The “Israel First” Industry and CEO Profiteering

During the first half of the 20th century, socially conscious Jews in the United States organized a large network of solidarity and charity associations financed mostly through small donations, raffles, and dues by working and lower middle class supporters. Many of these associations dealt with the everyday needs of Jewish workers, immigrants, and families in need. Some were linked to labor unions, social democratic, and leftist parties. Their leaders were, in many cases, individuals who worked long hours engaged in resolving problems and intervening in local crises. They drew a modest paycheck – (when funding was available) – comparable to that of a skilled worker. A few women’s groups like the Hadassah went door to door in predominantly Jewish commercial districts, hitting up Jewish and non-Jewish storekeepers with raffle tickets to purchase beds in Hebrew hospitals in Palestine/Israel. The predominant ethic was improving the livelihood of Jews in America, joining with the America left and labor groups in united fronts against fascism and domestic, ethnic and racial supremacist organizations. Up until the establishment of Israel, Zionist organizations were a small minority in the Jewish community, especially among working class Jews.

Growing up in a multi-ethnic working class community (Lynn, Massachusetts) most of our Jewish friends and neighbors were workers and small shopkeepers: house painters, bookkeepers, carpenters, truck drivers (Gatso Feldman), window repairers (a long white bearded rabbi), junk collectors (Mr. Stone) on a horse drawn wagon calling for business with his whiskey hoarse voice (“Rax, Rax, Rax”! [Rags!]), butchers, bakers, drug store owners, tailors (“Sam, you made the pants too long”), fur and leather workers (Goldie Goldstein), warehousemen and a few owners. On the shady side there were poolroom hustlers (Marty Z), prostitutes (Sophie K) and gangsters (Louie F). In the mid-1950’s, Jews and non-Jews were engaged in a punch-out with the reactionary, anti-Semitic Feeneyites on Boston Common.

But by the late 1940’s changes began to take place under the pressure of events. As my Jewish college friend Paul L tells it, “One day the photo of Karl Marx, at the front of his Yiddish classroom, was taken down and replaced by one of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism.” The reasons were two-fold: Joseph McCarthy the anti-communist was coming to town to interrogate and blacklist the leaders of United Electrical Workers at the local giant General Electric plant in Lynn. Second, the founding of Israel converted the Yiddish social democratic directors from leftists to Zionists — and Zionists were not on McCarthy’s agenda. By the mid-1950’s, the right turn among the Jewish labor associations was visible – literally! One night after our studies, I met up with two Jewish friends and we walked to Peter’s bar (10-cent beers with a rancid after-taste). On our way, my friends argued left-wing politics – Paul was for social democracy, Lenny for Trotskyism – I was the audience and potential adherent. As we passed the store window of the Workingman’s Circle (a Yiddish pro-labor organization), Lenny stopped and triumphantly pointed to a sign in the window – a US Marine recruitment poster! Paul was crushed.

At 14 years of age, I went to work at my father’s fish store in neighboring town of Revere, where the vast majority of our customers were Jews, many immigrants from Vilnius. Though there were several fish markets with Jewish owners – my father competed successfully because of his daily trek to the Atlantic Avenue piers in Boston to provide his customers with the freshest fish, caught the night before by Italian fishermen from the North End.

Of the thousands of customers, I recall only a couple of cases of Jewish supremacy: One well-known “yenta” (disagreeable woman) came in the store, saw our prices and then announced, “For those prices I could buy from a Jew!” Needless to say, she was sent on her way with a shower of Greek and Yiddish invectives from my father and his part-time fish-cutter Julius, ‘the Bolshevik from Vilnius’!

The Great Transformation

Over the past fifty years a far-reaching transformation has taken place within Jewish organizations, among its leaders and their practices and policies. Currently, Jewish leaders have converted charities, social aid-societies and overseas programs for working class Jews into money machines for self-enrichment; converted charities funding health programs for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism into the funding of colonial settlements for armed Zionist zealots intent on uprooting Palestinians; and organized a powerful political machine which buys US Congress people and penetrates the Executive in order to serve Israeli military aims. From defending human rights and fighting fascism, the leaders of the principle Jewish organizations defend each and every Israeli violation of Palestinian human rights – from arbitrary arrests of non-violent dissidents to the detention of children in ‘cages.’ Israel’s Kafkaesque prolonged administration detention without trial is approved by contemporary leaders. In the past Jewish leaders, especially labor and socially-engaged activists had joined forces with Leftists in opposition to political bigots, McCarthyite purges and blacklists. Today’s leaders practice the very same bully, blackmail and blacklist politics against critics of Israel and its Zionist appendages.

Big Bucks: The Israel First Industry

In the past Jewish leaders of social aid organizations received modest salaries, not any more than those of skilled workers. Today the leaders of the major Jewish “non-profit” organizations are millionaires drawing between $200,000 and $800,000 a year plus lucrative allowances for “business expenses” (travel, housing, meals, etc.) which add another 30% to their income.

The moderately social liberal Jewish weekly, The Forward, recently completed a survey of the salaries of Jewish “not-for profits” leaders, with the aid of a professor from the Wharton School of Business (University of Pennsylvania). Among the leading profiteers was Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) earning $688,280, Howard Kohr of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — $556,232, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) — $504,445, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) — $435,050, Janice Weinman of Hadassah — $410,000, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (PMJO) — $400,815, Mark Helfield of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society — $268,834 and Ann Toback of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring — $185,712. These salaries and perks put the Jewish leaders of non-profits in the upper 10% of US incomes — a far cry from the not-too-distant past. According to the analysis by the Forward and the Wharton team, ‘most leaders (CEOs) are vastly overpaid – earning more than twice what the head of an organization of their size would be expected to make”.

