Campus groups press anti-Israel message with seemingly little money, but gain leverage with allies. A Special Report.
The arts district along Mamaroneck Avenue in downtown White Plains is something of a cultural hub in Westchester County. Special blue street signs — Arts Ave., they read — and colorful flags give the area the feel of a historic district, anchored by ArtsWestchester’s handsome brick headquarters.
There, on the fourth floor of 31 Mamaroneck Ave., is the office of a group that is far more interested in politics than arts. And controversial politics, at that.
Suite 403 houses the nonprofit group WESPAC Foundation, and its location in an arts-rich area belies its role as one of the key conduits in a mysterious network that helps to fuel the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.
That movement, with arms reaching from the Palestinian territories to the major cities of Europe to the college quad near you, is roiling American college campuses, tormenting Jewish students and rapidly becoming a focus of attention, and money, in the Jewish community. The Jewish National Fund, one of the Jewish community’s largest organizations, recently announced $100 million for an Israel advocacy center to help students fight BDS. And billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — in a lavish rollout in June in his hometown of Las Vegas — recently pledged $50 million to combat BDS activities on campuses around the country.
Despite the communal money being thrown at the BDS problem, and despite the headlines it has garnered around the world, little is known about how the movement gets its domestic funding. A month-long investigation by The Jewish Week reveals an opaque funding picture complicated by the fact that the main campus BDS group — Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — is not a registered charity and does not have to report its funding to the Internal Revenue Service, and that university money flowing to BDS campus groups through student fees is anything but transparent.
“Funding sources for campus groups are not subject to any disclosure requirements” (unless they are imposed by the individual universities at which the groups are operating), noted Benjamin Ryberg of the Lawfare Project, which tracks what it calls “the politicization of human rights.” Most of the identifiable resources for student groups such as SJP and MSA [Muslim Student Association] come from student funds distributed by the student government or another campus agency. Typically, they need only present a request with a budget reflecting their needs; they do not have to document any additional expenses or revenues.
But WESPAC, nestled in Westchester’s arts district, provides a window into how the BDS movement gets funded. It is one of a handful of groups that helps fund SJP, which carries out the wider BDS movement’s goal of criticizing Israeli policy in the West Bank, delegitimizing Israel through economic and academic boycotts and attacking its assertion that it is committed to democratic values. SJP and its supporters specialize in attention-grabbing guerrilla theater tactics that include “die-ins” (depicting civilian deaths in most recent war in Gaza), creating mock checkpoints (akin to those between Israel and the West Bank) and distributing “eviction” in dormitories (to highlight those Israeli officials place on Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem).
All of it — including Israel Apartheid Week, anti-Israel resolutions and SJP’s annual national conference, which has attracted such Israel detractors as Noam Chomsky and Anna Baltzer — has served to unnerve Jewish students on campuses around the country, though BDS forces have had few tangible victories and the movement has sparked a fierce backlash in Congress and in a number of state legislatures. BDS supporters say their actions constitute legitimate criticism of Israel; many Jewish leaders say the movement is an anti-Semitic front for those who deny the right of Israel to exist.
Officials at one Israel-advocacy group, StandWithUs, estimate that between student fees and other outside funding, money flowing into BDS efforts on campus amounts to “many millions of dollars.” But such a tally is hard to pin down with any specificity, and the available data suggests such estimates are vastly inflated.
One reason it is difficult to track funding to the BDS campaign is that there is no central coordinating organization. The “national” SJP is not a 501(c)(3) and exists solely on paper and the Internet. It raises money through WESPAC, which accepts donations on the national SJP’s behalf.
According to its Facebook page, “WESPAC has been a leading force for progressive social change in Westchester County, New York, since 1974. We have been educating, agitating and organizing for a more just and peaceful world, an end to militarism and racism and a more fair economy that works for all. Our members are currently involved with food justice work, anti-fracking/anti-nuclear and pro-safe energy, solidarity with Indigenous Peoples, an end to militarism and drone warfare and a just resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.”
