A Sea Change

May 30, 2018 1:32 p.m.

This is a fascinating story from The Forward. Israeli has a new quasi-ministry called The Ministry for Strategic Affairs. It calls itself a “start-up” ministry and seems mainly focused on anti-BDS efforts, with at least some in Israel itself seeing it as a kind of rightist or pro-occupation political operation. But this story is about the fact that the ministry approached a number of top establishment Jewish groups in the US offering to fund anti-BDS efforts. Most or apparently all the groups turned down the money, though fundraising is of course a big deal for all these operations. The most immediate concern was that they would have to register as foreign agents under FARA – the law that’s gotten various Trumpers in hot water.

There’s a bunch of details in the story. One is that the Israelis have apparently now come up with a non-profit to send the money through – an extremely common tactic for many foreign groups trying to influence opinion in the US.

Brandeis Professor of American Jewish History Jonathan Sarna told The Forward: “The Israelis are… not quite understanding how things are done here, and certainly not understanding well that you can get American Jewry into trouble with their neighbors if you are not sensitive to the way things are legally done in the United States.”

That’s true.

But what strikes me about this story is something that is never even explicitly stated. American Jewish financial support for Israel and the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish quasi-state) before it has been elemental to the Zionist project for more than a century. Generations of American Jews have the experience of buying Israel bonds or supporting Israel financially in other ways. Indeed, post-1948 and especially post-1967 many of these groups have it as a central part of their organizational mission supporting Israel both politically and to a degree financially. This is the first example I can think of, certainly at scale, of trying to run the money in the other direction. That is quite striking to me.

Israel critics will note that groups like AIPAC spread lots of money around. And AIPAC institutionally is tightly bound to the Israeli government. But the money comes from American Jews. There’s just never been a need for Israeli to put up that money.

These are after all mainstream, establishment Jewish organizations. They are extremely pro-Israel. Even though the occupation is highly polarizing among American Jews, BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement) is quite unpopular. It tends to be something a broad spectrum of American Jewish public opinion is unequivocally against. The fact that Israel would feel the need to pay money or defray the costs of more aggressive anti-BDS efforts from these groups strikes me as telling. Sometimes a government agency just does something dumb and maybe it doesn’t mean more than that. But this seems like an effort to gain a funding foothold in these organizations to exert influence down the road. On its own, this isn’t terribly surprising. And I’m not even addressing the legal niceties of filing under FARA or not. It just seems highly novel to me that, as I said, the money is flowing in the reverse direction.

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