For the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of Washington’s most influential lobby groups, trips to Israel for members of Congress play an important role in lining up support on Capitol Hill. Millions are spent every year ferrying dozens upon dozens of members to Israel for eight-day junkets.
Who pays for these trips has, until now, remained largely a mystery. According to an unredacted tax filing for 2019 obtained by The Intercept, the financiers are a clutch of large foundations and nonprofits, some of which are family-run, that also give to a wide range of other political and cultural groups.
The trips are organized through a cutout called the American Israel Education Fund, a charitable organization founded by AIPAC, from which it borrows its offices, board members, and even part of its logo. Like other tax-exempt nonprofits, AIEF must file a Form 990 every year with the IRS, but donors are redacted from the version that is made accessible to the public.
According to the unredacted 2019 tax filing, AIEF drew millions of dollars from eight philanthropic groups, estates, and family foundations: the Koret Foundation, the Swartz Foundation, the Jewish Communal Fund, the One8 Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Paul E. Singer Foundation, Milton Cooper 2013 Revocable Trust, and the estate of Hedy Orden. These donors helped finance 129 AIEF-sponsored trips to Israel in 2019, totaling $2.32 million, according to the public records database LegiStorm.
The all-expenses-paid trips are crucial to how AIPAC keeps both Republican and Democratic lawmakers firmly on Israel’s side. That allegiance has been on full display as the Biden administration and most members of Congress have backed Israel amid its war against the occupied Gaza Strip, which has killed more than 12,000 Palestinians in the last five weeks.
“The trips clearly have an impact, as personal experiences in Israel often show up in congressional narratives justifying support for pro-Israel policies,” Yousef Munayyer, head of the Palestine/Israel program at Arab Center Washington DC, told The Intercept. “It’s part of a broader strategy to keep U.S.–Israel ties close.”
“The trips clearly have an impact, as personal experiences in Israel often show up in congressional narratives justifying support for pro-Israel policies.”
In a statement, AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann told The Intercept, “AIPAC and AIEF are distinct entities and strictly adhere to all relevant governmental guidelines, regulations, and statutes.” (An email address for AIEF did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did any of the foundations listed as donors on the tax filing.)
In addition to pro-Israel causes, some of the AIEF donors also fund a wide spectrum of other political initiatives. The Paul E. Singer Foundation, which gave AIEF $1.25 million in 2019, has been a prolific contributor to conservative causes in the U.S. for years. Singer, a billionaire hedge fund manager, is a major donor to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, or FDD, a hawkish, pro-Israel think tank that pushes Israel’s national security perspective to U.S. policymakers.
The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which gave $1.5 million to AIEF in 2019, portrays itself as heavily focused on progressive issues, including education, voting rights, criminal justice, and reproductive rights. The foundation also funded a number of hawkish, pro-Israel groups in the same year, including FDD; the Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitors foreign language press in the Middle East and has been criticized for bias and misleading translations; the Investigative Project on Terrorism, led by the discredited extremism expert Steve Emerson, who has been repeatedly invited to speak at AIPAC summits despite allegations of Islamophobia; and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a D.C. think tank that was itself spun off from AIPAC.
Among the donors who gave the largest amounts to AIEF are the Bay Area-based Koret Foundation ($5 million), the Jewish Communal Fund ($3.5 million), and a trust established in the name of real estate tycoon Milton Cooper ($2.475 million). The Swartz Foundation, which contributed $1.45 million, is notable for its founder Sidney Swartz, the former chair and CEO of the Timberland Company, a popular manufacturer of work boots and outerwear.
In 2022, the Paul E. Singer Foundation and Swartz Foundation also donated $1 million and $25,000, respectively, to United Democracy Project, a super PAC affiliated with AIPAC that backs challengers to progressive candidates who are critical of Israel, according to itemized tax receipts from that year.
AIPAC and AIEF’s Relationship
The millions of dollars AIEF gets from its funders goes toward AIPAC’s goal of securing bipartisan consensus on Israel. In 2019, the year for which The Intercept has unredacted tax records, AIEF sponsored trips for 64 Democrats and 65 Republicans, who left for Israel on 14 separate dates, according to LegiStorm. Each trip can cost upward of $10,000 per person, and members of Congress can also bring senior members of staff, spouses, or children.
These expenditures appear to have been made possible with some creative legal maneuvering from AIPAC. The group has used AIEF to fund congressional junkets and to bypass an anti-corruption law that bans lobbyists from taking politicians on paid trips abroad. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act responded to a major lobbying scandal involving Jack Abramoff, a D.C. lobbyist who had for years funded lavish trips and given expensive gifts to politicians as a means of influence peddling.
