A person holds a cardboard protest sign with bubble letters that read, “Silence is Violence”
Image credit: Jason Leung on Unsplash

We are leaders of a nonprofit in the social justice space here in the United States. Outside of calling for a ceasefire early on, we’ve kept relatively quiet on the ongoing Israeli violence that is killing tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza.

But with the United States continuing to supply weapons to the Israeli military—in May, a shipment of another $1 billion in weapons was authorized by President Joe Biden—as well as the bravery of college students across the country risking their futures in protest (with over 2,600 arrested as of May 10), and with a United Nations official issuing a report that states there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, it is important to speak out.

Yet it would be foolish not to acknowledge that many funders and nonprofits are rightfully frightened to take a stand. We are fearful, too. It is for this reason that we are writing this article anonymously.

Understanding the Fear

Opposing the mass killing and growing starvation of an entire people should be a simple position to take.

It would be foolish not to acknowledge that many funders and nonprofits are rightfully frightened to take a stand. We are fearful too.

We do not condone the horrors of October 7, 2023, in which Hamas and its militants killed over 1,000 Israelis and took 250 hostages into Gaza. We also understand that two things can be true at a time: October 7 was wrong, and it is important to acknowledge that it did not happen in a vacuum—as Palestinians have been oppressed by the Israeli government for more than 75 years. Israel’s current response is one that is highly likely to perpetuate and continue the cycle of violence.

And yet nonprofit leaders cower. The fear is not just of being branded as anti-Semitic; it’s existential: rich people may pull their money, without which nonprofits cannot function. While many smaller organizations have taken direct stands in this conflict, most have not—with the fear of retaliation being a leading factor for their inaction.

Make no mistake: Israel’s genocide against the Palestinian people is a racial and gender justice issue.

We, like many mission-based organizations, have struggled with how to communicate our stance. For many months, we thought it wasn’t our lane. We, too, are scared. The McCarthy-like hearings that are happening currently have people losing their jobs, and women of color are the first to be scapegoated, including the former president of Harvard.

But we realize that running an organization dedicated to social justice means we have a responsibility to live our values, even when it’s uncomfortable. Especially when it’s uncomfortable.

Why Gaza Is a Racial and Gender Justice Issue

Make no mistake: Israel’s genocide, funded in large measure ($12.5 billion to date) by the US government, against the Palestinian people is a racial and gender justice issue. We don’t have to imagine the empathy the Western world would proudly display if Palestinians were White.

We can see it in action with the tremendous public and political support for Ukraine. No nonprofit leader was worried about being branded a bigot or losing their funding for expressing their solidarity by posting a blue and yellow flag. The relative silence on the violence occurring in Haiti, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is also revealing of racial dynamics underlying when we, as Americans, choose to show solidarity.

With the majority of the overwhelming death toll in Palestine being women and children, it is certainly a gender justice issue as well. Violence is a tool of the patriarchy, which is quite literally what’s happening with Israel’s male-dominated government enacting this collective punishment upon Palestinians.

As Women Wage Peace—a women-led group in Israel—states in its October 2023 statement condemning the war, “One cannot resolve one injustice with another injustice.” The statement further acknowledges that “even though this is 2023, there are almost no women in decision-making forums in Israel.”

Nobody Is Free Until Everyone Is Free

Sometimes it takes the courage of a few to start a movement. We urge others to join us in speaking out. US nonprofits dedicated to advancing social justice play a crucial role in advocating for the marginalized, amplifying the voices of the oppressed, and striving for a more equitable society.

This mission implicitly extends beyond domestic borders. As Civil Rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer said: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” The principles that guide nonprofits in our domestic advocacy for racial and gender justice are fundamentally universal. Equality, human rights, and justice do not cease to matter across international borders. The systemic oppression of Palestinians in Gaza—marked by severe military aggression, blockades, and a staggering loss of civilian life—starkly mirrors the systemic racism and patriarchal violence that these organizations fight against here.

If US nonprofit leaders remain silent, we not only betray our foundational values but also tacitly endorse the dehumanization of Palestinians, made possible by our own elected leaders. Organizations working on racial justice know all too well the pain and consequences of dehumanizing people, and it is unconscionable to watch it happen from a distance without saying something.

Our Struggles Are Interconnected

As scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality teaches us, all forms of oppression are interconnected. The struggles against racism, sexism, and other discrimination cannot be isolated from one another. For US nonprofits and funders, embracing intersectionality means recognizing that the fight against oppression in one part of the world is intrinsically linked to the fight against oppression everywhere.

The almost century-long Palestinian struggle for self-determination and human rights is a clear example of intersectionality. The population in Gaza faces systemic violence and dehumanization akin to the racial injustices faced by Black and Indigenous communities in the United States.

While it’s easy to feel powerless in this moment, we are not. Nonprofits have the power to shape public opinion and influence policy through advocacy. By speaking out, we can all help shift the narrative, challenging the media’s often one-sided portrayal of the conflict. We can pressure policymakers to reconsider the unconditional support that enables the continuation of human rights abuses. We can stand behind and support the very brave students who are peacefully exercising their right to protest and engage in civil disobedience as so many did during the Civil Rights movement. We can organize to support our colleagues who are under immense scrutiny for speaking out at all.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors possess the power to shift the political status quo.

Of course, there is that financial dependency that pays our bills, which cannot be ignored. It is true that we as a sector have been willing accomplices as more and more money that funds our sector comes from fewer and fewer people. How often have we touted big donations and not asked ourselves if there was a price for accepting those donations? As Dean Spade, a law professor at Seattle University, reminds us, payment often creates a dependency on whoever foots the bill.

This has been a long-term trend. Back in 2019, Shena Ashley, then head of the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute, reported that 20 million Americans had “decided between 2000 and 2016 to stop contributing directly to charitable organizations.” With fewer small donors, there’s less sectoral independence, an effect we are feeling right now.

An open letter signed by over 150 Jewish members of the philanthropic community noted that some funders are “withdrawing funding for and/or delaying payments to organizations that speak up for the lives and safety of the Palestinian people.” We realized that to put our names on this piece would mean the very real potential of losing core support. This is our imperfect way of protecting our staff and the very important work they do while also feeling the pull to speak out on how this topic is bringing longstanding power dynamics of the nonprofit world into stark relief.

The bottom line: if we take a stand, we may lose funders and come under government surveillance. Given the power dynamics of the philanthropic world, this is not a risk most nonprofits are able to take.

One way to enable organizations to speak out against the escalating violence in Gaza is for foundations to let their grantees know they will continue to support them. The Kataly Foundation has set a strong example in supporting Arab- and Jewish-led organizations in the United States who are engaged in efforts toward Palestinian liberation and peace building. Another avenue is for funders themselves to call for divestment from Israel, a tactic that shifts the focus from the individual organization to the larger solution. Beyond philanthropy, trade associations within the nonprofit sector might also be able to take collective stands even if they are too risky for individual nonprofits to take on.

In short, while it is easy to feel helpless in this situation, the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors possess the power to shift the political status quo. And as we saw with the end of apartheid in South Africa, divestment can dismantle decades of oppression.

Today, it’s imperative for racial and gender justice advocates to act in solidarity with the people of Gaza if we are to have any hope of finally ending atrocities like this for good. But longstanding power dynamics within the philanthropic sector make that exceedingly difficult. Social justice funders in the United States, however, can make a difference if they lead by example and send a clear message to the nonprofits that they support that if their grantees stand up for human rights, they will continue to support them, even when doing so might be controversial.