Thursday, September 25, 2014

US elites are vulnerable to donor pressure on Israel question

from Philip Weiss on September 24, 2014

Several recent articles have highlighted the importance of pro-Israel donors in influencing the political discourse at universities, in synagogues, and in U.S. elections. Two pro-Palestinian voices have lost their jobs at campuses in part because of such pressure (Steven Salaita, Bruce Shipman). Here are several stories/incidents that underline the importance of pro-Israel money and even blackmail threats. I’m ranging over several years, but the pattern is clear; and as Lawrence Davidson points out near the end of these items, elites are particularly vulnerable to donor pressure, and elites are crucial to the lobby because Israel has lost the grass-roots. In fact, the battle is now raging inside elite opinion, which makes donors crucial.

Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, head of Hillel at Ohio University, responding earlier this month in anger to student senate president Megan Marzec’s “bloodbucket” challenge for Israel:

Dear Megan… How could you possibly do such a thing if you’ve got university partners that care about you?… It makes alumni want to pull their funding.

Rev. Bruce Shipman commenting on his forced resignation from Yale after he criticized Israel’s actions in Gaza:

“I think of abolitionism and the role the church played in that, I think of the civil rights movement, I think of the anti-war movement and the role the chaplains played in that, often incurring the wrath of big givers and donors of the university, but they were protected and they were respected,” he says. “That seems not to be the case now.”

A report in the pro-Israel press in 2006 on why the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard was distancing itself from the Walt and Mearsheimer paper on the Israel lobby:

Harvard, the observer said, had received “several calls” from “pro-Israel donors” expressing concern about the Walt-Mearsheimer paper. One of the angered contributors is said to be the donor who underwrote the chair occupied by Dean Walt, Robert Belfer. Mr. Belfer, a 1958 graduate of Harvard Law School, endowed a faculty chair as part of a $7.5 million gift to the Kennedy School in 1997. [Walt continues to have the Belfer chair.]

A report in The New York Times yesterday on divisions inside the Jewish community over Israel:

“If [liberal rabbis] say anything critical of Israel, they risk angering the older, more conservative members who often are the larger donors and active volunteers…. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights, a liberal group with 1,800 member rabbis, said: ‘Rabbis are just really scared because they get slammed by their right-wing congregants, who are often the ones with the purse strings.'” –

Threats by Zionist cheerleader Martin Peretz surrounding the resignation of Harvard president Summers in 2007:

When Lawrence Summers was forced out as Harvard’s president, Martin Peretz, a wealthy donor himself, said it was out of “anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish animus” and threatened financial repercussions: “…[M]y own impression of wealthy alumni who were once my students is that Summers made them more generous… I know of at least three gifts in the $100 million range that were very likely to materialize and now are dicey.” –

Emails in the Steven Salaita case at University of Illinois, reported by Inside Higher Ed, show that the scholar’s angry tweets on the Gaza massacre this summer set off a fundraising crisis for the school’s administration, days before Salaita’s firing by the school’s chancellor:

“The communications show that [University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis] Wise was lobbied on the decision not only by pro-Israel students, parents and alumni, but also by the fund-raising arm of the university… There is an email from Travis Smith, senior director of development for the University of Illinois Foundation, to Wise, with copies to Molly Tracy, who is in charge of fund-raising for engineering programs, and Dan C. Peterson, vice chancellor for institutional advancement. The email forwards a letter complaining about the Salaita hire. The email from Smith says: “Dan, Molly, and I have just discussed this and believe you need to [redacted].”…

Later emails show Wise and her development team trying to set up a time to discuss the matter, although there is no indication of what was decided.

At least one email the chancellor received was from someone who identified himself as a major donor who said that he would stop giving if Salaita were hired. “Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses. This is doubly unfortunate for the school as we have been blessed in our careers and have accumulated quite a balance sheet over my 35 year career,” the email says.

Democratic nominee for US Senate from Georgia, Michelle Nunn, is advised that she has “tremendous opportunity” to raise money on the Israel issue — $250,000– if she takes the right position. Matthew Yglesias comments:

Jewish donors are very important to Democratic Party finances, some of these donors have strongly held hawkish views on Israel, and the financial clout of AIPAC is the stuff of legend. At the same time, talk of rich Jews throwing their financial muscle around to influence policy in favor of Israel touches far too many anti-semitic tropes to be regularly mentioned in political discourse. But the concrete world of political fundraising doesn’t leave a ton of time for beating around the bush, so we get a little window here into how it looks to the finance people: if Nunn wants to maximize her donations, she needs to take the right stance.

[The Israel lobby group J Street is raising money for Nunn, saying she "traveled to Israel as a Kellogg Fellow during the Oslo Process in the early '90s. She is a strong supporter of the US-Israel alliance and US leadership towards a two-state deal."]

Tom Friedman on the importance of donors for Israel, speaking to Al Jazeera last year:

“President Bush the first stood outside the White House one day and said I’m one lonely man standing up against the Israel lobby. What happened as a result of that… is that Republicans post Bush I, and manifested most in his son Bush 2, took a strategic decision, they will never be out pro-Israel’d again. That they believe cost them electorally a lot.

“So that pulled the American spectrum to the right. and it created an arms race with the Democrats, over who could be more pro Israel… if you and I were running from the same district, and I have AIPAC’s stamp of the approval and you don’t, I will maybe have to make three phone calls and I can raise my whole– I’m exaggerating but I don’t have to make many phone calls to get all the money I need to run against you. You will have to make 50,000 phone calls. So that pulled the whole spectrum to the right…”

Lawrence Davidson on the importance of elites, who are vulnerable to wealthy donors, to the preservation of pro-Zionist opinion, at Richard Congress’s blog.

Due to Israel’s brutal racism and repeated attacks on Palestinian civilians, it is losing popular support internationally. As this happens, the Zionists appear to be intensifying pressure on societal and political elites, particularly in the U.S. and other Western states, to maintain policies that support and protect Israel’s criminal behavior. Their vehicle for achieving this goal has always been financial gifts and donations to elite individuals and institutions…

[W]hy would a highly placed academic administrator such as Chancellor Linda Katehi, of the University of California, Davis, accept this missive from the ADL and distribute it to all her vice chancellors, deans and, significantly, the head of the UC Davis police department? Because, unlike her student constituency, which is evolving an accurate view and critique of Israel, she is stuck in the world of elites dominated by donors and ideologues who have always been pro-Israel. In other words, her world remains static while the world outside her clique is changing.

It is because of the continuing vulnerability of higher education’s administrative elites to donor blackmail that we continue to witness the tragic and unjust treatment of scholars and teachers who have taken a public stand against Israel.

Commentary on Democratic Party pro-Israel donors, 2012:

Estimates of the amount of money Jews have donated to American politicians, parties, and causes are even less accurate than the loose estimates of Jewish votes, but there is little question that the figure is staggering. It is impossible to determine precisely the grand total contributed to only presidential candidates by individual Jewish donors, but it may well be as much or more than one third of all Democratic money and a lesser though still impressive percentage of the funds raised by Republicans…

Nevertheless, even though Jewish votes are important, Americans should expect far more media attention paid to Jewish fundraising. Thus, the true audience for the Democrats’ massive effort to convince Jews that Obama has stayed true to Israel may well not be the Jewish electorate but the Democrats’ base of Jewish donors. Reports about how his stance on Israel may affect his ability to raise money for his reelection are mixed so far.

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