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entries tagged with: George Soros


Why was J Street so scared of Soros?

George Soros, shown at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January, “never made any secret about his contributions to J Street,” his spokesman said. Courtesy World Economic Forum

WASHINGTON – George Soros has been a top funder in recent years of liberal political advocacy groups, and Jews have still been voting for Democrats at a 75 to 80 percent clip. J Street, meanwhile, has built relations with lawmakers, lined up support from liberal rabbis and communal leaders, and found itself on the White House invite list, even while issuing controversial criticisms of Israel and establishment Jewish groups on several occasions.

So why exactly did J Street and its director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, risk the organization’s reputation and undermine its credibility by misleading the world about the donations it received from the financier and philanthropist?

News Analysis

The question has some establishment Jewish leaders and Democratic politicians scratching their heads this week — and predicting that Ben-Ami’s deception would cause the group much greater damage than any association with Soros. It’s especially perplexing given J Street’s insistence that it wanted Soros’ money.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, when asked about J Street’s earlier denials about receiving funding from Soros.

Foxman noted that Soros and J Street share the same posture on Middle East peace: an aggressive U.S. role, including pressure on all sides and opposition to settlement building — not to mention an openness to talks with Hamas.

“It’s the most appropriate thing, it fits, it makes sense — there’s nothing wrong with it,” Foxman said of the relationship.

A senior staffer for a Democratic congressman who has accepted J Street’s endorsement agreed, saying that Soros’ support for J Street would not have been “a major factor” in deciding whether to accept the organization’s endorsement.

“People have to know first who George Soros is and, second, why it would be bad for a pro-Israel group — in some circles — to be associated with him,” the staffer said. “There are a lot of people like that in the Jewish macherocracy — but not in our district.”

The Washington Times revealed in a Sept. 17 story that Soros and his children had given J Street $245,000 in 2008. The lobby confirmed the amount and said the Soros family since then had contributed another $500,000 — 7 percent of the $11 million J Street says it has received in donations since its launch.

Ben-Ami and spokesmen for Soros said the feint arose from the controversy that was sparked in 2006 when it was revealed — by JTA and other agencies — that Soros was a likely funder for the then-unnamed lobby Ben-Ami hoped to establish.

“It was his view that the attacks against him from certain parts of the community would undercut support for us,” Ben-Ami said. “He was concerned that his involvement would be used by others to attack the effort.”

Michael Vachon, a spokesman for Soros, confirmed that outlook, adding that Soros would not have objected to making his role public once he and his family started funneling money to J Street six months after its founding in early 2008.

“He knew that had he given the money at the beginning, media outlets would have tried to claim that the organization is a Soros-funded organization,” Vachon said.

That may have made sense in 2006, Foxman said, when Soros was associated with, the provocative organization at the forefront of the opposition to the Bush administration, particularly its Iraq war.

“People who liked Bush because of Israel were upset because of MoveOn,” Foxman said.

It didn’t help that MoveOn was erroneously associated with a Web advertisement that likened Bush to Hitler, and that Soros himself said the times reminded him of aspects of his Nazi-era childhood in Hungary.

But, several observers said, the fraught politics of just a few years ago — when Soros was seen as an unhinged provocateur baiting the Bush administration and Republicans — were a thing of the past, with Democrats now controlling the White House and the U.S. Congress.

“His reputation is fine, he’s pro-peace,” Foxman said of the Soros of 2010.

For better or worse, insiders said, J Street’s very success has mainstreamed the very beliefs that had once occasioned anger against Soros.

The views espoused by J Street and Soros are now part of the mix, said Shai Franklin, a veteran of an array of mainstream groups like the World Jewish Congress and NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. (See page 15.)

“It was unnecessary, and that’s what makes it a tragedy,” Franklin, now a senior fellow with the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said of Ben-Ami’s deception. “People like me were willing to accept J Street as the new kid on the block, but this disfigures J Street.”

A source associated with J Street dismissed predictions that the controversy would turn J Street into a pariah, noting that 80 of the group’s leaders met separately Tuesday with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, and U.S. State Department officials.

To be sure, many Jewish conservatives, including U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House minority whip, continue to cast Soros as a bogeyman and are seeking to make an issue out of his support for J Street.

They point to a piece on Israel and the pro-Israel lobby Soros wrote for The New York Review of Books in 2007.

“I am not a Zionist, nor am I am a practicing Jew,” he wrote. But, Soros added immediately, “I have a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel.”

He also sought to clarify 2003 comments that had led some critics to accuse him of blaming Jews and Israel for anti-Semitism.

“Anti-Semitism predates the birth of Israel. Neither Israel’s policies nor the critics of those policies should be held responsible for anti-Semitism,” Soros wrote. “At the same time, I do believe that attitudes toward Israel are influenced by Israel’s policies, and attitudes toward the Jewish community are influenced by the pro-Israel lobby’s success in suppressing divergent views.”

Soros called for increased U.S. engagement in the Middle East peace process, asserted that Israeli governments have overemphasized the military option, argued against unilateralism and sought a way to include Hamas in negotiations.

