Pro-Israel Donor Influence as an Antisemitic Trope

Is pointing out an institution’s large pro-Israel donors — without reference to their Jewishness — invoking an antisemitic trope?

Peter Beinart once wrote that in the American Jewish community, the two-state solution is infinitely elastic – as long as the Israeli government pays lip service to it, then we’re fine, no matter how implausible the borders get due to new settlements. In the wake of former Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth’s loss/reinstatement of a Harvard Kennedy School fellowship, I have wondered if certain antisemitic tropes are also infinitely elastic, as it seems they can be stretched very far when using accusations thereof as a cudgel.

If you would like background, here’s what happened as reported in the Nation, who first broke the story.

  • The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government contacted Kenneth Roth and asked if he would like to become a senior fellow. Roth was retiring from his decades-long tenure at Human Rights Watch, and Roth spoke with leaders of the Carr Center who created a formal proposal for his fellowship. 
  • Roth later spoke with the dean of JFK, Doug Elmendorf. Elmendorf was expected to sign off on the fellowship. This was seen as pro forma, and Roth expected no issues.
  • However, two weeks after their conversation, Elmendorf told the Carr Center that he was not going to approve Roth’s fellowship. 
  • Prof. Kathryn Sikkink, who has worked at the Carr Center for nine years, claims that Elmendorf told her that Roth didn’t get the fellowship because Human Rights Watch under Roth had an “anti-Israel bias.” Sikkink added in an email to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The point wasn’t so much that Doug Elmendorf thought that, but that ‘some people in the university’ who mattered to him did.”
  • After the news broke, hundreds of Harvard students and alumni signed a petition calling for Elmendorf to resign, the ACLU and FIRE spoke out, there was generally a backlash. Roth wrote an op-ed in The Guardian with his side of the story, calling for more transparency in Elmendorf’s decision.
  • As of today, Harvard has offered Roth the fellowship again.

This situation, of course, has had a nice wave of Jewish intracommunal discourse! A couple of examples:

Just because something looks like an antisemitic trope when you squint (or sometimes even when you don’t), it doesn’t mean that antisemitism is necessarily in play.

In this case, Roth had good reason to suspect that his human rights work in Israel-Palestine had interfered with the formality of getting the dean’s approval for his fellowship. A professor at the Carr Center (Prof. Kathryn Sikkink) claims she was told by Elmendorf himself that “anti-Israel bias” of Human Rights Watch was the reason. And as documented in the Nation’s report, the Kennedy School has large pro-Israel donors, one of whom established a fellowship program for Israelis. (By contrast, “[t]he Palestinian presence at the Kennedy School is sparse and discussion of the Israel-Palestine issue fleeting.”) Roth wasn’t “blaming a Jewish conspiracy.” Speculating with basis that pro-Israel donors exert political influence over institutions to which they donate, and publicly calling for increased transparency, is… applying basic rules of politics.

And of course, at no point did Roth say Kennedy School donors were Jewish, simply that they were “big supporters of Israel.” (The words “Jewish” or “Zionist” appear nowhere in his Guardian op-ed.) Roth could have written the same op-ed if it were committed Christian Zionists who were large donors – if, instead of Leslie Wexner and Robert Belfer, it were John Hagee and Mike Pompeo. Does simply pointing out large pro-Israel donors, without mentioning their Jewishness, qualify as an antisemitic trope? I don’t think so. But as is frequently the case, it’s the pro-Israel crowd who conflate Jews with Israel. 

Still, we can observe that many pro-Israel philanthropists in the United States are in fact Jewish. For those of us who support Palestinian human rights, we need to ask ourselves: how do we critique their political activities without propagating antisemitism? Under what circumstances is drawing attention to a (Jewish) pro-Israel philanthropist’s activities invoking an antisemitic trope? Is it possible that some Jews (including Jewish leaders) will always consider any discussion of Jews, money, and power to be antisemitic? How much do these discussions actually contribute to antisemitic attitudes and material harm to Jewish communities? And many more questions. 

For our part, it’s important to articulate clearly and repeat regularly: the idea that Jews can’t exert power or money or influence to further their/our own political interests is bullshit. It is, dare I say it, peak
golus mindset. Jews can behave just like other humans, and because antisemitic tropes can be as vague as “uses money to exert influence” — yeah, Jews sometimes behave in ways that align with certain antisemitic tropes. Are we just… not supposed to criticize Jews in positions of power for doing Normal Political Power Games because an internet Nazi might be watching? 

Of course, that doesn’t mean people don’t unknowingly consume – and repeat – antisemitic tropes, and public figures do sometimes repeat these tropes in ways that hurt the Jewish community. It’s important to continue education on this front.1 But perhaps it is time to dial down the sensitivity level for crying “trope!”, particularly in matters related to Israel (an actual country with actual political interests) and before looking at the facts of a situation.

Weirdly, it feels like certain Jewish journalists and communal leaders have turned antisemitic tropes on their head. Antisemites throughout the ages have created stories blaming Jews for various societal ills. Jewish bankers, the Jewish media. But today, many in the actual Jewish media see something that looks like an antisemitic trope and decide they already have the story figured out. It’s intellectually lazy, and given the entanglement of most large American Jewish institutions with Israel, it short-circuits an honest examination of a constellation of issues relating to Israel-Palestine, human rights, donor influence, and what our community’s role should be in grappling with that. 


  1. Though I do think some tropes are more obscure than others, and it’s important to have reasonable expectations of which tropes the general public and/or public figures might be aware of. And if the resemblance of the action/rhetoric in question is weak and there is a reasonable explanation, leeway is warranted.

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