Adam Milstein, a real estate millionaire and prolific donor to right-wing, pro-Israel causes, had a busy few days on Twitter this month. In one tweet, he accused Rep. Ilhan Omar of being a “terrorist.” In another, he questioned Omar’s and Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s loyalty to the United States. He also accused Tlaib and Omar, the first two Muslim-American women elected to Congress, of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood, indulging a tired trope popular among anti-Muslim bigots.
The backlash was swift, particularly in light of Milstein’s backing of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, whose annual conference kicked off on Sunday. In response to those Twitter posts, an AIPAC spokesperson told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Milstein “is not a representative of AIPAC and his views are not ours.” Meanwhile, Milstein pulled out of a panel he was scheduled to moderate at the conference, saying he did not want to be a distraction.
Milstein sits on AIPAC’s national council, and through his family foundation, has donated generously to the American Israel Education Foundation, AIPAC’s nonprofit arm. His support for AIPAC is just one part of his portfolio of pro-Israel philanthropy, which has in recent years bankrolled efforts to shut down American support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS.
“We should teach them that anyone that attacks us, there is a price, there is accountability.”
“We need to go on the offense,” Milstein said two years ago in response to a question about how to defeat BDS, the Palestinian-led movement that targets Israel over its military occupation of Palestinian land, building of illegal settlements, and denial of Palestinian refugee rights. “We should teach them that anyone that attacks us, there is a price, there is accountability. We need to go on the attack.”
The answer was indicative of Milstein’s message: The pro-Israel community in the United States has sat complacent in the face of BDS as it has spread across the country, with at least 37 college student councils passing pro-BDS resolutions over the past 14 years and 40 percent of Americans backing sanctions on Israel if it continues to expand illegal settlements. For Milstein, the way forward was to get ugly with BDS supporters, humiliate them, and tar them as racists. With his millions of dollars, he has put that strategy into action.
The philanthropist belongs to a community of right-wing, pro-Israel donors who have taken to funding aggressive tactics in recent years, targeting college students and pushing legislation that would stifle free speech. Alarmed by the growth of a Palestinian rights movement that has methodically built coalitions with communities of color on college campuses and made inroads into Congress, these donors are going after young people with a zeal reminiscent of dirty political opposition research campaigns. And to bolster Israel, Milstein has forged personal relationships with college students, bringing them into AIPAC’s fold and opening doors to job opportunities in the pro-Israel arena.
Milstein, whose net worth was valued at $147 million in 2009, according to court records, has also funded groups that have pushed controversial state laws that crack down on BDS supporters by prohibiting contracts from going to companies and individuals that boycott Israel.
The Milstein-backed assault on the BDS movement has borne significant fruit. Twenty-seven states have passed laws against the boycott movement since 2014. A lobbying group associated with Milstein lobbied Congress on a federal equivalent, and in February, the Senate passed the Combating BDS Act, which would give federal backing to the state-level anti-boycott laws. On college campuses, student activists targeted for their pro-Palestinian advocacy have experienced anxiety and felt silenced due to online harassment.
Milstein “is the shameless face of what is a much broader strategy,” said Liz Jackson, a founding staff attorney for Palestine Legal, a group that supports Palestinian rights activists who are attacked for their advocacy. “He is uniquely proud of such aggressive, anti-speech tactics to suppress people of color. This is a war of personal attacks.”
AIPAC is the primary beneficiary of the Milstein family’s political giving. The Milstein Family Foundation donated nearly $1.9 million to the American Israel Education Foundation over that 12-year period. That money has paid for the foundation’s annual trip to Israel for about 40 college students, and covered sponsorships for about 150 college student attendees at AIPAC’s annual conference, which features major American and Israeli politicians coming to pledge fealty to the U.S.-Israel alliance. AIPAC did not respond to The Intercept’s questions about whether Milstein would remain on their national council following his controversial tweets about Omar and Tlaib, or whether AIPAC’s nonprofit arm would continue to take his money.
|American Israel Education Foundation, nonprofit arm of AIPAC||$1,896,620|
|Israel on Campus Coalition||$115,000|
|Christians United for Israel||$77,000|
|David Horowitz Freedom Center||$30,000|
Milstein also funds groups that accuse student activists of ties to terrorists, monitor student supporters of Palestinian rights, plaster students’ names on shadowy websites, and file legal challenges that pose a threat to activist work.
Advocates for Israel, however, say that Milstein simply supports pro-Israel activism on college campuses.
“Adam helps us fulfill our mission to empower students who want to educate their peers about Israel and stand up to hate,” said Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, a group that trains students in Israel advocacy, organizes opposition to BDS resolutions, and sponsors pro-Israel events. Milstein’s foundation has given StandWithUs about $850,000 in donations, and he sits on the group’s board.
