Nathan Cummings Foundation’s New Grantmaking Priority Leaves Some in the Lurch

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January 24, 2014; Jewish Daily Forward

The announcement of the change in the grantmaking strategy of the Nathan Cummings Foundation is a little difficult to interpret—or perhaps it is the way that the change was reported in the Forward. Long a prominent funder of liberal Jewish organizations, the foundation, established by the founder of Sara Lee Corp., is ending its Jewish life grantmaking program, which had typically distributed roughly $6 million annually to many liberal Jewish organizations. Many of these grant recipients were addressing issues at the heart of the putative peace talks between the Netanyahu government in Israel and the Abu Abbas leadership of the Palestinian Authority, currently being strongly promoted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The alternative, announced by the relatively new president and CEO of the foundation, Simon Greer, is to focus the foundation’s grantmaking on income inequality and climate change. “Jewish groups that decided that our biggest issues of today—our water, our air, our food, jobs—that’s not the Jewish community’s problem are doing the wrong calculation,” Greer said, according to the Forward.

Getting potentially defunded—or at least excluded for future funding—are organizations that were known for promoting a two-state solution to Israel’s relationship with its Palestinian neighbors. Among the potential losers of NCF funding in this strategic change would be J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and the Israel Policy Forum, all of which promoted a two-state solution to Israel’s ongoing tensions with the West Bank and Gaza. J Street spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum told the Forward, “It’s a shame that they are choosing to disengage from this important work at this time.”

Simon explained that some of the foundation’s previously funded Jewish groups would probably fit into the new guidelines focusing on climate change and socio-economic inequality. Simon’s previous job was as head of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, which received about one-sixth of its annual $6 million budget from Cummings. Bend the Arc leadership expressed confidence in the foundation and in Simon’s new strategic direction. Unlike groups like J Street, Bend the Arc describes itself as “seek[ing] to leverage the Jewish community’s political clout, access and financial resources on many domestic issues.” Bend the Arc is the product of the 2011 merger of the Jewish Funds for Justice and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, focused on domestic U.S. issues. Bend the Arc’s current array of campaigns address affordable housing production, immigration reform, a bill of rights for domestic workers, and progressive taxation.

Where does that leave groups trying to deal with the situation in Israel? The Forward offers a couple of statements from Greer that are not very clear. “The folks who are probably most worried [about the NCF strategic change] are groups that relied, in my humble opinion, too heavily on having been insulated from competition,” he explained. He said that grantees would no longer have to prove that they were “the best Jewish group” addressing a specific issue, but “doing the best work” on it. Given the focus on climate change and income inequality, that explanation omits groups pushing the recalcitrant Netanyahu government, or perhaps more accurately, some of Netanyahu’s coalition allies, toward a two-state solution. Greer believes, as the Forward explained, that it was no longer needed to promote the two-state solution, that the two-state idea was now in the mainstream of American Jewish thought, and “two-state solution” advocacy organizations can “stand on their own.”

It might be that Simon is referring to the position of the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose website announces that “AIPAC strongly supports a two-state solution and works tirelessly to bring peace to the region. A two-state solution—a Jewish state of Israel living in peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state—with an end to all claims is the clear path to resolving this generations-old conflict.”

The challenge is one of defining the contours and sovereignty of a future Palestinian state. The late Ariel Sharon pulled Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip, but the current Israeli prime minister is on record that he will not do the same regarding settlements on the West Bank, and in fact favors keeping the settlements there even after a future Palestinian state emerges, though some of Netanyahu’s allies don’t quite agree with the idea of living under Palestinian sovereignty. Moreover, just after Kerry left the region following his most recent visit, the Israeli government announced plans for 1,400 new housing units in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a move that many people view as being illegal in addition to being unhelpful.

Overall, since the resumption of peace talks, the Israeli government has announced plans for over 5,300 settlement units. Palestinians have objected strongly to the peace talks while the Israeli government proceeds with new housing in the settlements, while a recent poll shows 87 percent of Israelis believe that the peace talks will be a failure.

With AIPAC and even Netanyahu signaling nominal support for a two-state solution, Greer is probably right that the two-state terminology has entered the lexicon of the American Jewish mainstream. However, what a two-state solution means and how the various parties might actually get there are questions to be pursued by the nonprofits that the Nathan Cummings Foundation may well defund under its new grants strategy.—Rick Cohen