How the Jewish Federation of Seattle Blocked a Donation to B’Tselem
(This article originally appeared in the Jewish currents E-mail; subscribe here!)
JULY 26, 2021, Alan Sussman did what he does every year: He asked the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, which runs his family’s donor-advised fund, to send grants to nonprofit groups in his choice. The 78-year-old civil liberties lawyer wanted to donate to six organizations that work with Israel/Palestine: T’ruah, Rabbis for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence, +972 MagazineB’Tselem, and, full disclosure, Jewish streams. The Jewish Federation agreed to his requests for funding, with one exception: It rejected Sussman’s request to donate $1,000 to B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights group.
In November, the Federation told Sussman it would not distribute his family’s funds to B’Tselem because, in January 2021, the human rights group said Israel was enforcing a regime of apartheid based on Jewish supremacy. (In response to a request for comment from Jewish streams, Federation spokeswoman Tovah Bigeleisen said “we have nothing to add”.) Sussman had faced a similar problem in 2019, when his request to send money to the anti -occupation IfNotNow was rejected because, according to the Federation, the group violates its policy of only funding organizations that build a “cohesive Jewish community”. Similarly, in 2016, the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles declined a donor’s request to send money to IfNotNow. (Meanwhile, it’s unclear if similar red lines exist on the right: Left-wing activists have targeted other donor-advised Jewish funds to fund anti-Muslim organizations, while journalists have documented such funds donated money to Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.)
The Federation was within its rights to deny Sussman’s request: a donor-advised fund grants the donor immediate tax relief to allow the Federation to manage the funds (for which it receives a management fee) and invest them there. where she hears it. Sussman can let the Federation know where he wants the charitable donations to go, but they don’t have to listen.
“These funds have been sold to donors as if they were really mini private foundations, but they belong to the public charity under which they exist. When things like this happen, we have l feels like it’s a gross overshoot or violation, but that’s all inside [the fund’s] legal right,” said Lila Corwin Berman, professor of history at Temple University and author of The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: The Story of a Multi-Billion Institution.
But Sussman says the denial is an example of why Jews critical of Israel’s human rights abuses are driven out of mainstream Jewry, and is an attempt to run away from the reality of Israeli politics by claiming that words like “apartheid” are beyond the pale. “I’m not asking the Federation to debate apartheid,” Sussman said Jewish streams. “I’m only asking them not to fund organizations that want to.”
Sussman took the opportunity presented by the denial of funds to ask the Jewish Federation of Seattle for a list of all the organizations for which it has approved or denied funding. He told the Jewish group he wanted information on how such decisions are made. “I would like to inquire whether they are making political judgments rather than philanthropic judgments,” Sussman said. The Federation also denied that request, instead ordering Sussman to look at forms the group files with the IRS, which do not show grants under $5,000.
The Federation has approved donations to B’Tselem in the past: In fact, in 2019, the Federation approved Sussman’s grant application to the organization. But since B’Tselem’s report on apartheid, it has been found to be in violation of the Federation’s partnership guidelines, which include provisions stating that the organization will not partner with groups that “promote illegitimacy of Israel as a secure, independent, democratic country, and the Jewish state. The Federation was particularly troubled by B’Tselem’s language that Israel enforces a regime based on “Jewish supremacy”; in a memo prepared by Federation staff at Sussman’s request that he shared with Jewish currents, the Federation compared this language to that used by the Nazis and white supremacists, saying that while echoing white supremacist views “may not be the intention of the authors of B’Tselem, this language promotes anti-Semitism and/or an extremist view”. (Asked to respond to the memo from the Seattle Federation, Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for B’Tselem, said: “In the face of the growing consensus among Palestinian, Israeli and international stakeholders, including leading human rights organizations of man, all concluding, as B’ Tselem did a year ago, that the regime of Israel is an apartheid regime – the Jewish Federation of Seattle chooses to deny the reality.”)
Corwin Berman said the denial of Sussman’s request to fund B’Tselem likely reflects the Seattle Federation’s risk calculation that it is important not to fund groups that use the word “apartheid” because giving money to such groups could “alienate” other, probably more numerous, donors who would be upset by such philanthropy.
But Sussman warns that Seattle’s decision runs its own risk. “The Federation is making a big mistake for its own interests,” he said. “There are a significant number of Jews who support Israel, and who support the Federations for that matter, but who are slowly being excluded from the established Jewish community in quotation marks because of their position on Israel.”
“B’Tselem and other organizations that are critical of Israel are not trying to hurt Israel,” Sussman added. “They are trying to warn Israel that its practices are possibly unethical, possibly illegal and, in any event, wrong. Not discussing it and excluding those who wish to discuss it from the Jewish community is against their own interest.