The philanthropist’s giving to dozens of major right-leaning, pro-Israel groups has made him an influential political figure.
Last year, at a speech to the Milstein-founded and funded Israeli-American Council, Vice President Mike Pence personally shouted out Milstein, calling him and his allies “a dedicated band of liberty lovers” who built “the largest Israeli-American organization in the world.” Nancy Pelosi, the leader of congressional Democrats, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, also spoke at the conference.
“Adam helps us fulfill our mission to empower students who want to educate their peers about Israel and stand up to hate.”
And in March, President Donald Trump posted a Twitter message attacking Omar, the Minnesota Democrat, for criticizing the pro-Israel lobby, citing an anti-Omar letter signed by a group of right-wing organizations. Among the signatories were the Endowment for Middle East Truth, Alpha Epsilon Pi (a Jewish fraternity), Americans for Peace and Tolerance, and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, groups that have collectively received at least $133,000 from Milstein’s foundation.
Milstein did not agree to a request for a phone interview. He directed The Intercept to contact Nathan Miller, his spokesperson, with questions. Miller did not respond to multiple emails with a detailed list of queries.
Born in 1952 in the Israeli city of Haifa, Milstein came to the United States in 1981 to attend the University of Southern California’s business school. After graduating, he got a job in real estate and in 1986, became a U.S. citizen.
Within two years of his arrival in the United States, he met David Hager, a fellow Israeli who would eventually bring him into the world of Jewish philanthropy. The two started working together in real estate, embarking on what would become a decadeslong business relationship that continues today with Milstein’s current role as managing partner for Hager Pacific Properties. Beyond just being the source of his wealth, Milstein’s real estate business is intertwined with his pro-Israel giving. His family foundation operates out of the same office space as the real estate company, and real estate entities linked to Hager Pacific donated a total of about $824,000 to the Milstein Family Foundation in the years 2003, 2005, and 2014. (The vast majority of the foundation’s funding comes from Milstein and his wife. Milstein’s daughters have also contributed money.)
In the early 2000s, Hager began donating to Jewish institutions affiliated with Spinka, a Hasidic Jewish sect. He got Milstein involved in giving, forwarding his checks to Spinka organizations.
What appeared to be charitable donations, however, turned out to be a vehicle to evade taxes. Milstein was indicted on and ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of federal tax evasion. He admitted that he gave $53,550 to Spinka affiliates from 2005 to 2007, declared that money as donations on his tax returns, and received 90 percent of it back from the groups. He was sentenced to three months in minimum-security prison, 600 hours of community service, three years of supervised release, and a $30,000 fine, in addition to back taxes owed. (Hager was sentenced to six months in prison for his involvement in the scheme.)
Milstein’s connections to Israel loomed throughout his negotiations with prosecutors over his guilty plea and sentencing. Jacob Dayan, who was then Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, asked the judge presiding over the case for a lenient sentence — a halfway house instead of a prison — writing that Milstein’s “character and personality have been virtuous.”
Elliott Broidy, an Israel advocate and member of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board who introduced himself as a “businessman, community leader, and philanthropist,” also asked the judge for leniency. He wrote that Milstein has been a “tireless advocate on behalf of the underprivileged for years,” citing Milstein’s giving to groups that help the poor and the elderly. (About a year after writing the letter, Broidy himself pleaded guilty to paying off New York officials, including in the form of trips to Israel, in exchange for business. Today, he is embroiled in controversy over his influence-peddling in the Trump-era, and last summer, federal agents raided Broidy’s office as part of an investigation into conspiracy, money laundering, and illegal lobbying for foreign officials.)
Upon release from prison, Milstein asked federal prosecutors for permission to travel outside California. He got approval to travel on an AIPAC trip to Israel and Jordan in November 2009, where he met with the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. ambassador to Israel on a jaunt reserved for those who had given at least $25,000 to the pro-Israel lobbying group.
Milstein’s political giving eventually poured into campus debates over Palestinian rights. In the summer of 2014, Milstein got involved in student government elections at the University of California, Los Angeles. Earlier that year, UCLA’s student government had voted against a resolution for the university to divest from U.S. companies with Israeli army contracts, a cause that pro-Israel activists vehemently opposed. (The school’s student council passed a divestment measure later that year.)
“It’s of extreme importance that they prevail vs. some anti-Israel, pro-BDS students that are competing against them.”
Through the UCLA Hillel, Milstein secretly donated $1,000 to the campaigns of two pro-Israel activists on campus, Avi Oved and Avinoam Baral, who had opposed that measure. The activists asked Milstein to reach out to other pro-Israel donors to contribute to the campaigns of their election slate as well. Milstein’s involvement came to light through leaked emails published by UCLA’s student newspaper.
