New book considers the role of American Jews — and their money — in the Zionist cause

Eric Fleisch, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University, describes the tensions between American Jewish donors and the causes they fund in Israel

It’s evident on nearly every ambulance, university building, museum wing, concert venue, forest, community center and hospital ward in Israel and in the “our donors” section of almost all Israeli nonprofits: Checkbook Zionism.

Since before the foundation of the State of Israel, American Jews have been raising money for the Zionist project and wanting to weigh in about how to spend it.

This is the topic of Pennsylvania State University professor Eric Fleisch’s new book, Checkbook Zionism: Philanthropy and Power in the Israel-­Diaspora Relationship, which was published in February by Rutgers University Press.

In just under 250 pages, Fleisch examines the history of American Jewish giving to Zionists in pre-state Palestine and the first decades of the state, as well as more contemporary case studies. (Fleisch told eJewishPhilanthropy that he finished writing the book in 2021, meaning the substantial donations made by American Jews to Israel in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 terror attacks are not included.)

For the former sections, Fleisch relies on historical records, correspondences between American and Israeli leaders and existing scholarship. For the latter, Fleisch told eJP that he conducted dozens of interviews with people in both countries — mostly fundraisers, not funders.

The title of Fleisch’s book is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, taking a term that was once used derisively to refer to American Jews’ tendency to express their dedication to Zionism financially and elevate it to a more laudable phenomenon.

He highlights the tensions between American donors and fundraising organizations that provide funding and the Israeli organizations and initiatives that receive the largesse, some aspects of which have changed over the years but which he describes as having largely remained constant over the decades.

The fundamental tension surrounds the issue of how involved American Jews should be in what happens in Israel. This is both on a loftier, philosophical level — how much the State of Israel belongs to all Jews versus the Israelis living there — and on a more practical level — do American Jews know enough about the country to have a well-informed opinion that should be taken seriously.

According to Fleisch, this issue of how informed individual American donors are about Israel has grown more significant over the years. Whereas in the past, the vast majority of American Jewish philanthropy to Israel was done through large umbrella organizations who decided how to allocate the funds, today donors are more likely to give directly to Israeli nonprofits and causes.

“American Jews no longer seem willing to give Israelis the­ free hand to decide how to spend their donations, as they long did. Well over 90 percent of all American Jewish donations now go to some kind of cause that allows them input into use of funds,” Fleisch wrote.

The book opens with a description of a scene from the classic 1964 Israeli film “Sallah Shabati,” in which Jewish National Fund employees dupe visiting multiple groups of American donors into thinking that the same forest was named for each of them by swapping out the signs with their names on it when they visit. (A still from this scene was meant to serve as the book’s cover, but the publisher struggled to determine who owned the rights to it, Fleisch told eJP.)

In the age of the internet, such deceptions are not possible, Fleisch wrote. American Jews are better informed about what is happening in Israel and more interested in playing an active role in how their money gets spent. Yet Fleisch argues that several aspects of the “essential power relationship” between American Jews and Israel have remained the same since “Sallah Shabati” was released and that the changes to the dynamic have been “more cosmetic than systemic.”

As demonstrated in the book, this is not a new debate. Fleisch describes then-Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and his Zionist Organization of America (a markedly different, more liberal organization than the group today) as representing the school of thought for greater American Jewish activism and say-so in how donations toward the Zionist cause get used, while Chaim Weizman and the World Zionist Organization represented the view that American Jews should leave the decision-making in the hands of the Zionists in Israel.

To illustrate the latter view, which eventually became and largely remains the dominant one, Fleisch quotes a letter from former-U.S. ­Treasury Secretary and United Jewish Appeal Chair Henry Morgenthau to then-Israeli Finance Minister Eliezer Kaplan, in which the American Jewish leader criticizes his own community.

