Birthright’s Hidden Cost

How Your Free Trip Will Help Israeli Hard Liner Benjamin Netanyahu Become Prime Minister

Everyone knows that the comped martinis at the Venetian casino in Las Vegas aren’t free. Sure, you don’t need to give any cash to the cocktail waitress, but you know your losses will cover the cost of the drinks several times over.

Birthright Israel’s programs are free in roughly the same way. Bear with me here. You knew there was no such thing as a free trip when you signed up for Birthright. You might not have been spending any money, but you understood that in return for a flight, hotels, and food, you were agreeing to sit through hours of propaganda. And just as the gambler doesn’t mind that his poker room martini isn’t as free as it feels, you didn’t mind that Birthright was asking for your attention in return for their gift. You knew what was coming, you contextualized it, and you enjoyed the ride.

It’s my contention that you didn’t know the half of it. The transaction into which the Birthright participant enters is much more complex than simply trading a pair of ears for an experience. Unbeknownst to most participants, a significant amount of the program’s funding comes from a single billionaire donor whose support for hawkish Israeli politicians threatens to derail the peace process. By accepting this man’s money, Birthright forces tens of thousands of unwitting young Jews to stand behind him, implicating a generation in his damaging political adventures.

Which brings us back to the Venetian, one of many properties controlled by the donor in question, gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson. When the Las Vegas Sands Corporation went public in 2004, Adelson became, as he reportedly told President Bush, “the richest Jew in the world.”  In the past four years he has made a series of breathtaking contributions to Jewish philanthropies. The first, a $25 million gift to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, made him the largest individual donor in the history of that institution. He followed up with a series of donations to Birthright that will total $67 million by the end of this year. He supplied a third of Birthright’s operating budget in 2008 and is scheduled to supply a quarter of it in 2009.

In the meantime, Adelson has also been using his wealth to pursue a right-wing political agenda in Israel. In her June 30th  New Yorker profile of Adelson, titled “The Brass Ring,” Connie Bruck shows how he has worked against the two-state solution and has dedicated himself to ousting moderate Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in favor of hard line Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Bruck describes how Adelson launched a free pro-Netanyahu daily newspaper in Israel in August 2007 called Israel Hayom. She writes that some in the Israeli press refer to the paper as Bibi-ton-“Bibi” is Netanyahu’s nickname, “ton” means newspaper-because “many believe it serves as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu.” In a February article posted on the personal blog of the Israeli-American writer Bernard Avishai (bernardavishai.blogspot.com), Avishai draws a distinction between Adelson’s launch of Israel Hayom and international media mogul Conrad Black’s purchase of The Jerusalem Post. While both are perceived to have political agendas, writes Avishai, Black was a “serious newspaper [tycoon] who wanted, among other things, to make fortunes for share-holders. Adelson is a garden-variety American Zionist…And he thinks losing a fortune to support the kind of politician he can understand is no more than his duty.”

In addition to his newspaper, Adelson funds a think tank at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem called the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, which, Bruck writes, is staffed by “Netanyahu allies.” He also has intervened personally in Israeli politics, holding meetings with Olmert’s right-wing Knesset allies after Olmert participated in the November 2007 Annapolis peace talks in an attempt to convince them to leave the governing coalition.

Bruck draws troubling connections between Adelson’s non-partisan philanthropy and his political and ideological activities. She argues that his massive donations to Jewish and Israeli causes have discouraged criticism of his political activities, writing: “[Adelson’s] philanthropy in the last couple of years-and the promise of much more to come-seems to have given him stature, and a kind of immunity.”

In a May column in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, journalist Nahum Barnea critiqued Adelson’s growing influence. Barnea was responding to Adelson’s $3 million donation to Israeli President Shimon Peres’ conference marking the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, a donation that bought Adelson a seat on stage next to Peres. Barnea placed Adelson in the context of foreign philanthropists who, since the days of the Yishuv, have assumed that their contributions to Israel afforded them influence over its government. According to a translation posted online by Daniel Levy of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation, Barnea wrote, “Adelson is a Jew who loves Israel. Like some other Jews who live at a safe distance from here, his love is great, passionate, smothering. It is important to him that he influences the policies, decisions and compositions of Israeli governments. He is not alone in this, either: even back in the days of Baron Rothschild, wealthy Jews from the Diaspora felt that this country lay in their pocket, alongside their wallet…”

Generally, it would be improper to exclude certain donors from a Jewish communal cause like Birthright based on their political activities. But Adelson is different. When he first began giving to Birthright in December 2006, his ambitions to play an outsized role in Israeli politics may not have been clear. By 2008, they undoubtedly were. This year, Birthright took $37 million from Adelson to pay for trips to Israel. In accepting his gift, Birthright conferred upon Adelson the status that comes with shouldering a third of the operating costs of the most universally admired program in the Jewish world. The Birthright executives knew that this might have an effect on how his political activism was received in Israel, which in turn might have an effect on Israel’s political future. All of this happened outside of the sight of the 42,000 young Jews who participated in Birthright in 2008, who found themselves indebted to Adelson, inadvertently bought off by a man who has been accused of trying to buy off the whole country. Like it or not, the young Jews who went on Birthright are implicated in Adelson’s political activities, and by extension in Netanyahu’s political future.

