rights alongside a Jewish, democratic state. American Jews may not donate as much to human rights organizations as to other causes in Israel, but the trail of big money is at odds with Jewish pro-human rights work in the political sphere, and with Jewish American political sympathies. Yes, the disconnect between money and activism is problematic, but it is not indicative of how most American Jews feel about human rights, and is at odds with trends in their political activism. 

Cause for Optimism

Understanding the American Jewish connection to human rights in Israel and Palestine requires looking beyond funding to human rights groups. While there are significant funding obstacles, both in the US, Israel and the Palestinian territories for human rights organizations, American Jews have doubled down in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict. This is appropriate. As Allen so eloquently articulated, human rights work, while critically important, is not in and of itself sufficient to fix the significant issues in the region. 

The relative dearth of American Jewish money directed towards human rights issues in Israel and the occupied territories is troubling. Progressive American groups seeking to expand the political conversation must continue drawing attention to and rectifying the monetary shortfall. But amidst the challenging, entrenched dissonance between donors and constituents, American Jews cannot lose sight of the urgent need for a political solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The American Jewish community must continue pushing, harder than ever, for a lasting peace to secure a future for human rights in Israel and Palestine.