While the article stirred much controversy at the time, it now reads like a blueprint for J Street’s agenda. So even without the Soros funding, Jewish hard-liners would have plenty of reasons to bash the organization. And several prominent and wealthy liberal pro-Israel activists have made a point of steering clear of J Street following the revelation in 2006 about Soros being a likely funder for the intended lobby.

J Street since its founding has attracted support in many liberal circles, so just how many Jewish doves are there who would back an organization that shares Soros’ positions and openly says it wants him as a financial supporter — but not if the organization actually takes his money?

In recent weeks, conservatives and other critics of Soros have noted the recent $100 million donation to Human Rights Watch, a group that is seen by Israel and many of the country’s supporters as biased in its treatment of abuses in the Middle East.

The donation “makes it a fine fit for George Soros, whose own biases are well established,” Gerald Steinberg, NGO Monitor’s director, wrote in a New York Post op-ed before the J Street controversy broke. “In the Middle East, for example, his Open Society Institute exclusively supports advocacy groups that campaign internationally to undermine the elected governments of Israel — organizations such as Adalah, Peace Now, Breaking the Silence, Gisha, and Yesh Din.”

But J Street had openly associated with most of those groups, so news of the Soros funding was not needed to make the link.

One insider who monitors Human Rights Watch for bias told JTA that the group’s ties to Soros would not affect J Street’s image.

Soros, who made his billions in the hedge fund market, first became known for aggressively backing democratic movements in the former communist world. He also developed a reputation for micromanaging how his charitable money is spent and unabashedly using it to political ends.

Such an approach may have once been considered outsized, vulgar behavior for a philanthropist, but these days it is commonplace.

In the pro-Israel world, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson unashamedly wears his right-wing politics on his sleeve, and none of the many pro-Israel groups he funds is turning away his money.

Soros’ J Street role signifies a Jewish involvement that is always welcome from the very rich, according to some insiders — especially for someone who in the 1990s was known for his pronounced lack of interest in Jewish causes.

“He played an active role in different pro-democracy movements” in the former Soviet Union, said Mark Levin, who directs NCSJ. “I don’t think he ever really had an interest in dealing with the Jewish communities in those countries.”

Ultimately, much of the fury this week was directed at Ben-Ami instead of Soros — for misleading the public in the first place. Even in an apology posted on J Street’s blog, Ben-Ami appeared defensive.

“Those who attack J Street over the sources of its funding are not good government watchdogs concerned about the state of non-profit financing in the United States,” Ben-Ami wrote. “Our critics are really so concerned with transparency of funding, then I challenge them to reveal the sources of funds for the organizations with which they agree.”

“Legalisms,” sputtered Rabbi Steve Gutow, who directs the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups and has defended J Street on many occasions.

Gutow noted that a number of the JCPA’s constituent network of local community relations councils have praised J Street for helping to suck the wind out of anti-Israel divestment efforts by presenting a credible left-wing, pro-Israel alternative.

The potential loss of that voice was worrisome, he said.

“I am not happy that the Soros money was not explicitly admitted to all along by J Street,” Gutow said.



Glenn Beck and the rabbis’ statement

I’ve been following the Glenn Beck-George Soros story with disgust and disbelief — both at Fox News for defending Beck’s indefensible vendetta. (In addition to putting a warped interpretation on the 13-year-old Soros’ behavior during the Holocaust, he attacks the man’s nose hairs. Is that journalism?)

Fox is trying to pass off its passivity in the face of justified Jewish complaints by painting complainants — including 400 rabbis who signed a full-page ad appearing in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal — as left-wing. But, as Dana Milbank points out in today’s Washington Post, “The statement’s signatories included the chief executive of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and his predecessor, the dean of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school, and a number of Orthodox rabbis.” (See

That dean, by the way, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, is a native of River Vale. Other local names on the list of signers: Rabbis Rachel Kahn-Troster and her father, Lawrence Troster, of Teaneck, and Henry Glazer, formerly of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.

Another signer who’s been in our paper: Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder of the Orthodox ethics organization Uri L’Tzedek.

Milbank quotes Beck as saying, “Could I put on three hours of television with nothing but lies and smear and keep my job against the most powerful man [Soros] and the most powerful groups in the world?”

The most powerful groups in the world? It seems to me I’ve heard that song before, and it shouldn’t be sung on national television.



Jews take 5 of top 6 spots in annual list of top U.S. givers

America’s most generous citizens gave less in 2010 than they have over the past decade, but Jews remained among the top givers, according to an annual survey by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

In 2010, the top philanthropists in the United States contributed approximately $3.3 billion to charity, according to the Chronicle’s Philanthropy 50, a list that tracks the largest gifts made by individuals each year. That number is some $800 million below 2009 and less than half of the total made up by the top 50 donors when the Chronicle first started keeping tabs a decade ago.

At least 19 of the 53 individuals and couples named on the list are Jewish, including five of the list’s top six (the list included three ties). George Soros ranked No. 1 with $332 million donated in 2010, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was second at $279.2 million. Irwin and Joan Jacobs, Eli and Edythe Broad, and Leonard Blavatnik took spots 4 through 6, respectively, with $117 million to $119 million in donations.

