The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jewish philanthropies acted as if their work was above politics. Until now.

Ronald Lauder’s new effort against anti-Semitism drops the pretense.

Ronald Lauder attends the Emmy Awards gala last month in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
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The billionaire cosmetic heir Ronald Lauder announced this week that he will spend $25 million to end anti-Semitism in the United States. Lauder plans to use a super PAC as well as a nonprofit organization to fight what he perceives to be a rampant rise of anti-Semitism in American politics.

“It’s my money and what I stand for,” Lauder told the New York Times.

Compared with how American Jewish philanthropists have traditionally operated, Lauder’s statement is bracingly frank. For decades, American Jewish philanthropists sought to present their philanthropy as operating outside the fray of politics. In my historical research on American Jewish philanthropy, I have come to think of these efforts as “depoliticized politics,” a mode of exerting political influence while disavowing political motivation.

Within a broader legal framework that allowed charitable organizations to maintain tax-exempt status as long as they didn’t engage in substantial legislative lobbying or campaign for political candidates, American Jewish philanthropic organizations thrived in the post-World War II years. They pointed to their nonprofit tax status as validation of their apolitical nature. Ironically, this provided a solid base from which to develop a robust political infrastructure, most visible in their activism on behalf of the State of Israel. Instead of describing their activism — meeting with elected officials, organizing mass efforts to protest arms sales or foreign policy decisions and channeling funds to instruments of the Israeli state — as political, they characterized their work as reflecting consensus and nonpartisan communal interests.

The founders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a group that emerged in the 1950s to convey Jewish concerns to U.S. officials, hoped to achieve just that balance between exerting political influence while disavowing a political profile. This balancing act may have stretched the limits of credulity in the 1970s, when Detroit oil and real estate magnate Max Fisher served simultaneously as a key leader of the Conference of Presidents and as the so-called “Jewish liaison” for the Nixon administration. Indeed, in the early 1980s, when Fisher helped create the Republican Jewish Coalition, he noted the importance of drawing a line of distinction between it and the Conference of Presidents — indicating just how seamless the overlap truly was.

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Establishing a plausible gap between engaging in partisan political activism and expressing consensus Jewish interests was one of the signature achievements of late-20th-century American Jewish philanthropy. Philanthropic institutions, including Jewish federations, community relations councils and defense organizations that existed in hundreds of American cities, sought to make it believable that American Jews had a set of unified interests that existed above the political fray, and the structure of American tax law lent credibility to this claim.

A legal fiction inscribed on the desiccated prose of American tax law became an instrument of communal power — as Jewish philanthropic organizations defined what were and were not acceptable positions within the so-called Jewish consensus, especially when it came to American Jews’ support for Israel and their identification and eschewal of anti-Semitism. In the early 1970s, a national Jewish agency issued guidelines to help Jewish institutions abide by IRS rules about political activism. It asserted that Jewish leaders and organizations were bound by no limits when it came to “speaking and acting on public issues of concern to the Jewish community,” regardless of whether such actions might involve endorsing or criticizing electoral candidates or legislation. With an interpretive sleight of hand, the group declared that even when it appeared that Jewish organizations were acting politically, as long as they were representing Jewish interests, they could avoid the label, at least for tax purposes. While clearly not binding on the IRS, these guidelines emboldened Jewish philanthropic organizations to regard an ostensible Jewish consensus as existing beyond politics.

Over time, the same mode of legal interpretation and depoliticized politics has had the unfortunate outcome of convincing American Jews and their leaders that it is a sign of communal failure (not to mention a potential financial and legal risk) to admit that Israel and anti-Semitism are deeply political matters. For example, Birthright Israel, which funds 10-day trips to Israel for young diasporic Jews, avers on its website that it is an “apolitical organization.”

A similar effort to sweep politics under the rug can be seen among organizations such as the Academic Engagement Network and StandWithUs, which seek to root out anti-Semitism on university campuses, signaling their remove from politics by using words such as nonpartisan and nonprofit to describe their work. President Trump’s executive order on anti-Semitism should strain the possibility of viewing these campus-based efforts apart from their political contexts, yet the Anti-Defamation League’s preemptive endorsement of the order immediately provided it with an apolitical sheen.

This is where Lauder’s announcement, perhaps unwittingly, stands to shine much-needed light: No reader of the Times report could miss Lauder’s avowedly political understanding of anti-Semitism and Israel, buried beneath only the thinnest layer of nonpartisan deflection. Most pointedly, Lauder has decided to sequester some percentage of his expenditures from the rules governing charitable activities and, instead, will create a super PAC that has the legal standing to campaign for and against candidates.

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Even more so, in his plan to mobilize a nonprofit organization and a super PAC, Lauder is audaciously exposing the willed blindness it takes to believe that a substantive gap separates one from the other — or that either is bereft of political motivations. Indeed, he has made no effort to cloak his political analysis of what it means to fight anti-Semitism, declaring to the Times that Trump does not have “an anti-Semitic bone in his body” and contributing millions of dollars to the Republican Party and right-wing super PACs.

It is plain risible to think that $25 million can solve anti-Semitism. But at least Lauder is not pulling any punches when it comes to where he stands politically or the political nature of his endeavor. In a philanthropic landscape marked by countless organizations that disavow their political commitments — trading in depoliticized politics — it is refreshing to see someone who is willing to cop to his politics.

Despite describing Max Fisher as “a role model” and, eventually, following in his footsteps to serve as the chair of the Conference of Presidents, Lauder has long approached politics differently. Most visibly, unlike Fisher, who favored quiet political influence and embodied depoliticized politics, Lauder has been far more upfront about his own political aspirations. In 1989, he unsuccessfully challenged front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani in New York’s Republican mayoral primary (and received a generous donation from Fisher).

Yet the Jewish communal world has been so well-trained to believe that philanthropy is insulated from politics that even when evidence to the contrary is put in front of it, one wonders if it will know how to respond. Will Jewish organizations be able to recognize Lauder’s initiative for what he is telling them it is: an overtly political play?

Already, many Jewish groups have shown themselves experts at holding fast to articles of depoliticized faith. One need not look beyond the organizations that go to lengths to explain why funding from right-wing activist Sheldon Adelson comes with no political commitments. Or one might note the number of Jewish communal leaders and pundits intent on talking about how anti-Semitism exists on both the left and the right, as if this fact — which should indicate the political stakes in talking about the issue — can be parlayed into an anodyne and historically fallacious statement that identifying or fighting anti-Semitism is not political.

Even Lauder, despite his bracing honesty about his political aims, stumbles back onto the well-worn path of depoliticized politics, repeating that most superficial and hackneyed statement. He told the Times that he intends to go “after the right as well as the left.” I suspect this will provide just the cover that Jewish philanthropic organizations need as they train their eyes away from the rest of the story — one that busts the myth perpetuated by depoliticized politics — that Lauder’s pledge tells.

The sooner the American public stops telling ourselves the falsely comforting story that philanthropy is not political — a story that justifies the incredible tax benefits we, the public, give to it — the more accurately we will apprehend philanthropy’s enormous political power. And the sooner the Jewish American public stops believing in the fantasy spun by depoliticized politics, the better equipped we will be to grapple with the true political stakes of identifying and fighting anti-Semitism, of defending or criticizing Israel and of letting megadonors speak on our behalf.

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