While the membership has declined in many organizations, especially among working and lower middle class Jews, the funding has increased and most important the plutocratic leaders have embraced a virulent militarist foreign policy and repressive domestic policies. Forward describes Abraham Foxman as “diverting the ADL from its self-described mission of fighting all forms of bigotry in the US and abroad to putting the ADL firmly on the side of bigotry and intolerance.” We can add that the ADL was convicted of spying on political groups in the US and has been active in bullying academic institutions to fire professors and civic organizations to cancel events critical of Israel and the “Israel First Industry” in the US.

The overwhelming response of the Jewish readers to the Forward’s survey was one of indignation, disgust, and anger. As one reader commented, “The economic disconnect between their (CEOs) salaries and the average incomes of those who contribute to their charities is unacceptable”. Another indignant reader remarked succinctly: “Gonifs! (Thieves!)”. Many announced they could cut off future donations. One formerly orthodox reader stated, “I would rather give to a street beggar than to any of these”.

The drop-off of donations from lower-middle class Jews, however, will have little effect in reducing the salaries of the ‘non-profit’ CEO’s or changing the politics of their ‘non-profits; because they increasingly depend on six and seven digit contributions from Jewish millionaires and billionaires. Moreover, the contributions by big donors are linked to the politics of repression at home and securing multi-billion dollar military aid and trade programs for Israel from the US Treasury. The billionaire donors have no objection to funding the millionaire leaders – as long as they concentrate their efforts on buying the votes of US Congress members and aligning their politics with Israel’s war aims. Foxman will continue to be “overpaid” for running an organization with a rapidly declining membership, which does not fight bigotry, so long as he secures big bucks from right-wing Zionist donors who value his success in sabotaging the White House – Iran interim agreement and securing new Senate sanctions against Iran.

Likewise in 2013, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr pocketed $556,232 in salary plus $184,410 for “expenses” ($740,647 in total), for dedicating most of his budget and lobbyists to fighting for US sanctions against Iran, supporting US wars for Israel in the Middle East, funding Jews only settlements in Palestine and securing US vetoes of UN resolutions critical of Israeli war crimes.

David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee ($504,445 plus expenses) has devoted most of the AJC’s time and resources to pressuring Congress and the Executive to follow Netanyahu’s demand for harsher sanctions on Iran. Harris is an inveterate liar and slanderer. According to the Forward, “On July 1 (2013), a few weeks after Hassan Rohani was elected as Iran’s new President, Harris charged that Rohani was implicated in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires. This was a week after Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor (and an ardent Jewish Zionist) had informed the Times of Israel editor, David Horvitz, that Rohani was neither under indictment nor accused of any involvement.”

Conclusion

The Great Transformation among American Jewish charitable organizations is evidenced by the shift (1) from social aid for working Jews, poor immigrants, and elderly Holocaust victims to political influence peddling at the service of the highly militarized state of Israel, (2) from engaging in social welfare for American Jews to political lobbying for military transfers to Israel, (3) from grassroots leaders sharing life styles and struggles with their rank and file donors to millionaire CEO’s entertaining Zionist billionaires and banging tables for Israel at the White House while paying off Congressional influence and (4) from reaching out and aligning with Americans working for peace with justice in the Middle East to embracing every tin horn monarch and dictator who signs off on Israeli annexation of Palestinian land.

The key to the transformation is located in the ideological and structural transformation among the leaders of the Jewish organizations. The rise to prominence – indeed the centrality – of billionaire/millionaire Zionist donors has put in place leaders who mirror their Israel-First outlook and who have similarly enriched themselves. Second, the Great Transformation of Jewish charitable organizations has resulted from the ascendancy of an ethnic supremacist ideology which views ‘others’ as inferior subjects to be ruled by the superior intelligence of Jewish political and business leaders and which orders that the ‘disobedient’ and ‘dissident’ be castigated as ‘anti-Semites’ and punished by jail, media ostracism, censorship, overt threats and, most commonly, loss of employment. A key consequence of the rise to political power of the once socially conscious Jewish organizations is the shedding of their popular mass base. Members have resigned in protest over the CEO’s manipulative authoritarian leadership style. Expulsions and harassment have forced others to retire. But most of all the leadership’s blind political submission to Israeli state policy and self-enrichment has alienated growing numbers of young socially active, as well as, middle age Jews who are disenchanted with their Gonif leaders.

As disenchantment grows, the organized groups and leaders act with greater discipline and aggression to preserve their false image as “representatives of the Jewish community.” Jewish dissidents are silenced or isolated. The CEO “leaders” and their rabbinical allies fuse ethno-supremacy, the menorah, the Israeli flag and the politics of Israel-First into a powerful instrument of internal control. Lucrative salaries and personal enrichment at the service of Israel are not a crime: They are viewed as virtues, at least among respectable … gonifs.

I remember the older brother of a boyhood friend, a Jew who joined the Lincoln Brigade and fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. More recently I recall a young student at Binghamton University telling me he was going to Israel to serve with the Israeli Defense Forces after graduation. No doubt this young American’s Zionist “militancy” will translate into breaking the legs of protesting Palestinian school children. Yes, a ‘transformation’ has taken place but I must confess that I prefer Izzy Levine’s candy and comic book store where neighborhood school kids socialized, including the descendants of Sicilians, Odessa Jews, Afro-Americans and Spartan Greeks, over the current Judeo-centric CEOs who run the ‘Israel-First’ industry. Izzy was a far greater American than the political blackmailer, police informer and millionaire gonif Abe Foxman.

James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books). Petras’ most recent book is The Arab Revolt and the Imperialist Counterattack. He can be reached at: jpetras@binghamton.edu. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.