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Donors withdraw millions in support for controversial programme whitewashing Israeli crime

Founder, Chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam Ochsorn on January 28, 2020 in Washington, DC [Alex Wong/Getty Images]
Founder, Chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam Ochsorn on January 28, 2020 in Washington, DC [Alex Wong/Getty Images]

One of Israel's most successful initiatives peddling state propaganda has suffered a major blow following the decision by major donor, the Adelson Family Foundation, to pull millions of pounds from the "Birthright" Israel programme. The highly controversial initiative offers all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for 18–26-year-old Jews. Since its inception in 1999, close to a million young Jewish adults have visited the Occupation State through the programme. Critics slam "Birthright" because of its racist anti-Palestine messaging and for spreading Israeli propaganda to new generations of Jews in the Diaspora.

According to figures obtained by Haaretz, the Adelson Family Foundation – the single largest donor to "Birthright" over the past 15 years – has reduced its annual gift to the programme from an average of $35 million to $40 million, to just $20 million in 2022. It has also notified the programme directors that its annual gift for 2023 will be only half that sum – $10 million. Contrasted with the 2018 figures when the Adelson Foundation donated some $70 million, the drop in pledge for the coming year is even more significant.

Established in 2007 by Republican Party mega-donor, Sheldon Adelson and wife Miriam Adelson, the Foundation has contributed an estimated half a billion dollars to "Birthright" over the decades. Adelson, a major funder of the US Republican Party and supporter of both Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, died last year in Malibu, California, aged 87. During the 2016 US election, the casino magnate gave $82 million toward Trump's and other Republican campaigns, more than three times the next largest individual donor.

OPINION: The quiet rebellion of US Jews turning against Israel is good for Palestinians

The decline in financial aid by the Adelson Family Foundation reflects a general dip in support by donors to the "Birthright" programme. Altogether Birthright's budget next year which, according to estimates, is made up of donations by around 35,000 individual donors, is expected to total just over $100 million – a 25 per cent drop from this year.

Rising cost is said to be one reason for the sharp decline in donation. "The significant cost increases of our program mean that we will not be able to accommodate as many applicants in the coming years, and we know that those who miss out on a "Birthright" trip are unlikely to travel to Israel at all," Birthright Israel CEO, Gidi Mark, is reported saying.

Mark went on to warn of the impact on relations between Israel and American Jews due to the sharp decline.  "There has never been a more critical need for Birthright Israel than now," he added. "Without a major immediate increase in fundraising, we will be hard-pressed to have the positive effect we've had on many individuals – and that will inevitably impact American Jewish organisations that are used to seeing enthusiastic young adults return from Israel and take major roles in the Jewish community."

The news is likely to be welcomed by critics of "Birthright", who are increasingly vocal about its whitewashing of Israel's human rights abuse. Increasing numbers of young Americans are questioning the motives behind the all-expense paid trip to a country which human rights group have labelled an apartheid state. American magazine, Jewish Currents, raised ethical questions around "Birthright", describing the programme as one of the most effective propaganda campaigns on behalf of the Israeli government and its Occupation of the Palestinian Territories. It stressed that American Jews committed to ending Israel's Occupation, broadly agrees that "Birthright" is a problem, but there is no consensus on how to address it. "Should young Jews go on alternative trips for a more balanced perspective?" the magazine asked.

"Birthright" tours, which are partly funded by the Israeli government, have become a rite of passage for American Jews. Those opposed to the programme say that its existence perpetuates racism against Palestinians, not to mention its spread of misinformation about how Israel came to be. In 2019, progressive American Jewish group, J Street, launched "Birthright" alternative, featuring a "Occupation 101" tour. Billed as the first of its kind, the tour aimed to provide a view of Israel that did not erase Palestinians and the brutal military Occupation under which they live. During the launch, J Street said that, by omitting Palestinian perspectives, "Birthright" trips create "a political environment that allows home demolitions, settlement expansion, and other destructive policies of Occupation to continue unchallenged".

Others have pointed to the inherent racism of the "Birthright" programme. Asking why Birthright is controversial, Leila Ettachfini, Associate editor of the Vice said that "the issue begins with the organisation's name and the premise upon which the entire program was built". The assertion is that by birth, Jews across the world have the right to visit Israel, despite having no familial connections to the territory. This right is not extended to non-Jews that have been ethnically cleansed from Historic Palestine, even though they have centuries of direct unbroken connection to their ancestral land.

Nakba Day 1948 - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Nakba Day 1948 – Cartoon [Carlos Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

"Birthright" mirrors Israel's Law of Return. This law grants all Jews, regardless of where they were born, the right to settle and eventually become citizens of Israel. The racist implication of the Law of Return means that a Palestinian born in the city of Haifa in 1945, who was displaced by Zionist militias in 1947/1948, would not be allowed to return to Haifa today, but a Jewish person from Michigan whose family has never stepped foot in or near Haifa, can be invited for free via "Birthright" Israel.

Jewish activists have protested "Birthright", saying the trips erase the experiences of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living under Occupation in the West Bank. Their protests highlight the growing unease among many young American Jews over Israel's policies, and further reflect the general trend of American Jews growing more estranged from the Occupation State.  The sign of this schism is evident in the "unprecedented" decline in the number of Americans going on "Birthright" trips. One explanation for the downturn is said to be the well-documented fact that young American Jews are growing increasingly disengaged from Israel, and have less and less interest in visiting the country  – even when the trips are free.

When I predicted last year that "the already 'messy break-up' of American Jews over Israel is getting messier", I did not expect the schism triggered by the rise of Israel's far right to become as deep as it has in such a short period of time. Perhaps a decline in donation to a controversial programme that erases non-Jews from the story of historic Palestine is the strongest indication yet that Israel's most loyal supporters are re-examining their support for the apartheid state.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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