“It’s of extreme importance that they prevail vs. some anti-Israel, pro-BDS students that are competing against them,” Milstein wrote. In response, Oved thanked him and pledged to stand up against BDS initiatives at the student council.
The revelation of Milstein’s funding rocked the campus, angering students who thought that it was wrong for an outside donor with a committed ideological agenda to secretly fund a student election campaign. That anger was compounded by Milstein’s repeated posts on Twitter, where he scoffed at President Barack Obama’s declaration that Islam is a “religion of peace,” accused Obama of “cuddling up to Islam,” and said the president wanted to destroy America.
“Students had their campaigns funded by outside donors, and nobody knew who they were and what their agenda was,” said Rahim Kurwa, who at the time was a board member for UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, and is now a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “They were making a mockery and sham of any normal democratic process.”
Milstein’s involvement in UCLA student politics extended to funding California college student trips to the AIPAC conference, one pro-Israel advocate from California familiar with Milstein’s work told The Intercept. A Jewish UCLA student at the time also familiar with Milstein’s work said that Milstein invited pro-Israel students over to his house in a wealthy LA suburb to schmooze with his pro-Israel donor friends. The gatherings were meant to give students a chance to request donations for campus elections and to meet potential mentors for future professional connections, establishing a pro-Israel pipeline from UCLA to post-graduate jobs.
“He found his niche. He wanted to be the guy, and that was a space that was relatively untapped and he could have a huge impact,” the California pro-Israel advocate said.
While the student election funding disclosure cast a harsh spotlight on Milstein, he did not step away from campus Israel politics. Instead, he dived deeper into them — and, of late, has poured money into efforts that target individual students who speak out for Palestinian rights.
The Israel on Campus Coalition, or ICC, which coordinates with the Israeli government and targets progressive students with secretive online campaigns, has been an outlet for Milstein’s efforts to stifle pro-Palestinian speech at universities. He is a director on the group’s board, according to the coalition’s website as of December 2018, as well as its most recent tax filing, and his foundation has given the group $115,000 since 2010. The ICC did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment.
The coalition’s stated aim is to coordinate the pro-Israel campus activism of a wide array of groups, but it has carried out some of its operations in secrecy. Investigative reporting, however, mostly by The Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis, has exposed the coalition’s advocacy work.
Last September, The Forward revealed that the coalition had secretly monitored a workshop organized by Open Hillel, a group of progressive Jewish students seeking to change how Hillel, the major campus Jewish group, operates by getting the student group to include perspectives in favor of Palestinian rights at campus events.
“These donors are really scared that Jewish students will attend colleges across the country and start having nuanced conversations on Israel-Palestine,” said Eva Ackerman, Open Hillel’s national organizer.
The Forward, along with ProPublica, also reported on how the ICC ran a Facebook ad campaign in 2016 accusing Remi Kanazi, a Palestinian-American poet, of “violence and hate.” The ICC did not disclose its involvement with the ad campaign, which appeared to have been the work of students at the campuses Kanazi was visiting for performances at the time.
Perhaps most disturbing for campus activists, The Forward exposed how the ICC operates the group SJP Uncovered, which accuses the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine of anti-Semitism, racism, and terrorism, and trawls through the social media pages of college students involved in Palestinian rights work. SJP Uncovered has gone as far as comparing Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights to the Ku Klux Klan. Much like Canary Mission, another anonymous blacklist website, the ICC plasters students’ names and faces on SJP Uncovered’s website, Twitter, and Facebook pages, often taking quotes out of context and fueling online harassment of students. (Milstein is said to be a funder of Canary Mission, according to an undercover investigation by Al Jazeera, though he has denied the allegation. Eric Gallagher, the former pro-Israel advocate who said Milstein funded Canary Mission in the documentary, told Milstein that Al Jazeera had selectively edited his quote to make it appear he was saying Milstein backed the blacklist.)
“They target students they imagine are susceptible to backing off because they’re young.”
Mone Makkawi, a graduate student and SJP member at New York University who also taught an undergraduate course on Middle East politics, was one of the group’s targets. SJP Uncovered accused Makkawi of “spreading hate” because she posted expletive-filled tweets against Israel and the police, effectively encouraging supporters to call NYU to try to get Makkawi fired. (In an interview, Makkawi, whose public Twitter account has fewer than 400 followers, said that her tweets go out to a small following who understand her politics, and that “they are shorthand statements that summarize a complex variety of issues, each of which I’d be happy to unpack for anyone who happens to be curious.”) The SJP Uncovered posting unleashed a wave of online harassment against Makkawi, with Twitter users calling for violence against her.
“They’re clearly trying to scare college activists into silence, just like Canary Mission,” Makkawi told The Intercept. “It’s a very strategic project, wherein they see college campuses as nexuses of resistance, and they’re very threatened by it. So they target students they imagine are susceptible to backing off because they’re young.”
