Kathy Hochul’s Israel Trip Bankrolled by Group Funding Illegal Settlements

UJA-Federation of New York, a tax-exempt nonprofit, has sent more than half a million dollars to groups supporting Israeli settlements.

October 19, 2023 - Israel - Governor Kathy Hochul visits the Israeli Kibbutz Kfar Aza. (Shlomi Amsalem)
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul visits Israel on Oct. 19, 2023. Photo: Shlomi Amsalem/Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul

After her “solidarity mission” following the October 7 Hamas surprise attack, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul initially declined to say who covered the cost for the journey to Israel. Her administration would only say it was a “nonprofit that works with the Jewish community.”

Last week, Hochul’s office relented, telling reporters that the funder was the UJA-Federation of New York, a Jewish philanthropy that has supported dozens of similar trips for elected officials, including, recently, New York City Mayor Eric Adams. Citing a delay in a state ethics office review, Hochul’s office said it would cover the $12,000 cost after all. 

UJA-Federation of New York belongs to a sprawling network of tax-exempt charities under the umbrella of the Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA. In addition to funding Jewish community groups, federation chapters have also been accused of sending millions in tax-exempt dollars to organizations that support Israel’s illegal settlement program in the occupied West Bank. According to published reports and an Intercept review of recent tax filings, UJA itself has provided more than half a million dollars since 2018 to groups that support Israeli settlements. 

The arrangement has come under scrutiny in recent years for funneling publicly subsidized money to settlements in Israel that are considered to be illegal under international law, part of Israel’s increasingly successful efforts to foreclose the possibility of a contiguous future Palestinian state.

Eva Borgwardt, the national spokesperson for the American Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow, said that funding settlements diminishes hopes for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. 

“The UJA has helped destroy any semblance of a ‘peace process’ or possibility of a two state solution.”

“The UJA has helped destroy any semblance of a ‘peace process’ or possibility of a two state solution, instead deepening a violent apartheid reality for Palestinians with no end in sight,” Borgwardt told The Intercept. While funding groups operating in settlements, UJA has not supported efforts to de-escalate the current war, Borgwardt said: “If the UJA and Governor Hochul are concerned about safety for Israelis and hostage returns, they should join us in calling for an immediate ceasefire, release of the hostages, a de-escalation, and an end to the conditions of occupation, apartheid and siege that led to the current nightmare.”

In response to questions about the trip and UJA’s funding of groups operating in or supporting settlements, Hochul’s office sent a statement shared with reporters last week. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment or questions about the payment arrangement for the trip. 

While JFNA, the umbrella group, has in the past said it has a policy not to fund investments in the occupied Palestinian territories, individual federations have said they don’t have guidelines for distinguishing grants made over the so-called Green Line that demarcates Israel’s internationally recognized borders.

“Jewish Federations’ long-standing policy is that we do not allocate funds for capital investments beyond the Green Line,” JFNA, the umbrella group, said in a statement. “We are also adamant that the incredible support we provide for humanitarian aid, medical assistance, helping victims of terror, and building a stronger, more tolerant, and more accepting civil society should not be denied to those who may need it based on their address.”

In many cases, the cash goes to groups that carry out activities on both sides of the so-called Green Line, including groups that do humanitarian work, with the destination of funds sometimes reported in tax filings and other times not. Grants to groups that work on both sides of the Green Line defray other costs, enabling greater resources to flow into settlements or supporting their expansion.

UJA has directed funds to a wide array of groups in Israel. Among them are organizations promoting Arab–Israeli cooperation and supporting Arab inclusion in Israeli society. The group has also given to Zionist educational and policy organizations. Many recipients of UJA cash are not involved in the settlements, but the group has also donated money to organizations, both in Israel and stateside, that support and participate in the settlement project. (UJA did not respond to a request for comment.)

Since 2018, UJA has given sums totaling in the six figures to groups supporting settlement activity in the West Bank, according to media reports, UJA reports, and tax filings. Through JFNA, New York’s UJA gave nearly $23,000 last year to Ohr Torah Stone, a modern Orthodox Jewish movement founded in the West Bank settlement of Efrat and operates schools in settlements.

The group gave at least $105,000 to Nefesh B’Nefesh, a group that promotes American immigration to Israel and has encouraged migrants to move to the West Bank. American Friends of Or National Missions, a New York-based nonprofit that helps expand existing settlements in Israel and establish new ones in the West Bank, received $45,000 from UJA, earmarked for information centers in the Negev and Galilee, areas inside the Green Line. And, in 2019, the group gave $10,000 to the Jewish National Fund, which has financed settlement activity for decades and purchased land from Palestinians to hand it to settlers.

