By Jill Jacobs
The far-right Jewish extremists rampaging violently against Palestinians are backed by a complex network of funding sources in both Israel and the United States. It’s our moral duty to defund them
Many of us watched in horror as right-wing Jewish youth marched from Zion Square to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah two weeks ago, chanting “Death to Arabs” and assaulting Palestinian residents, in an event organized by Lehava, a violent Jewish extremist organization.
In one widely-circulated video, Palestinian children cry in fear as Jewish rioters threw stones at their home. In another, a young Jewish woman explains to an interviewer that she, personally, does not call explicitly for burning [Arab] villages, but “I say ‘you will leave and we will come to live there.'”
In the course of one violent night, more than 100 Palestinianswere injured, with close to two dozen hospitalized.
These events followed weeks of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, including attacks by Palestinians on Jews in Jerusalem and Jaffa and nightly clashes between Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem and police after the unexplained closing of the stairs near the Damascus Gate, a longtime gathering place for Palestinian teens and young adults during Ramadan (the police barriers were eventually removed after two weeks of closure).
There is no excuse for assaults on Jews or any other civilians. At the same time, we must distinguish between the actions of individuals and those of organized groups with representation in the Knesset and a complex network of funding sources in both Israel and the United States.
On social media, American Jewish organizations have rushed to condemn the Jewish extremists. Avi Meyer, the Israel-based Director of Global Communications for the American Jewish Committee wrote, “I am ashamed and repulsed by the hate-fueled violence taking place a mile and a half from my home in Jerusalem. The individuals perpetrating it are as foreign to me and my Judaism as are skinheads, white supremacists, and other racists around the world. They have no place here.”
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The ADL tweeted, “Violence & hate are never the answer and do nothing to ease an already fraught and tense situation. We are disturbed extremist voices like Lehava are filling the vacuum. Both Israeli and Arab leaders need to forcefully condemn these actions and stop fanning the flames of hate.”
But casting the right-wing Jewish rioters as marginalized outsiders erases the roles of both the Israeli government and American Jewish funders in enabling and encouraging such violence.
Over the past several years, T’ruah, the organization I direct, has made several complaints to the IRS about US tax-exempt foundations that funnel money to Lehava. These complaints are based on the fact that Lehava is the successor to the Kach movement, founded by the American-Israeli terrorist and former Knesset member Meir Kahane in the 1980s.
Kach was banned by Israel as a terrorist organization in 1988. In the 1990s, the State Department classified both Kach and its offshoot, Kahane Chai, as Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
While Lehava does not have its own tax status in Israel, investigations by the Israel Religious Action Center and the Democratic Bloc have demonstrated that the group receives money from other registered Israeli non-profits.
These groups, in turn, are funded by American foundations and individuals including American Friends of Yeshivat HaRa’ayon HaYehudi (‘Yeshiva of the Jewish Idea’), whose partner organization the State Department explicitly lists, by its English name, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and Charity of Light Fund, named in tribute to Kahane.
Both foundations are headed by Levi Chazan, a notorious Kahanist, who was convicted in a 1984 attack that wounded seven Palestinians on a bus. Other funding comes from the Florida-based Falic family, owners of Duty-Free Americas.
Central Fund of Israel, the largest by far of the U.S. foundations channeling funding to Israeli extremists, made close to $40 million in grants in the last year for which tax information is available.
Grantees include Hemla, one of the major pass-throughs for funding to CFI; Honenu, which defends Israelis arrested for terrorism and has also given direct cash to Israelis convicted of terrorism; Od Yosef Chai, a yeshiva infamous for violence against Palestinians, one of whose rabbis was recently convicted of incitement; the Israel Land Fund, which uses semi-legal or non-legal means to acquire Palestinian property; Mishmeret Yesha, which trains and outfits vigilantes in the West Bank; and Im Tirtzu, which incites against Israeli human rights leaders.
In 2016, following a T’ruah complaint about Central Fund of Israel’s support for Honenu, based on an Israeli television station’s exposé of the group’s direct cash payments to Israeli terrorists, the IRS investigated and temporarily restricted these payments. Honenu’s English-language website now indicates that US donations can only be directed to legal defense. We have not yet received a response to our other complaints against CFI or the other named foundations.
Most American Jews do not support, financially or otherwise, the foundations that make grants to extremist groups in Israel. However, some of the organizations considered mainstream play a role in channeling funds to Central Fund of Israel.
In 2018, the San Francisco Federation made a public commitment to end donor-advised grants to Central Fund of Israel, after one such grant became public. Yet in 2020, the Jewish Community Foundation of New York, which manages donor-advised funds, sent CFI more than $2 million. Jewish National Fund-USA, in their most recently-reported tax year, granted CFI $50,000.
The Merona Leadership Foundation, led by Adam and Gila Milstein — who are major donors to the Israeli-American Council, Zioness, and other groups that consider themselves pro-Israel — gave $167,000, and the Milstein Family Foundation contributed another $10,000. Past donors have included the Houston Jewish Federation, as well as secular donor-advised funds such as the Boston Foundation and Fidelity.
It is not enough to issue statements against the violence of the extremists, or to pretend that they represent a marginal perspective. Those of us committed to the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians also must insist that the institutions to which we are connected do not contribute to the groups that promote genocide and organize Jews to take part in violent rampages.
Some basic steps might include creating values statements that prohibit funding groups that promote violence or extremism, as the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation has; and insisting that individual donors such as Adam and Gila Milstein and the Falic Family, who actively invest in violent extremism, not be honored or given leadership positions in our community.
Cutting off funding to these extremist groups will not be sufficient to end the violence, which emerges in the context of more than five decades of occupation. Millions of additional private American dollars, from both Jews and Christians, flows to building settlements and supporting right-wing policy in Israel. The Israeli government is pursuing de facto annexation, inciting against Palestinian citizens and progressive activists, and coddling extremists.
Those of us committed to the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians must challenge all of these forces. Refusing to fund those who preach genocide, or to honor funders of these extremist movements, would be one powerful step toward demonstrating that the American Jewish community stands behind our verbal rejection of the recent violence.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which organizes and trains more than 2000 rabbis and cantors to advance human rights in the U.S., Canada, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories. Twitter: @rabbijilljacobs