Adel­son Fund To Fight Cam­pus BDS Falls Far Short of Me­dia Buzz in First Year — but More Promised

Forward Magazine - - News - By Nathan Guttman

Framed as the big­gest Jewish com­mu­nal ef­fort yet to bat­tle anti- Is­rael sen­ti­ments on cam­pus, the Mac­cabee Task Force has ended its first year of work as a mod­est, cau­tious op­er­a­tion.

A more “sober” ap­proach has set in at the task force’s Las Ve­gas head­quar­ters, ac­cord­ing to David Brog, its ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, fol­low­ing ini­tial re­ports in the me­dia and talk among some donors of a $50 mil­lion bud­get.

As things turned out, the fund doled out about $9 mil­lion this past school year to var­i­ous cam­pus groups. And its bud­get, which was ini­tially ex­pected to win sup­port from the com­mu­nity’s big­gest donors, is now re­liant on a sin­gle phi­lan­thropist — Las Ve­gas bil­lion­aire and Repub­li­can fun­der Shel­don Adel­son.

“Those who wanted to see us dump a lot of money could be dis­ap­pointed,” Brog said in an in­ter­view with the For­ward in July. “The head­lines got ahead of re­al­ity.” Brog added: “Fifty mil­lion right away was never Shel­don Adel­son’s model. Our model is to start small, iden­tify what works and build from there.”

This low-key grad­ual ap­proach — seem­ingly in con­trast to the ini­tial spirit of the ini­tia­tive — may ac­tu­ally prove valu­able in as­suag­ing con­cerns voiced by Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions al­ready ac­tive on the cam­pus scene. In the lead-up to the pro­gram’s launch, many of these groups ex­pressed un­ease with a ma­jor new player, flush with cash, step­ping into the al­ready crowded field of pro-Is­rael cam­pus ac­tivism.

“Ev­ery­body an­tic­i­pated a much faster ramp-up,” said a top of­fi­cial at a pro-Is­rael or­ga­ni­za­tion that is also work­ing ac­tively to block anti-Is­rael ef­forts on col­lege cam­puses. “The big sur­prise is how slow it is hap­pen­ing.” The or­ga­ni­za­tional of­fi­cial, who asked not to be named due to the group’s pol­icy of not air­ing dif­fer­ences with other Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions in pub­lic, said that based on MTF’s lim­ited ac­tiv­i­ties this year, “there was noth­ing there that raised con­cerns for us.”

With only a few months to or­ga­nize af­ter its launch in the sum­mer of 2015, MTF con­cen­trated on six Cal­i­for­nia cam­puses with vis­i­ble pro-Pales­tinian ac­tivism dur­ing the past school year.

The group’s roll­out, ac­cord­ing to Brog, be­gan with outreach to groups al­ready work­ing on cam­pus. Af­ter lis­ten­ing to their needs, MTF gave out grants to se­lected ex­ist­ing pro­grams and funded new ini­tia­tives spe­cific to each col­lege’s cir­cum­stances.

“They asked the stu­dents, ‘If you had un­lim­ited re­sources, what would you like to do?’” re­called

Liora Zimer­man, who served as the Jewish Agency for Is­rael fel­low at Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Santa Cruz Hil­lel and col­lab­o­rated with MTF in pro­mot­ing pro-Is­rael pro­grams.

On Zimer­man’s cam­pus, one re­sult of this brain­storm­ing was the “Is­rael Palooza,” cel­e­brat­ing Is­rael’s in­de­pen­dence day with graf­fiti artists and ad­vo­cacy booths funded by MTF.

Rabbi Aaron Lerner, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Hil­lel at UCLA, an­other school where MTF ran its pi­lot pro­gram, de­scribed a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence. “Our stu­dents were in­vited to sug­gest pro­grams to ex­pand aware­ness about Is­rael,” he said, ad­ding that the out­side fund­ing from Adel­son’s group “has helped UCLA Hil­lel grow the pro-Is­rael com­mu­nity on our cam­pus.”

MTF’s most am­bi­tious project is a Birthright­style, all-ex­penses-paid trip to Is­rael for groups of stu­dents, made up pri­mar­ily of non-Jewish cam­pus lead­ers. “There’s pres­sure on these stu­dents not to go be­cause they will be brain­washed,” Brog said. To counter these claims, stu­dents were taken to meet Pales­tini­ans, in­clud­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Ra­mal­lah of the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity, which gov­erns some ar­eas on the West Bank un­der Is­raeli aegis. Tour mem­bers also met, he said, with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of dif­fer­ent points of view within Jewish Is­raeli so­ci­ety.

