Last month we experienced an important moment in the history of the American Jewish community — yet almost no one knew about it. An unprecedented, broad coalition including the Reform and Conservative movements and the Labor movement passed a resolution at the World Zionist Congress insisting on full financial transparency from major institutions operating in Israel — the Jewish Agency, the KKL, and the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in particular. The global Jewish community sent a clear message: knowing how, where, and why our funds are spent in Israel is a vital part of being Zionist and reaffirming our Jewish and democratic values.
The resolution itself arose in part out of a deep concern over the operations of institutions like the WZO’s settlement division. The settlement division is a powerful body that has been known to be plagued by corruption and to funnel vast funds into the settlement movement over the Green Line in the West Bank — at the expense of underdeveloped and struggling communities in Israel’s periphery. Eighty-three percent of American Jews believe that settlements are an obstacle to the two-state solution, and many are growing tired of obscure and unaccountable groups entrenching them in the name of world Zionism.
We have already seen how a lack of transparency can deeply entrench dangerous facts on the ground that impede progress towards two states. Last summer, J Street U leaders took a tour of the Jewish settlement Hebron, led by the Hebron Fund, an organization that supports a large portion of the settlement’s maintenance. This organization also funds violent settler groups that carry out “price-tag” attacks against Palestinians. While on that tour, our colleagues learned — from the tour guide no less — that the Hebron Fund receives significant support from prominent Jewish funders in major American cities, like Chicago.
This is shocking. A deeply divided city, Hebron has been a flashpoint for decades and during the current round of terrorism and violence. It is home to some of the most disturbing imagery of the occupation. Supporting Jewish extremism in the city does not help.
Undoubtedly, the majority of American Jews, who oppose violence and generally believe settlements are an obstacle to peace, would not willingly fund an organization that contributes to violence and helps sustain a controversial settlement. But when we have asked both national and local communal leaders about these practices, most simply didn’t know where that money was going. Without transparency, many have no idea what they may be supporting.
We found these revelations to be deeply troubling. So do many of the communal officials who we have spoken with. Last month, over 70 students gathered in Washington for a weekend to discuss this issue, and held a conversation with Liza Levy, past president and current board member of the Washington, DC Jewish Federation.
Several students shared with Ms. Levy their personal stories of how a lack of transparency in the Jewish community had negatively affected their relationship to Israel. Many felt alienated because their communities had taken steps, either explicitly or unwittingly, to support the settlement enterprise and, consequently, to undermine the two-state solution. We were grateful and excited to hear Ms. Levy respond proactively, agreeing to work with us as we seek transparency and clarity from our communities about their funding practices. She supported transparency as a “no-brainer,” and agreed to set up a meeting between J Street U leaders and Steve Rakitt, the current CEO of the Greater Washington Jewish Federation, to continue the discussion.
The actions and decisions of leaders like Ms. Levy are incredibly important for the future of the Jewish community in America and in Israel. More leaders need to make the choice to take action and reverse patterns of silence, opacity, and irresponsibility. We need allies like the Reform and Conservative movements, and all those who believe in transparency and accountability from their institutions. We need to bring the lessons of the WZC home.
We cannot support a two-state solution while taking steps that undermine it. We cannot secure Israel’s borders and future while prolonging the occupation. We cannot simply say, “I don’t know” when asked where our money goes. It’s time to take responsibility for our actions — and take control of our future.
This post was co-authored by Brooke Davies, a junior at UNC Chapel Hill and the communications co-chair for J Street U.