After the law was enacted in 2007, AIPAC, which had sponsored congressional trips to Israel since the 1990s, campaigned to create an exception for 501(c)(3) organizations that lobbying groups could use to get around the law. Both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) groups are tax-exempt nonprofits, but 501(c)(4) groups — including AIPAC — are considered “social welfare” organizations, which are allowed to spend more than 20 percent of their resources on lobbying the government.
Craig Holman, an expert on governmental ethics and campaign finance at the public interest advocacy organization Public Citizen, said AIPAC undermined the lobbying reform.
“AIPAC successfully inserted an exception to the rule for 501(c)(3) organizations,” Holman said. The use of AIEF has “allowed it to continue funneling money to members of Congress for travel to Israel.” Holman, who was involved in drafting and promoting the 2007 law, added, “These trips would be illegal otherwise.”
The murky relationship between AIEF and AIPAC has come under scrutiny in the past. Before AIPAC moved to use AIEF to fund the congressional junkets, the nonprofit was incorporated as a charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC in 1988, likely to solicit tax-deductible contributions, Holman said.
In 2019, the Institute for Research Middle Eastern Policy published research showing that, over the prior decade, AIEF and other pro-Israel nonprofits had funded hundreds of trips for members of Congress and their staff, covering over $10 million in expenses. The study’s analysis of gift travel filings found that serving members of Congress had been on nearly 600 Israel junkets; many had been multiple times, including current House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La.
“When an organization lobbies Congress for support on making public policy, one of the most effective means of achieving victory is by befriending members of Congress through gifts and travel,” Holman told The Intercept. “This is a loophole that is being heavily exploited now.”
Once an unassailable powerbroker on Capitol Hill, AIPAC and policymakers who work to further its interests have faced increasing criticism in recent years, as some members of Congress and the American public question the U.S.’s blanket support for Israel.
In addition to AIPAC’s heavy hand in elections, legislation, and military spending, the congressional trips to Israel have also been put under the microscope.
Since 2019, AIEF has spent a total of $6.1 million on 309 trips to Israel, 144 for Republicans and 165 for Democrats.
Since 2019, AIEF has spent a total of $6.1 million on 309 trips to Israel, 144 for Republicans and 165 for Democrats, according to LegiStorm. During the trips, members of Congress have met with high-level Israeli politicians and security officials, toured historical sites, and attended information sessions tailored to Israel’s view of the region. Past trips have also included occasional meetings with members of the Palestinian Authority, which nominally governs the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“For members of Congress, AIPAC is a very important player on the Hill,” said Munayyer, of Arab Center. “These trips are seen as routine and have only become more controversial over the past 10 years or so as AIPAC has come to be seen as a more partisan actor.”
Democrats have been increasingly divided over U.S. support for Israel, with the rift widening significantly during the Obama administration. Progressives have taken a stronger stance against unconditional aid to the country and, more recently, called for a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza.
The party’s centrist leadership, meanwhile, has toed the line. In August, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who led a delegation of two dozen Democrats on an AIEF-sponsored trip to Israel, pushed back on the growing chorus of criticism of the U.S.–Israel relationship within his party.
“The Democratic Party in the House of Representatives will continue to stand with Israel,” Jeffries said at a press conference during the trip, “and lift up the special relationship between our two countries and in support of Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and as a Jewish democratic state, period, full stop.”
As an alternative to the AIPAC junkets, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the only Palestinian American member of Congress, had attempted to lead a delegation in 2018 to the West Bank that would center Palestinians’ experiences under Israeli occupation.
“I want us to see that segregation and how that has really harmed us being able to achieve real peace in that region. I don’t think AIPAC provides a real, fair lens into this issue. It’s one-sided,” Tlaib told The Intercept at the time. “[They] have these lavish trips to Israel, but they don’t show the side that I know is real, which is what’s happening to my grandmother and what’s happening to my family there.”
Tlaib was forced to cancel the trip after the Israeli government barred her from entering the country. Under pressure, Israel reversed course and said Tlaib could go on condition that she not express support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement while there, a condition she rejected.
Last week, Tlaib was formally censured in the House for expressing support for Palestinians and criticizing the Israeli assault of Gaza. Almost all of the 22 Democrats who voted in favor of the measure received money from AIPAC in the last election cycle.
Despite greater scrutiny of pro-Israel influence in U.S. politics in recent weeks, American politicians continue to accept paid trips to Israel. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, came under fire for going to Israel in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attack on a trip sponsored by the UJA-Federation of New York. UJA, a local Jewish philanthropic organization, has sent over half a million dollars to groups in Israel that support its illegal settlement program in the West Bank, The Intercept reported. Hochul’s office later said it would cover the cost of a trip, citing a delay in a state ethics review.