An­other pro­gram spon­sored by MTF seeks to of­fer a counter-nar­ra­tive to pro-Pales­tinian events

While MTF prom­ises to in­clude all po­lit­i­cal views, it won’t part­ner with the dovish J Street U.

on cam­pus, known on some cam­puses as the “Is­raeli Apartheid Week.” MTF’s polling has found that stu­dents re­spond bet­ter to pos­i­tive mes­sages and are turned off by anger and hate, and there­fore the group framed its events as the “Is­rael Peace Week.” The pro­gram does not en­cour­age stu­dents to seek con­fronta­tion with pro-Pales­tinian peers, but in­stead of­fers free falafel, T-shirts and a mes­sage that “you may not like the Is­raeli pres­ence in the West Bank, and that’s fine, but to put all the blame for it on Is­rael is not,” Brog said.

MTF was launched in June 2015 at a se­cre­tive in­vi­tee-only two-day event hosted by Adel­son at his Vene­tian ho­tel and casino in Las Ve­gas. Stand­ing along­side Adel­son at the launch of the ini­tia­tive was Is­raeli-Amer­i­can Hol­ly­wood bil­lion­aire Haim Sa­ban. Among the in­vi­tees were rep­re­sen­ta­tives of some 50 Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions as well as ma­jor Jewish donors. The lat­ter were in­vited to a “megaphi­lan­thropists ses­sion,” at which open­ing pledge min­i­mums were set at $1 mil­lion.

Within months, fric­tion be­tween the staunch Repub­li­can Adel­son, who is set to be Don­ald Trump’s largest con­trib­u­tor this year, and Sa­ban, a friend and top donor to Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton, led Sa­ban to with­draw from the project. Other mega-donors also chose not to take part in the ini­tia­tive, leav­ing Adel­son as the prime sponsor.

A year af­ter its launch, the group, which is reg­is­tered as a tax-de­ductible char­ity un­der the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Code, is still re­luc­tant to pro­vide full in­for­ma­tion about its fi­nances and the scope of its ac­tiv­ity. Brog said MTF’s bud­get in its first year of op­er­a­tion was “un­der $10 mil­lion, maybe un­der $9 mil­lion.” He de­clined to name all six Cal­i­for­nia cam­puses on which the group had op­er­ated in the past school year.

MTF’s first-year tax re­turn, which would of­fer pre­cise in­for­ma­tion on this, is not yet avail­able pub­licly.

In mak­ing its fund­ing choices, MTF fo­cused on lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Spar­tans for Is­rael, in San Jose; Bru­ins for Is­rael, at UCLA; Stu­dents Sup­port­ing Is­rael; lo­cal Chabad cam­pus groups; Al­pha Ep­silon Pi fra­ter­ni­ties; Chris­tians United for Is­rael and sev­eral cam­pus Hil­lel groups. Na­tional Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as Hil­lel In­ter­na­tional, were not con­sid­ered for sup­port, at least at this stage.

Brog stated that MTF sur­prised its part­ners “when they saw we did not come with ide­o­log­i­cal bag­gage.” Adel­son re­jects a two-state so­lu­tion to Is­rael’s con­flict with the Pales­tini­ans and oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank, and gen­er­ally op­poses Is­raeli ter­ri­to­rial con­ces­sions. But Brog stressed that Adel­son did not ask to im­pose his po­lit­i­cal views on groups MTF in­tends to part­ner with.

Nev­er­the­less, MTF still up­holds a pol­icy of re­fus­ing to part­ner with J Street U, the cam­pus arm of the dovish pro-Is­rael lobby, which op­poses boy­cotts of Is­rael but is openly crit­i­cal of its poli­cies toward the Pales­tini­ans.

“There is no rea­son we should take po­si­tions to di­vide the com­mu­nity,” Brog said. For MTF, this means try­ing to counter the pro-Pales­tinian nar­ra­tive on cam­pus. When the ques­tion of Is­rael’s oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank comes up, Brog said he re­sponds that “this is a sim­plis­tic ap­proach that ig­nores the re­al­ity of re­peated of­fers made by Is­rael and re­jected by the Pales­tini­ans.”

MTF’s prom­ise of rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the anti-BDS field has evolved into a sin­gle-fun­der op­er­a­tion tak­ing baby steps toward be­com­ing a player on the al­ready packed pro-Is­rael cam­pus field.

Brog said that his group now has a “tried and tested ac­tion plan” that will al­low it to ex­pand to 20 cam­puses this fall. MTF will also try this com­ing school year to broaden its fi­nan­cial sup­port base by so­lic­it­ing other donors rather than re­ly­ing ex­clu­sively on Adel­son, its founder.

GETTY IM­AGES

Big Mac: De­spite a “mega-phi­lan­thropists” ses­sion held at its 2015 launch to at­tract donors, the Mac­cabee Task Force re­lies so­ley on the sup­port of casino mogul Shel­don Adel­son.

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