And UJA has donated at least $350,000 to Kedma, earmarked for “building resilience in the Gaza envelope,” an area inside Israel’s internationally recognized border that abuts the occupied Gaza Strip. Kedma provides housing for gap year students, including in Israeli settlements, and administers scholarship and volunteer programs. Among the volunteering tasks, according to Haaretz, is working security for ranches used by settlers to seize large swaths of land for so-called hilltop settlements — those considered illegal even under Israeli law.

In recent weeks, ideological settlers in the West Bank, emboldened by the Israeli government’s response to Hamas’s deadly surprise attack and armed with state-issued rifles, have killed at least 100 Palestinians and displaced at least 13 entire communities.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams meets with 
Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu
in Jerusalem on the second day of a 3-day visit to Israel on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

New York City Mayor Eric Adams meets with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, in Jerusalem on Aug. 22, 2023.

Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The roughly 150 independent U.S. nonprofits under the umbrella of the Jewish Federations of North America came under heightened scrutiny after a 2017 Haaretz investigation revealed that some had sent millions of effectively subsidized dollars to settlements, including to extremist settler groups in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

While most federation funds are spent within the United States, the federations have historically also donated around 10 percent or more of their disbursed funds to Israel, both directly and through other U.S. nonprofits that route the money to Israel. Local federations gave at least $6 million to Israeli settlements between 2012 and 2015, Haaretz reported.

The transfer of millions of tax-exempt dollars to settlements in Palestine through private U.S. foundations has raised questions among nonprofit, legal, and foreign policy experts. The U.S., for its part, officially opposes Israeli settlements and their expansion, though the donations are thought to not run afoul of laws governing tax-exempt charities.

Local leaders have tried to stem the flow of private cash to the settlements. In May, New York State Assembly member Zohran Mamdani and Sen. Jabari Brisport, both Democrats, introduced the Not on Our Dime Act to prohibit nonprofits in New York from supporting Israeli settlement activity. The proposal would empower the state attorney general to impose penalties on violators. The bill was met with stiff opposition from the legislators’ Democratic colleagues.


Tax-Exempt U.S. Nonprofits Fuel Israeli Settler Push to Evict Palestinians

Overall, charities in the U.S. funneled more than $220 million in tax-exempt money to settler organizations in Israel between 2009 and 2013, another Haaretz investigation found. Funds to Israel were transferred through some 50 U.S.-based organizations, including the Hebron Fund and the New York-based Central Fund of Israel.

Federations under the JFNA umbrella haven’t always been able to support West Bank settlements. In the 2000s, the group changed its rules to allow federations to send humanitarian aid to any Israelis, opening the door for local chapters to funnel millions past the Green Line that separates Israel’s internationally recognized territory from occupied Palestinian lands. Since then, as settlers have forced more and more Palestinians out of their homes and off their land, the JFNA has relaxed other restrictions on operations in the West Bank.

In June, JFNA and the UJA-Federation, among other organizations, co-sponsored a conference in New York City promoting Israeli settlements, The Forward reported. The event featured Israeli ministers, Zionist leaders, and heads of settlement councils, who partook in panels on how to spread the Israeli presence in the West Bank.

In 2016, JFNA’s board voted to allow federation-sponsored trips to visit West Bank settlements. Between 2014 and 2021, UJA-Federation also gave at least $12 million to Birthright programs, which have been criticized for regularly taking participants into Israeli-occupied territories without notifying them, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights, whose annexation from Syria is not internationally recognized. (JFNA told The Forward it had not seen a copy of the conference programming before agreeing to take part.)

During Adams’s UJA-Federation-organized excursion, he met with Yisrael Gantz, chair of the Binyamin Regional Council, which governs roughly 50 Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. The visit drew criticisms, including from liberal pro-Israel advocacy organization J Street.

The UJA-Federation is a “partner” organization and the primary funder of another Israel excursion-sponsoring organization: the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. The council has taken over 1,500 public officials on “study tours” to Israel, according to its website. On the trips, Israeli military representatives accompany participants on visits to “strategic locales,” like the West Bank “Security Barrier” and a town near the Gaza Strip. The junkets also frequently venture into the West Bank beyond the wall, including Efrat, a purportedly “liberal” settlement where nearly half of the residents voted for an extremist far-right party last year.

The trips have shaped elected officials’ politics. Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y. — one of Congress’s most aggressive Israel backers, including strident support of the ongoing Israeli military campaign that has killed more than 8,000 Palestinians in Gaza — credits his views on Israel–Palestine to a 2015 trip he took as a city council member. The trip was co-organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and UJA-Federation.

“There’s a false narrative that I am pro-Israel because of ‘the Jewish lobby’ or ‘Jewish money’ or whatever antisemitic tropes critics wish to invoke,” Torres, whose top campaign contributor is America’s flagship Israel lobby group, tweeted on Tuesday. “Left unmentioned is the fact that I have been pro-Israel for nearly a decade—long before I ever thought of running for Congress.”

While smearing critics of his pro-Israel positions as antisemitic and racist, Torres cited the trip paid for by the two New York charities.

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