WESPAC organizes and participates in activities that are unrelated to the conflict, but Israel is nevertheless often dragged into the discussion. For example, on Dec. 22, 2014, WESPAC urged people to join a protest against police brutality where speakers “will make connections of how everything is connected such as farm lands being converted into prisons or the connection of Gaza and Ferguson or the abuses endured by immigrants at the borders.”
Several days later WESPAC participated in another march protesting the 2014 Ferguson incident, in which an unarmed African-American teenager was killed by police. People were invited to come early to join WESPAC members calling for a boycott of Soda Stream, the popular soda-machine maker that is poised to move its plant out of the West Bank, and demand an end to “the Occupation of Palestinian land.” (In a recent interview with the Associated Press, the company’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, blasted the BDS movement, saying, “SodaStream should have been encouraged in the West Bank if [the BDS movement] truly cared about the Palestinian people.”) WESPAC has also sponsored anti-Israel advertisements in New York City subways, such as one calling for a cutoff of military aid to the Jewish state.
Nada Khader, a Palestinian and formerly a consultant for the UN Development Program in the Gaza Strip, has been the executive director of WESPAC since 2001. Under her leadership, WESPAC has shown a great interest in Palestinian issues and aligned itself with like-minded groups such as SJP and Adalah-NY. Khader has also spoken at their events.
Financial reports do not disclose how much money WESPAC collects and distributes for SJP. Donations are designated for SJP so they should be recorded as restricted funds in their accounts; however, their tax filing only lists general categories of expenses. For example, in 2013, WESPAC spent $54,000 on conferences, donated $7,500 and provided $16,000 for honoraria, but none of this is identified as being spent for SJP activities.
WESPAC also collects money for The Palestine Freedom Project, which sponsors workshops, provides a list of companies for BDSers to target for “profiting from the Occupation,” publishes activist handbooks and coordinates a speakers bureau featuring anti-Israel all-stars such as Ali Abunimah, Baltzer, Max Blumenthal, Richard Falk and Jeff Halper.
WESPAC has also received money from the Cultures of Resistance Network Foundation run by Iara Lee. She is probably best known for some of the only footage captured while trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza on the Mavi Marmara ship. In 2011, her foundation gave $2,000 to WESPAC earmarked for funding that year’s SJP conference. In 2012, WESPAC received $3,000 for the “BDS-National Coalition.” Its most recent tax filing (2013) reports an unspecified $8,000 grant to WESPAC, at least some of which is likely BDS related based on the prior two years’ grants. The foundation also directly supports BDS proponents such as Al-Adwa and CodePink.
A soft-spoken woman, Khader told The Jewish Week in a phone interview that there are different understandings of BDS and that she sees it as a peaceful way to pressure Israel to end the occupation. Asked to respond to a quote from As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor at California State University Stanislaus, in which he said, “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel. ... Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the state of Israel,” Khader insisted that no one at WESPAC held that point of view.
WESPAC, she says, “tries to serve as a bridge for civil discussion” of the issues of Israel/Palestine and, for example, works with local synagogues that are committed to a civil discussion of the issues. Khader also said that WESPAC has members who support BDS and others who do not. When asked if the latter object to WESPAC’s support of SJP, she said, “They understand the organization’s historical support for radical organizing.”
In addition to WESPAC, another domestic nonprofit that supports pro-BDS organizations is the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, which says it “actively promotes change toward a healthy society, one which is founded on principles of social justice, broadly shared economic opportunity, a robust democratic process, and sustainable environmental practices.”
Tides administers donor-advised funds. Several of its funders (who are not identified in tax records) supported the following organizations directly or indirectly involved in promoting BDS in 2013-14: Jewish Voice for Peace ($13,421); Palestinian Legal Solidarity Support ($20,000); Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice ($5,000); Code Pink for Women for Peace ($5,000); and American Friends Service Committee ($12,500).
