04.01.2016
  • Israel / Palestine
  • South Africa

Who’s Afraid of BDS?

Meet the organizations and mega-donors trying to suppress pro-Palestine activism.

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The call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel approached its ten-year anniversary this past July, and despite humble beginnings the movement has gained significant global traction. Last June a “secret” anti-BDS summit was reportedly held in Las Vegas, while a Haaretz opinion column predicted that the “age of BDS” had officially begun.

The secretive closed-door summit was hosted by Sheldon Adelson — a billionaire casino magnate who once referred to Palestinians as “an invented people” — at his luxury hotel and casino, the Venetian. Early reports estimated the roughly two dozen mega-donors and fifty organizations in attendance raised at least $20 million.

The Vegas summit’s fundraising take is a fraction of what wealthy donors give to fight pro-Palestine organizing in the US and abroad. In an attempt to catalog such fundraising efforts, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) — a network of Jews “committed to struggles for human emancipation, of which the liberation of the Palestinian people and land is an indispensable part” — published a report last year entitled “The Business of Backlash: The Attack on the Palestinian Movement and Other Movements for Justice.”

IJAN’s study deconstructs the maze of financing and social action that supports efforts to suppress and block pro-Palestine activism in the US by mapping out a money trail leading back to eleven major donors  — the Sheldon Adelson Family Foundation amongst them — and highlights important tactics of the anti-Palestine movement, including media manipulation and attacks on academia.

IJAN undertook the project because organizations like the ones allegedly present for the Adelson summit — the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America, Hillel International, Christians United for Israel, the Middle East Forum, and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America — are extremely secretive and often act as intermediaries or “anonymizers,” intentionally obscuring the destinations of the funds they receive and distribute.

However, the closed-door nature of these organizations’ dealings also means that information on donor networks and activities is for the most part not publicly available. As such, IJAN’s report is illustrative but not exhaustive.

To navigate around the methodological difficulties arising from these organizations’ opacity, the report’s authors drew from over ten thousand pages of publicly available tax returns from 2009 to 2012 (and 2013 when available) and also tapped public information concerning assets, budgets, grants, and donations. The result is a convincing outline of the network that binds these organizations together.

The Backlash Network

The report tracks eleven major donors and their foundations — the Newton D. and Rochelle F. Becker Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Koret Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, the Klarman Family Foundation, the Russel Berrie Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Sheldon Adelson Family Foundation, the Koch Brothers, the Moskowitz Foundation, and the Fairbrook Foundation — which hold a combined $10 billion in assets (not including their private wealth and individual giving) and use these funds to sponsor anti-Palestine, anti-Muslim activities in the US and abroad.

Yet the big donors examined in the IJAN report are not only linked by a shared commitment to Israel; they also have overlapping material interests. Seven of the eleven key funders of organizations that promote Zionism and fund the backlash against student organizing for Palestine on college campuses derive a large percentage of their personal wealth from the manufacturing, refining, and distribution of petroleum — a fact that sits comfortably with strong US-Israel ties in the Middle East.

Alongside oil, other key donors have ventures in banking and finance, weapons and law enforcement, surveillance technology, and infrastructure redevelopment industries, indicating a clear intersection between profit and ideological commitment. Viewed from this perspective, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice — what Arun Kundnani calls the “racialized dehumanization” of Muslim people — becomes instrumentally important, “legitimating U.S. and Israeli military intervention and the creation of chaos in the region.”

The report’s authors also examine how media — central to the project of objectifying and dehumanizing Muslims and promoting the US-Israel agenda in the Middle East — are linked to these donor networks. “The Business of Backlash” presents detailed funding data for seventeen media outlets, together forming an “echo chamber” that repeats the same viewpoints and news items over and over, projecting a narrative in which anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and pro-Israel views are mainstream and popular.

Moreover, the report’s authors demonstrate how

[t]he organizations and media outlets themselves have significant overlap in boards and in personnel. Often the same person founds several organizations and/or media outlets with “independent” identities and roles that gives the appearance that there is a diverse and broad network of forces involved in backlash when it really comes down to a core of donors, foundations, and people running multiple vehicles.

