Philanthropy and Politics

a guest post by David Roth and Ardie Geldman

The Olmert-Talansky affair has placed the interplay between philanthropy and politics on page one. Several months ago, the prime minister was accused of accepting a number of envelopes filled with cash from Morris Talansky, a US fund-raiser, for personal gain and/or political purposes. This was soon followed by another criminal investigation of Olmert involving the billing of multiple nonprofit organizations for the same overseas fund-raising trips. While these scandals have received extraordinary attention because they implicate a sitting prime minister, there are other examples of interaction between philanthropists and Israeli politics.

The name that most often comes to mind in this context is Arkadi Gaydamak. The Russian-born tycoon has donated millions to numerous causes in Israel, yet it is no secret that he has political ambitions. Last summer a bill was proposed in the Knesset, commonly known as the Gaydamak law, which would count charitable donations of more than NIS 1 million a year for the four years preceding an election as campaign expenses, should a mega-philanthropist choose to enter politics.

The bill drew attention to the rights and responsibilities of philanthropists in a civil society. On the one hand, the majority of lawmakers were in favor of preventing those with a political agenda from “buying votes” by contributing to numerous charitable causes. On the other, enacting legislation based on a single case could lead to a decrease in philanthropic giving among the country’s business elites in the event that their actions would be misconstrued as trying to unfairly obtain power and privilege.

Several recent articles have addressed this issue: Connie Bruck wrote “The brass ring” about Sheldon Adelson in the June 30 New Yorker. Calev Ben-David wrote a response in The Jerusalem Post on July 10. Griff Witte wrote “Israeli leaders find generous donors in US” in The Washington Post on July 26. These articles provide a broad picture of the influence that foreign donors have had on Israel’s political scene.

ISRAEL’S POLITICAL left-wing has benefited from the Bronfmans and S. Daniel Abraham, who is also a major backer of the Democratic Party. On Israel’s right-wing, Binyamin Netanyahu has benefited from Australian Chabad donor Joseph Gutnick, and currently from Adelson, who is also a major funder of the Republican Party.

In reflecting on this issue, we agree with Ben-David’s opening statement: “Every so often Diaspora Jewish millionaires (or billionaires) get it into their heads that it’s up to them to save Israel from itself and try to use their considerable wealth to influence policy here.” Indeed, we have encountered several American Jews with considerable wealth who seek to use their assets to rescue Israeli society from self-destruction.

Given the scope of this phenomenon, the question arises whether such attempts to influence public policy and the political landscape may be considered legitimate philanthropy or rather constitute an abuse of power at the expense of the democratic process.

In the case of Gaydamak, there are many who, according to opinion polls, believe that his use of philanthropy to further his own political goals is not kosher, even though he is a citizen. How much more so when foreign philanthropists are involved? Talansky may or may not have been duped by Olmert. Nonetheless, he is responsible for his compliance. At best, he raised and donated money to a politician without having carried out sufficient due diligence. Nor did he demand accountability that the funds were to be used exclusively for charitable purposes. At worse, he may have been more deeply involved.

While Adelson’s efforts to remove Olmert and affect Israel’s public policy have been criticized, his primary vehicle for doing so has been through a free daily newspaper – Yisrael Hayom – rather than via donations to philanthropic projects.

IN ALL of these cases the Hebrew expression: ba’al ha’mea, ba’al ha’dea (loosely translated as “the one with the money calls the shots”) comes to mind. We believe that this philosophy is unjust.

To achieve the spirit of philanthropy, funders and beneficiaries must maintain mutual respect and trust, using a partnership model rather than an authoritarian, one-sided model. Philanthropy should strengthen civil society and the democratic process, not weaken it.

Toward this end, the government might consider enacting legislation to ban foreign donors from funding political parties and election campaigns – including party primaries (it is already illegal for overseas donors to fund general election campaigns). Second, the desire to make a difference and change society is praiseworthy, but it should be done differently. Foreign donors can and should feel free to fund advocacy and public policy organizations, along with other worthy nonprofit entities, yet should not raise or donate money to politicians.

Democracy is based on one vote per citizen, regardless of the size of his/her pocket. Philanthropy should stay clear of politics.

The writers are philanthropic consultants with Donor Associates in Israel, Ltd.

Your comments are welcome.