Dangerous giving

Published in The Jerusalem Post on February 13, 2000

With every passing day, another Jewish philanthropist or foundation abroad is named as party to Israel’s mushrooming campaign finance scandal, and more revelations assuredly are down the road.


Something here is very wrong. I sincerely salute the benevolence of Diaspora Jews who donate their hard-earned money to Israel’s welfare. But intervention in the Israeli political process through directed giving to Israeli political parties and candidates is *tzedaka* gone awry. It is wrong; it has gone on for too long; and it has gone too far.


As far back as the 1981 elections, foreign donations have played a weighty role in Israeli political campaigns. Charles Bronfman and Jean Frydman were widely reported to have bankrolled Shimon Peres’ political career across several campaigns with significant infusions of foreign cash, including the placement of a private plane at his disposal. Edward Seroussi financed Ezer Weizman’s Yahad Party in 1984.


Then, Ron Lauder and Joseph Gutnick came along backing Bibi Netanyahu, who was, as you may recall, “good for the Jews”. Somebody abroad paid the salary of Netanyahu’s secretive campaign strategist Arthur Finkelstein, who was a dominant figure in the 1996 and 1999 elections.


More recently, Daniel Abraham and a relatively-new association, the US-based Israel Policy Forum, are reported to have played substantial roles in financing Ehud Barak. Surely, James Carville and Stanley Greenberg did not run Barak’s precision-planned, professional campaign for free.


The Non-Profit Organization imbroglio currently unfolding has revealed murky layers of foreign financing for Israeli politics. We’ve got cash suspiciously streaming-in from the estates of dead and previously unheard-of Jewish millionaires. A Canadian foundation worked funds to Barak through taxi drivers and students by giving Barak’s bagman, “Bougie” Herzog, signing power on some its charitable accounts in Israel.


Who paid for all those free flights for voters from New York to Tel Aviv on election eve?


A look ahead shows the situation worsening. The American Jewish Left and Right wings already are raising mega-bucks to help Israeli political parties fight-out the planned referendum on the Golan.


THERE ARE any number of things wrong with this Diaspora political largesse, the least of which is that it’s probably illegal. I can’t imagine that the IRS granted 501(c)3 tax-exempt status to the American charities mentioned above, nor Revenue Canada to the Kahanoff Foundation, in order to campaign for political office or gain in Israel.


Thus, the unwise gravitation of North American Jewry towards ever-more direct intervention in Israeli politics threatens the entire Jewish charitable community.


What makes this dangerous Diaspora giving even more objectionable is that it grossly distorts the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Ultimately, it is the citizens of the sovereign State of Israel who have to live, or die, with the consequences of an Israeli election. The vote is ours to cast, without it being unduly influenced by the buying of votes.


Sure, I believe in the slogan “We Are One People”, and I know that the positions taken by the government in Jerusalem impact on the image and identity of Jews around the world. I also believe that Diaspora Jews have a generalized “right” to participate in our diplomatic debates. I know that many Diaspora Jews innocently rationalize their contributions to Israeli politicians as lofty donations on behalf of “peace” or “security” for Israel.


Noble indeed, but still wrong. The bottom line is that our Diaspora brethren don’t live here. Neither those willing to fight to the last Israeli from the bunkers of Brooklyn, nor those willing to withdraw to the outskirts of Tel Aviv from the comfy suburbs of Beverly Hills — should be weighing-in with cash on Israeli election day.


Indeed, the investment of Diaspora dollars in our politics smacks of arrogance. Mr. Diaspora Jew is going to plunk down his charitable dollars in order to make sure that Israelis don’t make the wrong choice on election day. “Save Israel in spite of herself” used to be the slogan and preserve of extreme anti-Israel Leftist circles. Now, it has gone mainstream Jewish.


Worse still is the fact that this political giving by Diaspora Jews – which should be outlawed by the Knesset – is deformed, unbecoming Jewish philanthropy.


Think of all the money being invested in opposition research, negative advertising, character assassination, nasty bumper stickers, ugly political posters and the busting of opponent demonstrations. Think of all the good this money could do were it to be channeled back to the traditional charitable causes: hospitals, schools and basic social welfare.


There is a perilous trend here, backfiring on us all. Once upon a time, everybody gave to Israel through the UJA. Then, Diaspora Jews branched into specialized giving, each according to his or her super-personalized preferences, through dozens of directed-giving philanthropies. Now, mere charity has become passe. The big donors now give to politicians.


Ought this be the future of Jewish philanthropy?

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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