The Middle East Forum (MEF) is a fitting example. The conservative think tank receives funding from eight of the eleven major donors, which it in turn uses to finance over a dozen other smaller media outlets. Its founder and president, Daniel Pipes, is the former director of the right-wing Foreign Policy Research Institute and editor of its journal, Orbis, a prominent outlet on the backlash payroll.

MEF is the publisher of Middle East Quarterly and sponsors organizations like Islamist Watch, the Legal Project, the Washington Project, and, most notably, Campus Watch, the on-campus surveillance organization that Pipes founded in 2002 to monitor academics and professors who are critical of Israel. Campus Watch even endows its own funding to American Thinker, a neoconservative outlet that occasionally features Pamela Geller, the Islamophobic blogger responsible for last year’s infamous “Draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas.

Pipes receives additional funding from three other intermediaries and gives money to a fourth, the Central Fund of Israel (CFI), which provides support for Israeli settlements and settlers in Palestine. CFI also receives funds from the Donors Capital Fund earmarked for Shurat HaDin (also known as the Israel Law Center) — a group that provides legal services to Israeli settlers who kill Palestinians. The defense for those convicted of murdering Mohammed abu Khdeir, the sixteen-year-old Palestinian boy who was burned alive in July 2014, was reportedly funded by CFI through subsidized funds made out to the controversial legal aid organization Honenu.

In keeping with the secretive nature of these funding networks, Donors Capital and its twin fund, Donors Trust, advertise on their shared website how they anonymize donations earmarked for “sensitive or controversial issues.”

As a favorite vehicle of both the Koch Brothers and the Bradley Foundation — two donors that mirror one another in terms of their wide support for anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-immigrant, pro-military, and pro-privatization agendas — Donors Capital is a top funder of institutions that perpetuate Islamophobia. In 2010–11, the Kochs and Donors Capital gave almost $4 million to MEF.

Controlling the Campus

Higher education is another major field of activity for these donors. A steady stream of intellectual leaders committed “to the shared interests of Israel, the US, and global capital” is vital to the suppression of pro-Palestine organizing. Efforts to generate and control the information that students receive, alongside the silencing of professors and university administrators sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight, have become central to this project.

As a 2010 report by the Reut Institute, a right-wing Israeli think tank, advocates: catalysts of the “delegitimization network” — those who are critical of Israel — must be “identified, studied, and, to the extent possible, undermined by legal, media, political, and diplomatic means.”

All-expenses-paid travel tours of Israel facilitated through Aish Hatorah–sponsored Hasbara Fellowships, as well as the much more extensive Taglit-Birthright Program, are a well-established part of this ideological project.

Funded in part by the Israeli government and the Adelson Foundation — which gave $32 million to the program in 2012 alone (about 70 percent of the foundation’s spending for that year) — the Birthright Program has sent over four hundred thousand Jewish students on free ten-day trips to Israel since 1999. Student engagement and mobilization is also supported by fellowships and grants offered by vehicles like the Israel on Campus Coalition, the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Zionist Organization of America.

One result of this sponsorship — which includes advocacy training, mentoring, stipends, and various other layers of guidance and support — is a robust pro-Israel student movement that actively works to shape student governments and steer student-run political groups, and spearheads efforts to disseminate pro-Israel and Islamophobic material, combat on-campus divestment efforts, and surveil other students and professors.

The funding supplied by the donors examined in the IJAN report is also used to pressure universities to curb on-campus BDS efforts and other protests and events that champion issues connected to Palestinian rights, demilitarization, and environmental justice.

And similar efforts extend to cultural and art organizations across the US. For example, in 2011 the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art, after a “concerted effort by pro-Israel organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area,” was forced to cancel a planned exhibit of Palestinian children’s artwork depicting their traumatic experiences during Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008–9. (Of the 1,400 Palestinian citizens killed during the conflict, over 300 were children.)

The report’s authors link these actions to a broader strategic viewpoint that equates Israel and Zionism with Jews and Judaism: “Israel and the Zionist movement simultaneously promote the association of Jews with Israel, and then use the fact that Israel and Jews have become associated in the popular imagination to claim that criticism of Israel is antisemitic.” In recent years, the distinction between Israel and the Jewish faith has been increasingly blurred, including in the legal realm.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance — was expanded in 2004 (and confirmed in 2010 by Obama’s Justice Department) to include members of religious groups on the basis of shared ethnic characteristics.

