JCF says it does not fund Israel government

In an effort to distance itself from the political travails of the Netanyahu government, the JCF has sent a letter to top donors explicitly stating that the federation "does not fund the Israeli government."

According to the JCF's president, Alan Rothenberg, who wrote and signed the three-page letter, the correspondence comes in response to contributors' deep concern about threats to religious pluralism and, to a lesser extent, stalls in the peace process.

"I have received numerous calls from JCF donors with mixed emotions about current events in Israel," Rothenberg writes. "Every day we seem to be inundated with news stories about Israel that make us shake our heads and wonder if this is the same land of milk and honey that we looked to with such pride as our spiritual and moral compass."

With such ambivalence as a backdrop, some donors, the letter says, find themselves asking: "Am I supporting the Israeli government or funding people in need?"

In the letter, Rothenberg attempts to answer that question by explaining that the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation has never directly funded the Israeli government. Rather, its money goes — via the United Jewish Appeal — to support the work of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nongovernmental institution whose activities include helping Jews from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere resettle in the Jewish state.

"At the end of the day, [donors'] money is going to some poor immigrant and not to Bibi Netanyahu's au pair," the JCF president said in an interview last week.

The letter, dated Dec. 9, was sent to some 2,000 donors who contribute $1,000 or more to the federation's annual campaign.

It only went to that group of donors, Rothenberg said, because "we decided we have a better sense of who our larger donors are and where their emotions and politics come down."

Fred Blum was among those who received the letter.

A San Francisco attorney and past president of the American Jewish Congress, he has contributed to the JCF for more than 10 years. This year, he plans to cut his donation by 35 percent, which is the amount of each federation dollar that goes overseas. He will request that the remainder of his contribution be earmarked for domestic purposes only.

"I don't know any other way to express what I'm feeling about the way the government of Israeli is moving," Blum said. "The issue of pluralism is the tree that broke the camel's back. It's not a straw. It's a tree. As a Jew, I have more rights in Turkey than I do in Israel.

"You add to this what's going on in the peace process and basically — enough's enough."

Blum understands the Jewish Agency is separate from the Israeli government. But he believes money given to the agency frees the government to spend tax dollars in ways that could erode religious pluralism.

Were the government pinched, "maybe there'd be a little less money to give to an Orthodox Jewish day school," he reasoned.

Rothenberg believes Blum is in the minority in decreasing his federation donation. "Last year our campaign went up," he said, citing as one reason the federation's decision to reallocate some of its United Jewish Appeal gift to independent efforts that promote tolerance and religious pluralism.

"A number of people, new donors or [those who] increased gifts, pointed to that," he said of the 1997 campaign, which raised $19.8 million.

According to the Dec. 9 letter, the JCF last year allocated nearly $1 million to projects that promote tolerance and religious pluralism, as well as coexistence and peace. Those include:

*The Pelech School, a centrist Orthodox high school in Jerusalem that brings together young women students of all streams in an environment encouraging democracy, tolerance and mutual respect.

*A program that brings together secular kibbutzniks from Israel's north and religious settlers from Pisagot near the Arab village of Ramallah. They get to know one another through a four-day summer camp for teenagers, as well as field trips and family home visits.

*A project that three times a year brings together children and teachers from an elementary school in Raja, an Arab village on the Lebanese border, with their counterparts from Kiryat Shmona's Tel Hai.

"I just wanted people to view federation as part of the solution and not as somehow an extension of the problem," Rothenberg said.

The JCF here is not the first federation to explicitly state that it does not fund the Israeli government, according to Bernie Moscovitz, executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal in New York.

Some have done so solely to combat basic misinformation about how federation funds sift down, he said, adding that the disclaimer makes sense no matter what the political climate.

"I think we should always make it clear what it is we fund, he said. "It would be a terrible mistake [even] in the best of times for people to think we funded the Israeli government. We never have and we never will."

The JCF's recent letter of clarification is mild compared to the stance some other federations are taking amid donor concern.

"There are communities who've wondered if they should mention Israel at all," Moscovitz said. "They have donors who don't want to hear the word."

Moscovitz finds that stance "personally distasteful." But he understands it, nonetheless.

"When one is angry about whatever one believes and can't get satisfaction by going and banging on the door of the government of Israel, it's natural for federation and UJA to become a focal point, if not a battleground," he said.

Israeli Consul General Daniel Shek is aware that donors have expressed concerns to federation. Some of those same people have repeated their uneasiness to him.

"My message is very clear to them," he said. "Regardless of their feelings and hesitations, I think it should in no way interfere with their basic support for Israel, be it financial or otherwise."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.