Tides is peculiar because a number of its donor-advised funds also support pro-Israel groups such as the University of Washington Hillel, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the National Council of Young Israel. AJC’s Executive Director David Harris explained, “one donor to AJC in 2015 has recommended a grant to AJC through their donor-advised fund at the Tides Foundation. AJC has no control over the grant recommendations of individual donors and family foundations who choose to give through this Foundation.”
According to the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), one of Tides’ beneficiaries, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), is involved in promoting Israel denial through BDS summer camps and the employment of a full-time professional dedicated to campus issues such as advocating BDS. Quakers have been one of the most virulently anti-Israel denominations for decades, and this hostility is trickling down to their colleges as Guilford College and Earlham College have become “hotbeds of anti-Israel activity.” This year, for example, Earlham adopted a divestment resolution.
SJP also gets free assistance, according to the ICC, from the National Campus BDS Support Team, which it describes as “a group of professionals from various anti-Israel organizations tasked with aiding campus BDS campaigns.” This allows several groups to “pool” their campus resources in one place.
In addition to WESPAC and Tides, a variety of organizations have sponsored SJP events and support BDS campus activities. American Muslims for Peace (AMP), for instance, is described by the Anti-Defamation League as “the leading organization providing anti-Zionist training to students and Muslim community organizations in the U.S.”
For those in the Jewish community fighting the BDS movement, many see as most problematic the fast-growing Jewish Voice For Peace (JVP), which agitates against the Israeli government and supports the BDS movement.
JVP allows BDS to claim it has Jewish support, when in fact members of JVP are seen on the fringe of the Jewish community and their position conflicts with that of 61 international Jewish organizations from across the religious and political spectrum that signed a statement opposing BDS. For instance, the group’s leader, Rebecca Vilkomerson, has stated on numerous occasions that the group is “agnostic” on the idea of a two-state solution. That is taken by most Jewish leaders as code for a binational state, one that would essentially rob Israel of its Jewish character.
While JVP is clearly outside the pro-Israel tent, as it is defined by the organized Jewish community, the group’s budget has been growing rapidly. According to its tax filings, contributions have increased from about $280,000 in 2008 to $1.5 million in 2012. In 2012, their program expenses were only $170,000, most of which went to their own programming. The group claimed victory recently when the Presbyterian Church (USA) narrowly passed an Israel divestment resolution at its 2014 annual convention, a position for which JVP members had lobbied. (That vote came into question this month when a group of Presbyterians claimed that it was essentially rigged by pro-divestment forces.)
Money, from JVP and others, is flowing to the campus for BDS activities, but the amounts, at least those that are visible, appear relatively trivial; this is especially true when compared to the investments of the pro-Israel community, which are growing following the announcement of plans by the Israeli government and American philanthropists to spend tens of millions of dollars to preempt, deter and defeat BDS campaigns.
Here is a sample of the student funds provided to SJP in the 2014-15 school year from some of the more challenging campuses:
University of California, San Diego: $1,479
University of California, Berkeley: $600
University of California, Los Angeles: $267
University of New Mexico: $1,151
University of California, Riverside: $1,093
San Diego State University: $800
University of California, Irvine: $600
University of Michigan: $900
The main activity of the national SJP is to organize national conferences, starting with Columbia in 2011, followed by Michigan, Stanford and Tufts. To give a sense of the budget for the SJP conference, in 2012, the fundraising goal was $25,000 and, as of the day before the meeting, they had raised $20,000. The endorsements for these conferences reads like a “Who’s Who” of Israel’s detractors, including Ilan Pappe, Hatem Bazian, Omar Barghouti, Ali Abunimah, Cornell West and Norman Finkelstein. (The Jewish Week reached out to a member of the National SJP Conference Organizing Committee, Hanna Alshaikh, but did not receive a response.)