“What we fear is that certain Jews in the U.S. ­will dictate to you what you should do with their money,” Morgenthau wrote to Kaplan, adding: “I have confidence in the Jews of Israel, I have no confidence in the Jews of the U.S. who have control over their money.”

Though he is far less blunt and unequivocal, Fleisch tends to subscribe to this deferential view as well, considering Israelis to be better suited to decide how to allocate funds and determine a list of priorities than Americans.

“I think the deference [model] is probably better for Israel,” Fleisch told eJP. “I guess I’m kind of echoing Morgenthau’s perspective, because the most knowledgeable people over here [in the U.S.] — or even the median level of knowledge is — better than it was 60 years ago. But speaking to a lot of American Jews who made aliyah and who now work for these organizations, their off-the-record perspective is that you cannot get [what’s happening in Israel] until you’re here.”

Fleisch quotes Israeli fundraisers and nonprofit leaders who see their funders as both uninformed and uninterested in being informed of the realities in Israel, preferring instead to believe in a “mythology that reflects less what Israel is and more what they want it to be.” Fleisch cites Israel-based fundraisers who found that the more American donors learn about a cause in Israel, the less likely they are to give toward it. He notes in the book that this was true of donors to both left-wing and right-wing causes.

Most American Jewish funders do not necessarily see it this way. Fleisch cites a survey he conducted with donors, finding that they “mostly believed that they ­were up to the task.”

Though he said he is inclined to side with the Israelis, in the book Fleisch notes that the question of whether or not American donors are actually informed is moot; what matters is what the Israelis think.

“Maybe… it is pos­sible for Americans to adequately understand Israel using accessible online resources and making periodic visits. But the impor­tant point to understand here is that almost all Israelis working for the case study NGOs do not think so,” he wrote.

Speaking over Zoom, Fleisch told eJP that in his conversations with Israeli nonprofits, he rarely heard from them that they benefited from the input of their American partners. “I didn’t hear from too many people, ‘We really appreciate the fresh perspective and the unique ideas we’re getting from Americans,” he said.

But he said there were exceptions to that. “That is something that, interestingly, the people of the New Israel Fund were saying,” he said. “And there was a pretty integrated partnership with the San Francisco [Jewish Community] Federation, where there was a cadre of American Jews who were very involved, and their counterparts in Israel did appreciate the fresh perspective that they brought in.”

In addition to addressing the issue of whether American Jewish donors are capable of having informed opinions about what’s happening in Israel, Fleisch also discusses if they ought to.

In his conversations with Israel-based fundraisers and nonprofit leaders, Fleisch finds varying degrees of agreement, from a resounding yes, that all Jews can have a say in all aspects of the State of Israel, to a partial affirmation, with certain areas carved out for Diaspora Jewry’s involvement while others are left to Israelis alone.

“Jerusalem is yours as much as it’s mine —­ and it’s obvious to both of us,” one interviewee told Fleisch. “Tel Aviv is not. Tel Aviv is mine more than it’s yours.”

In the book, Fleisch also looks at a number of case studies, examining the specific relationships between American Jewish organizations and the Israeli groups they fund. He delves deep into the eventual breakdown in the relationship between the Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights and its North American counterpart, which eventually split off over ideological differences, becoming T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Fleisch, who started the project as a doctoral student at Brandeis University, said he was driven to write this book after he realized while doing a project on the New Israel Fund that there was a dearth of research into the issue of American Jewish charitable giving to Israel. 

“I remember the first time I went to the library to look at the Jewish philanthropy section and realized there really wasn’t a Jewish philanthropy section. It was three books, and one of them was 100 years old,” he said. “And I felt that such an important component of the relationship really deserved more attention.”

Fleisch said he did not have a particular goal in mind with the book but hoped that it could be used as a basis for research into other diaspora communities.

“I didn’t write it with an agenda. I think I was really most interested in filling the gaps and telling a contemporary story too,” he said. “But I think my greater interest is to see how this case is maybe used in future research, looking at relationships between other diasporas and homelands.”