This expansion is a positive development to be sure, not only for Jewish students but for Muslims and Sikhs as well. But the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) — the legal-political entity responsible for the push to expand the statute — has also worked to add anti-Zionist speech or criticism of Israel to the category of “anti-Jewish discrimination” and has succeeded in getting the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to distribute an official, nationwide memo on the matter.

While no official actions have been taken yet, informal complaints and grievance procedures are regularly employed by both the ZOA and the AMCHA Initiative, and pose a serious threat to free speech and academic freedom both on campus and off.

At the same time such organizations try to enforce compliance by threatening the federal funding of colleges and universities across the country, the report shows that Zionist organizations have received between 80 and 97 percent of the annual “anti-terrorist” funding that the Department of Homeland Security has provided US-based nonprofits since 2005 — a total of $141 million as of June 2014.

Meanwhile, the application of intimidation, spying, and surveillance on US campuses is increasing. Projects associated with this manner of academic repression include the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), the Louis D. Brandeis Center, the David Project, and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), the latter of which — following in the footsteps of Daniel Pipes’s ongoing McCarthyist Campus Watch project — established a “BDS Monitor” initiative in 2013 that encourages students to report BDS activity at their schools in order to “undermine the element of surprise” that they believe Zionist groups face.

In 2004, the David Project, in collaboration with the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), launched a coordinated attack campaign against Columbia University professor Joseph Massad, urging students to break university regulations and secretly videotape his “Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies” class in an attempt to incriminate him over an imagined bias.

The spying ultimately culminated in the defamatory video “Columbia Unbecoming.” It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the Berrie Foundation — one of the top seven funders discussed in the report — granted Columbia University $12 million in 2012 alone.

Attempts to deny Massad tenure failed, but risks of reprisal and intimidation are an everyday reality for professors teaching Middle East studies curriculums. More recently, in August 2014, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) rescinded the tenure-track position of indigenous studies professor Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American, in response to critical comments he posted to Twitter during the Israeli government’s assault on the Gaza Strip that summer.

UIUC officials declared Salaita’s tweets “uncivil,” but documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests later revealed that wealthy donors threatened to withdraw financial support if the school did not fire the incoming professor.

A Just Future

Attacks on academic freedom underscore the concerted efforts by the groups and donors discussed in the IJAN report to isolate the Palestinian narrative and detach it from historical parallels like the antiwar movements of the 1960s or the fight against South African apartheid. Ample time, money, and resources are expended in the effort to suppress on-campus activism and to control professors and the material they are allowed to teach.

But the pro-Palestine movement — now exemplified by BDS — has met this challenge with determination and persistence. The growing strength of the BDS campaign on both the world stage and on over three hundred college campuses across the US, along with further assertions in the legal realm — like Salaita’s successful FOIA lawsuit against the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign this past June and the legal and grassroots community support for Chicago activist Rasmea Odeh — are indicative of a movement on the rise.

Yet BDS’s momentum and potential shouldn’t be overstated. A report published by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights last September recorded nearly three hundred incidents of censorship, punishment, or other attacks on advocates for Palestinian rights throughout 2014 and the first six months of 2015; over 80 percent of the incidents targeted students and scholars.

The US presidential election isn’t helping matters. Hillary Clinton made her opposition to BDS abundantly clear in July through a public letter addressed to billionaire media mogul Haim Saban, denouncing it as “counterproductive to the pursuit of peace.” Saban and his wife, Cheryl, have since contributed over $6 million to Clinton’s campaign.

And Saban’s right-wing counterpart, Sheldon Adelson, is forecasted to once again pump tens of millions into the US presidential race. In the run-up to the first presidential primaries Marco Rubio reportedly phoned Adelson once a week, and when asked in February if he could support Donald Trump’s candidacy, Adelson responded, “Why not?”

IJAN’s report shines a light on the backlash network’s playbook. In doing so it also underscores the resolve of BDS supporters and pro-Palestine activists to fight this billion-dollar network and achieve their goal of a free Palestine.