This isn’t a position any young Jew should want to be in. Netanyahu is on the wrong side of history. At a time when former hard liners like Olmert and his predecessor Ariel Sharon have embraced the need to withdraw from the occupied territories, Netanyahu persists in his opposition to a Palestinian state. If elected, he would limit talks with the Palestinians to economic issues, an approach he calls an “economic peace,” and that the Middle East Initiative’s Daniel Levy called “a joke” in an interview on Jewcy.com. Netanyahu has sent mixed signals regarding whether the current round of peace talks would continue if he were elected.

There are, of course, young Jews who attended Birthright who support Netanyahu. This is their right, just as it is Adelson’s. But they, too, should have the opportunity to make conscious decisions about their political activities and not unknowingly support a particular candidate through participation in a supposedly non-partisan program.

So, what should Birthright have done?

Every few years, the Jewish community enters a period of hand-wringing and self-flagellation, when the cognitive dissonance between press accounts of a donor’s malfeasance and the praise heaped on by fundraisers becomes too much to handle. In 1987, after Ivan Boesky was convicted of insider trading, the Jewish Theological Seminary took his name off of the library he had built for them. There has been ongoing concern over the extensive charitable activities of Marc Rich, the billionaire tax fugitive whose pardon in the last days of the Clinton administration was investigated by federal prosecutors, and of Michael Milken, the “junk bond king” who was convicted with Boesky. In a famous Jewish communal kerfuffle, businessman Henry Everett (whose widow is a supporter of this magazine) protested the naming of James S. Tisch to the presidency of the UJA-Federation of New York in 1997, arguing that a tobacco executive like Tisch shouldn’t hold such a position of honor.

The conversations about these donors generally run along predictable lines. Rabbis are interviewed, Pirkei Avot is cited, distinctions are drawn between accepting money and honoring the donor. In the end, everyone feels like their hands are bit cleaner, and nothing changes.

The Adelson gift to Birthright falls in a different class and should be treated differently. Men like Milken and Rich are simply trying to resurrect their reputations when they build the Marc Rich Library at IDC Herzliya or the Milken Community High School in Bel-Air. While the transaction is demeaning to everyone involved, the damage that these men have wrought is far in the past.

In the case of Adelson, his massive support for Birthright has implications for the immediate future. Recent polls show that Netanyahu is leading his rival, moderate Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, as Israel approaches the February 10 national elections.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be sensible to advocate the vetting of the political affiliations and potential motivations of every single donor to every single Jewish nonprofit. Mega-donors like Adelson, however, deserve added scrutiny. Adelson’s donations to Birthright dwarfed the annual contributions of other supporters, including the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency. There is an undeniable trend among super-rich Jewish donors to forgo donations to the Jewish communal institutions which have traditionally funded Jewish life, such as the local Federations, the United Jewish Communities, and the Jewish Agency, in favor of personal projects. In a speech at the Lion of Judah Conference in Jerusalem in November, Israeli entrepreneur Benny Landa elaborated on the rationale for such gifts. “I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with making your donations to a federation or within the federation system,” he said, according to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report. “That’s fine. But if you really want to feel that you are doing something, take a specific project and say this is my mission.”

While these sorts of donors have been behind many of the best recent Jewish communal initiatives, they also represent a hazard. Unchecked by the layers of professional grant makers who staff the Jewish communal institutions, they are free to throw their weight around as they use philanthropies to pursue larger ideological goals.

If the mega-donors are going to exist, the nonpartisan philanthropies that take their money have a deep responsibility to ensure that no ideological baggage is being passed on to unwitting recipients. The bigger the gift the more powerful the symbolism and the greater the hazard.

Birthright’s reliance on Adelson was not only unfair to tens of thousands of young Jews. It was also bad organizational planning. Although some had expected Adelson’s $30 million annual gifts to Birthright to continue in perpetuity, his foundation announced in September that it would only be pledging $20 million for 2009 and $10 million for 2010. Now, speculation is circulating throughout the Jewish world that even those sums are in jeopardy. Like many in the gambling industry, Adelson stands helpless in the clutches of the world economic crisis. He has lost more in the downturn, perhaps, than any other individual: $30 billion since last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. In an interview, Birthright president Jay Golan said that he had no reason to believe that the funds that Adelson had pledged for the next two years would not materialize. Still, the $35 million budget cut that Birthright has enacted since Adelson’s announcement is indicative of its financial outlook.

Birthright will suffer greatly during the economic crisis. Its year to year reliance on Adelson left the organization with very little in the way of cash reserves. Apparently, its strategic plan was to rely on Adelson’s largesse as long as it lasted. Now everyone’s finances are drying up, and Birthright is left with very few options. Perhaps this will serve as a lesson for Jewish organizations in the future. Perhaps not.

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