Similar harassment tactics have taken place offline too. David Horowitz, the far-right figure labeled “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, spread inflammatory posters on college campuses accusing members of SJP and pro-Palestinian academics of links to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group. The posters fueled harassment and death threats at their targets. From 2010 to 2014, Milstein’s foundation gave $30,000 to the David Horowitz Freedom Center. In an email to The Intercept, Horowitz called Milstein a “defender of the Jews,” but refused a request for an interview because “you and your friends have slandered, and defamed me without a shred of evidence because you’re a bunch of leftist goons who shill for the worst parties on the planet.”
Through his foundation, Milstein has also thrown money toward journalistic and political causes. In 2015, Milstein’s foundation gave $12,500 to the Jewish News Syndicate, a Jewish news service that publishes articles with a right-wing bent. The news service, whose articles are often reprinted in Jewish publications around the United States, has written about Milstein in positive terms. One article referred to the Israeli-American Council, which Milstein co-founded, as a group with the “energy of a well-funded Israeli start-up” that has experienced “rapid growth.” In none of the articles covering Milstein, or written by Milstein himself, is there a disclosure that Milstein has contributed money to the syndicate. JNS did not respond to a request for comment.
Milstein has also given to politicians, particularly to hawkish Democrats and Republicans who advocate for Israel in Congress. Since 2011, he has donated $8,700 to Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who earlier this year called on UCLA to bar SJP from hosting its national conference on campus, and since 2015, has given $7,400 to Juan Vargas, another California Democrat who recently said that questioning the U.S.-Israel relationship is “unacceptable.” He has also donated to Sens. Kamala Harris ($500), Kirsten Gillibrand ($1,000), Ted Cruz ($10,800), Chuck Schumer ($2,700), Ron Wyden ($3,000), Jeanne Shaheen ($2,000), Brian Schatz ($1,000) and Robert Menendez ($1,900).
|Republican National Committee||2008, 2012||$28,900|
|Sen. Kamala Harris||2016||$500|
|Sen. Jeanne Shaheen||2008||$2,000|
|Sen. Ted Cruz||2015, 2018||$10,800|
|Sen. Chuck Schumer||2015||$2,700|
|Sen. Brian Schatz||2013||$1,000|
|Rep. Brad Sherman||2011, 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018||$8,700|
|Rep. Juan Vargas||2015, 2017, 2018||$7,400|
|Rep. Adam Schiff||2008, 2011||$2,400|
|Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand||2010||$1,000|
|Sen. Dianne Feinstein||2005, 2012||$2,000|
|Sen. Robert Menendez||2011, 2017||$1,900|
|Sen. Ron Wyden||2004, 2015||$3,000|
His greatest impact, however, has been through the Israeli-American Council, a group he co-founded in 2010, sits on the board of as its chair, and has given over $230,000 to through his foundation. He also funds the Israeli-American Coalition for Action, an arm of the council that was launched in 2016 and is designated as a 501(c)(4) organization under the tax code, meaning that it is a nonprofit that can engage in lobbying.
The Israeli-American Coalition for Action has deployed its weight to pass state laws against the boycott Israel movement. The group lobbied for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to sign a bill prohibiting state contracts from going to companies or individual contractors that boycott Israel, according to public records obtained by Russel Neiss, a MuckRock user. (Last year, a federal judge issued an injunction against enforcement of the Arizona law, deeming it an unconstitutional burden on political expression.)
Those same emails feature Dillon Hosier, a top official for the coalition, telling the Arizona governor’s office that the coalition came up with a similar bill in California that passed in 2016. That bill was authored by Assembly Member Richard Bloom, who has received $7,000 in campaign donations from Milstein since 2016. Bloom told the Jewish Week that “Dillon and the IAC worked very closely with me and my legislative team to assure passage and the governor’s signature” on the anti-boycott bill.
Hosier also spoke in front of the Nevada state legislature in March 2017 to lobby for Nevada’s version of the anti-BDS bill, claiming that BDS is not a nonviolent movement and that the U.S. Treasury Department is investigating the movement over links to terrorism. (The Treasury Department, which has never announced such an investigation, did not respond to a request for comment on the veracity of Hosier’s claim.) Nevada’s governor signed the anti-BDS measure into law in June 2017.
For some advocates, the Milstein-backed laws passed against the BDS movement are linked to the targeting of student activists, and both stem from a desire to shut down the movement for Palestinian rights.
“They’re different fronts of the same attack on our ability to openly talk about Palestine. The smear attacks shut down many people, with crippling consequences for individuals,” said Jackson of Palestine Legal. “But they can’t shut down everyone. The movement for Palestinian equality persists because so many of us see that our own freedom depends on it.”