BDS battles

Looking to bring on new funders, Maccabee Task Force scales back and focuses on key campuses, social media influencers

Touting group’s successes, director David Brog says he laments flying too low under the radar until now

Maccabee Task Force, which fights antisemitism on college campuses, is scaling back its operations for the coming academic year, cutting the number of universities on which it operates from 100 to 75 as it looks to attract new funders, its director, David Brog, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Until now, the budget for the organization has come primarily from the Adelson Family Foundation, which has given tens of millions of dollars to the group since its inception in 2015, but Maccabee Task Force is now looking to bring on new donors and partners. Brog stressed that this was not because of a budget cut or concerns about one but as a proactive measure. “They’ve not given me a deadline… or said, ‘We’re going to cut you off,’” he said.

“The Adelsons wanted to build this, but they never meant to fund this in perpetuity. They’ve proven the concept and now they want others to step in and partner with them,” Brog said. “The Adelson family is incredibly generous in supporting this effort, almost single-handedly. They continue to be extremely generous, but they’re looking for partners.”

Brog, who founded the Maccabee Task Force with Sheldon Adelson, said he is actively looking for new funders and already speaking with several potential donors, whom he hopes to attract by demonstrating the program’s successes so far and his intention to maximize its potential by focusing on a “lean, mean list of campuses” that are likely to have the greatest and longest-lasting impact.

Going forward, Brog said MTF is operating on campuses that are “both important battlegrounds today but also ones that give us that secondary benefit of being the campuses that produce the lion’s share of tomorrow’s leaders.” Generally speaking, this means Ivy League schools and other big-name universities whose graduates are more likely to hold positions of power in the future, according to Brog, who previously led Christians United for Israel and who had an unsuccessful bid as a Republican candidate for Congress last year in Nevada.

“It’s important that we see that this is an investment in future leadership because the anti-Israel narrative that dominates leadership circles on campus is also a narrative that’s coming to dominate important segments of the base of the Democratic Party, and it’s showing up now in our national politics,” Brog said. “When we shatter and disprove the anti-Israel myths on campus today, we’re also producing leaders down the road when it comes to national politics or national media or national business.”

Unlike other BDS-focused groups, MTF directs the overwhelming majority of its efforts and funding not toward empowering or convincing Jewish students but toward outreach to non-Jewish student leaders, mostly those of color. Brog said at first he went the route of bolstering pro-Israel and Jewish students and watched other groups do the same, but found that it had limited impact.

“Most of what the pro-Israel community does on this topic fails to go out beyond the pro-Israel circle and penetrate this ‘silo’ [of progressive students],” Brog said. “No one will show up to hear that pro-Israel speaker except for students who are already pro-Israel and, if you’re lucky – only if you’re lucky – maybe one or two people who are there to protest, not to listen. The same goes for falafel brunches and the Krav Maga classes.”

Instead, MTF works through the university’s Hillel to “map the campus” and identify approximately 20 influential student leaders, most of whom are “critical of Israel, if not outright hostile,” and invite them to take part in a subsidized trip to Israel along with a handful of pro-Israel students.

MTF generally gives the campuses a fair amount of leeway, providing the funding for the trips, but leaving the participant selection process and the follow-up efforts up to local Hillel staffers or student fellows. On the trips, participants not only visit Israel but also Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank and hear from Palestinian officials and activists. 

“These students are already a little critical of Israel. They’re not going to agree to go to Israel and not hear from the other side,” Brog said. “So if we want to get those students on the bus to begin with, we have to make this a trip where you hear from both sides. But I think that’s a good thing because ultimately they’re getting a more realistic view of both Israel and the PA [Palestinian Authority] – warts and all.”

While Brog and MTF would be thrilled to see the students all become staunch supporters of the State of Israel, the goal is to at least get them to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as more complicated and nuanced than they originally thought, he said.

The organization tracks its success on that front in two ways: post-trip surveys gauging perceptions of Israel and, less quantitatively, through reports on the participants’ activities on campus after the trips.

“The post-trip surveys show what you’d imagine, that their opinions of Israel have changed, that they’re more favorable, etc. That’s not what really interests me,” Brog said. “I’m more interested in what students do when they get back to campus than in what they say on the survey.”

More than 5,000 students have gone on a trip sponsored by MTF, with another roughly 1,800 set to do so by the end of this academic year, the organization said. According to Brog, roughly 50 percent of the participants adopt a less critical but still ambivalent view of Israel. If they are in student government, they may not vote in favor of a BDS resolution the next time one comes up for a vote or maybe even vote against it. Another 40% will “go a step further and they’ll actively help us fight BDS,” he said, while roughly 10% “go even further and become active members of the pro-Israel community.”

Brog said he was “aware of maybe a dozen students who’ve come back and will still support BDS in some way, voting for it or voicing support for it,” which he said indicates that MTF’s strategy is effective.

“If you recruit well and you bring them to Israel and the PA, like we do, the trip works. It’s magic, it changes hearts and minds,” Brog said.

Through the Hillels, MTF keeps in touch with the participants after the trips, encouraging them to host joint activities on campus. A Black student union, for instance, could partner with Hillel to bring in an Ethiopian Israeli to speak about their experiences, he said.

The idea for the trips emerged relatively early on in MTF’s history, in the spring of 2016, when the organization was still figuring out what worked and what didn’t by funding different initiatives on different campuses, some of which it ended up disavowing.

“The University of California, Los Angeles, had done this trip, and it produced great success for them. They recommended it as something that might be effective for us. At that point, I had gone through a lot of usual suspects and funded a lot of the typical stuff, and I was completely dissatisfied with our return on investment,” he said.

While Brog said he was more than satisfied with the impact from the trips, they come at a steep price, literally. “We’ve identified a strategy that works and works well, even in this new and very challenging environment. The problem is, it’s a very expensive strategy. That trip to Israel is not cheap,” he said.

According to Brog, each of these trips initially cost roughly $100,000. “Now they cost $110,000 because the price of everything has gone up,” he said. MTF will have run approximately 315 trips by the end of this academic year.

In 2019, MTF began operating on campuses in countries outside the United States. There too, Brog said the organization would be scaling back, save for at particularly influential universities, like the United Kingdom’s Oxford and Cambridge or France’s Sciences Po, as well as in South Africa, which he said was “ground zero for BDS.”

One area where MTF is not scaling back is in a newer program that brings social media influencers with large followings, particularly those in what Brog called the “progressive ecosystem,” to Israel.

“We take them on trips that are tailored to their particular interests and build relationships with them. The goal is really not just to get social media influencers who, in exchange for a trip, will do a few nice posts while they’re in Israel,” Brog said. “The goal is to really show people the heart and soul of Israel to the point where they get attached to Israel, where Israel becomes something they care about, and they continue to post after the trips.”

Brog said this initiative has already seen success. “We’ve invested under half a million, but the return on that investment, if you had to purchase it, if you wanted to buy this influence in the social media world would be over $100 million. The ROI has been fantastic. So we are also continuing our social media influencer outreach,” he said.

Today, Brog laments his decision early on to keep a low profile about Maccabee Task Force’s activities. Indeed, many of these trips offered by the different Hillels do not include Maccabee Task Force in their descriptions.

“We’ve been so good about not branding this, not whipping out a press release every time one of our buses comes back or leaves, and it’s been good because it’s enabled this organic success of this project,” Brog said. “But the frustration is that now I need to get word out about what we’re doing. People need to realize the value of what we’re doing if they’re going to consider investing in it.”