It does not appear that the national SJP has the resources to fund SJP chapters, and there is no evidence that it coordinates them; what it can offer at the conferences is training and guidance for chapter leaders on BDS activities. At Tufts, for example, sessions were held on the history and tactics of the BDS movement, “Best Practices: How to Do Divestment and Deal with Backlash,” and “Bursting the Campus Bubble: Learning From BDS Campaigns Beyond Campus Divestment Resolutions.” Attendance at these meetings has reportedly ranged between 150-450 students. By comparison, AIPAC attracts more than 1,000 students to its annual conference.
Yet, to a far greater degree than pro-Israel groups, SJP has succeeded in magnifying its support by developing allies. According to Max Samarov and Brett Cohen of StandWithUs, the Israel advocacy group’s senior researcher and executive director of campus affairs, respectively, “SJP’s calls to action offer their audience an opportunity for emotional gratification and allows the group to effectively connect with important minority and political organizations. By aligning with other popular liberal causes, SJP has succeeded in building coalitions with ‘progressive’ organizations to push the BDS campaign.”
Stanford is a good case study. Earlier this year, BDS advocates marshaled a coalition of 19 student groups including the Black Student Union, MEChA (the Hispanic organization), and Stanford Students for Queer Liberation. In addition, nine Jewish students signed a separate statement of support. The BDS vote, which took place in February, was defeated by one vote, but the Senate chair, Ana Ordoñez, told the Stanford Daily she called for a re-vote because “she was unable to focus because much of her energy was spent on trying to maintain [order in] the room.” Other senators complained about the hostile environment during the debate. When Ordoñez made her closing remarks, she was in tears. “Now that the noise has subsided, I know that I voted incorrectly,” Ordoñez said.
The motion was then reconsidered; the two senators who had originally abstained and voted no, changed their votes to a “yes” and “abstain,” allowing the measure to pass 10-4 with one abstention. The person who changed their vote from no to abstain was Jewish.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, SJP has created regional coalitions that work together on specific projects. SJP West has probably been the most active, mobilizing students from different campuses, for example, to support the divestment vote at UCLA in 2014. Midwest chapters have organized a regional conference in Chicago.
The mere presence of an SJP chapter does not mean a given campus has an atmosphere that feels hostile to Israel. For example, the University of Georgia SJP did not have a single anti-Israel-event last year; they were all cultural. Out of approximately 150 SJP chapters, less than 1 in 5 sponsored a divestment resolution. This is not surprising when you consider that most have little money and few members.
While claiming a number of “victories,” such as student government resolutions and academic association calls for boycotts, Taher Herzallah, national campus coordinator of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), shares the view of most BDS supporters that even when they lose they win because they are focusing the agenda on Israel’s alleged failings. “Even if resolutions don’t pass,” Herzallah said, “the general campus population is learning a great deal about the realities on the ground.”
What concerns the pro-Israel community is that the SJP version of “realities on the ground” is biasing students against Israel. Without an effective response, they fear the American public and its future leaders will question whether Israel is a democracy that respects human rights, and a reliable ally of the United States.
That battle for the hearts and minds of college students when it comes to Israel, and what kind of country it is, plays out on campuses large and small. Melanie Goldberg was on the front lines of that battle for four years at Brooklyn College, a hotbed of pro-Palestinian activity. The fight took its toll on her.
“I didn’t mind being a face for Israel on campus, but I was continually harassed,” said Goldberg, currently a student at Cardozo Law School. She said she would receive threatening Facebook messages, emails, texts and phone calls from SJP members with such messages as “watch your back” and “we know what you’re doing” and advising her not to go to certain places on campus.
Today, SJP at Brooklyn College, like many such chapters, receives funding from the student government and often runs events with several hundred attendees. Whether or not the chapter receives additional external funding, Goldberg isn’t sure. But in a sign that she’s still in the fight, and one that will likely please pro-Israel leaders, she says she has begun researching the topic.
Staff writer Hannah Dreyfus contributed reporting.
Mitchell Bard is the executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and the director of the Jewish Virtual Library. The former editor of AIPAC’s weekly newsletter, the Near East Report, Bard is the author of 23 books, including, most recently, “Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews,” (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). This story was made possible by The Jewish Week investigative fund.
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