Jews traditionally rank high on such lists and figure prominently among the country’s elite philanthropists. Jews also make up more than half of the first 57 billionaires to join the Bill Gates and Warren Buffet Giving Pledge — a group of ultra-wealthy Americans who have pledged to give away more than half of their assets during their lifetime.

The Chronicle’s list, however, also offers more cause for concern for those in the Jewish nonprofit world who wring their hands about the lack of giving by Jews to Jewish causes. The Institute for Jewish and Communal Research has collected data showing that less than a quarter of all philanthropic dollars given by Jews go to overtly Jewish causes.

For instance, while Soros gave $1 million to World ORT in September, and Bloomberg gave a smaller gift to the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, their gifts to overtly Jewish causes comprise only a small proportion of their overall giving.

This year’s Philanthropy 50 had one major exception: Stephen and Nancy Grand, who ranked 39th, gave more than $20 million of their $28 million in 2010 charitable donations to the American Technion Society, which supports the Technion: Israel Institute for Technology.

In June, the Grands helped the Technion finish off a 14-year, $1 billion fund-raising campaign with their mammoth gift to the school, to which they also had given $10 million to create the Stephen and Nancy Grand Water Research Institute.

The Grands are very involved in the Jewish world and launched their philanthropy through the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Stephen Grand is a board member of Birthright Israel, while Nancy Grand soon will be the president of the Jewish Federation in San Francisco and serves on the executive committees of the city’s JCC as well as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Among the other Jews on the list are hedge fund manager William Ackman, who with his wife, Karen, gave away $59.3 million last year. At 44, Ackman already is one of Wall Street’s most significant players and a regular on the dais of the UJA-Federation of New York’s annual Wall Street dinner. He made his most significant Jewish contribution in the past year, leading an effort to bail out the Center for Jewish History in New York from its $30 million debt with a $6.8 million gift.

Qualcomm’s founder, Irwin Jacobs, is one of San Diego’s most generous men. Aside from propping up the San Diego Symphony with a $100 million-plus gift last decade, he and his wife, Joan, have decided to give away most of their money through a donor-advised fund at the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, where Joan Jacobs is a board member. Last year, according to the Chronicle, they gave the fund $39.1 million, which will be distributed to Jewish and nonsectarian causes.

Cleveland car dealers Lee and Jane Seidman gave $42 million in 2010 to land them at No. 24 on the list. Most of their giving went to University Hospitals, but Jewish charities played heavily among their contributions to more than 40 charities, including the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.

Some money came from a surprise bequest.

Charles Kaufman, an executive at Merck, was something of an unknown to this annual mega-donor list. When he died last September at age 97, he left $53 million to charity, according to the Chronicle. Of that, $50 million went to a fund he and his late sister established at the Pittsburgh Foundation. Jewish health care is listed among the primary concerns of the fund.

He also left $3.34 million to a variety of other charities, including those that deal with Jewish life and culture, among them $300,000 to Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Pittsburgh and $50,000 to the Jewish National Fund.

Others on the Chronicle’s list have established track records with certain Jewish charities.

Blavatnik, who came in at No. 6, sits on the board of Tel Aviv University, the Center for Jewish History, and the 92nd Street Y. Richard Friedman, the head of Goldman Sachs Merchant Banking Division, who ranked No. 49 with $20 million in donations, is a board member of the Central Synagogue in New York.

The biggest question may be whether the youngest person ever to appear on the list, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, will become a giver to Jewish causes.

Zuckerberg came in at a tie for No. 10 with Ackman, having made his first significant charitable donation in 2010 with a $100 million gift to his Startup: Education foundation, which will go to help the struggling school system in Newark, a non-Jewish cause.

The following is the list of Jews who appear on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 50 top givers of 2010, along with their rank on the list and their total philanthropic contributions in 2010.

• 1. George Soros, $332 million

• 2. Michael R. Bloomberg, $279.2 million

• 4. Irwin M. and Joan K. Jacobs, $119.5 million

• 5. Eli and Edythe L. Broad, $118.3 million

• 6. Leonard Blavatnik, $117.2 million

• 9. Meyer and Renee Luskin, $100.5 million

• 10. Marc R. and Lynne Benioff, $100 million

• 10. Mark Zuckerberg, $100 million

• 17. William A. and Karen Ackman, $59.3 million

• 18. Charles E. Kaufman, $53.3 million

• 24. Lawrence J. Ellison, $45.1 million

• 25. Lee G. and Jane H. Seidman, $42 million

• 28. Lin Arison, $39 million

• 29. Herman Ostrow, $35 million

• 39: Stephen and Nancy Grand, $28.1 million

• 40. David M. Rubenstein, $26.6 million

• 41. Paul and Daisy M. Soros, $25 million

• 49. Iris Cantor, $20 million

• 49. Richard A. and Susan P. Friedman, $20 million

JTA Wire Service

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