The images on the screen show American flags on fire, children dressed as suicide bombers, Saddam Hussein triumphantly addressing a throng of Iraqis, and grainy footage of the destruction wrought by a terrorist attack. These arresting pictures and the voice-over narration tell viewers that the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and al-Qaeda’s attacks against the United States are all part of a larger war that Israel and the U.S. must fight together.
Congressmen and senators, White House aides and Pentagon officials, lobbyists and journalists are seeing the ad, which has been running on cable television in the Washington D.C., area. It is just one tactic used by an aggressive new neoconservative think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), to shape American thinking on war, terrorism, and the Middle East. The Foundation is only two years old, but already the group is making its influence felt on the nation’s policymakers.
In early 2001, a tightly knit group of billionaire philanthropists conceived of a plan to win American sympathy for Israel’s response to the Palestinian intifada. They believed that the Palestinian cause was finding too much support within crucial segments of the American public, particularly within the media and on college campuses, so they set up an organization, Emet: An Educational Initiative, Inc., to offer Israel the kind of PR that the Israeli government seemed unable to provide itself.
At first, Emet floundered, without an executive director or a well-defined mission. But that changed after Sept. 11, and Emet changed too, into what is now the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The name is different, but the goal of influencing America’s opinion-forming classes remains.Emet became the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies thanks in large part to Clifford May, FDD’s president and an old hand at the spin game. From 1997 to 2001 he was the Republican National Committee’s director of communications. Before that he was a journalist—associate editor of the Rocky Mountain Daily News and earlier a reporter and Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. May’s vice president, Nir Boms, similarly has a background well suited to the group’s operations. Boms was an academic liaison for the Israeli Embassy in Washington and has served in the Israeli Defense Forces. He came to the group even before May, as Emet’s first hire.
The foundation’s activities under May and Boms have been more ambitious than those of the typical think tank. FDD has targeted its advertising campaigns very carefully, with the television ads that ran in Washington and a print campaign directed specifically at the Hamptons. Hollywood has been considered as another potential target, and the foundation has even discussed using country music as a means to win over the American heartland to FDD’s point of view.Universities are also of particular interest to the foundation. Like Emet before it, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies wants to put to rout what it sees as anti-Israel, and indeed anti-American, bias on college campuses. To that end, FDD has established academic fellowship programs that last summer took 52 undergraduates and 19 professors—plus one journalist, Joel Mowbray, author of Dangerous Diplomacy—to Israel, where they could see the effects of terrorism at first hand and attend lectures by Israeli diplomats, academics, and military personnel, as well as spokesmen from other countries, such as Turkey and India, also dealing with what the foundation calls jihadist terrorism.The foundation has sponsored conferences with other neoconservative groups as well and even sent one of its staffers, policy director Eleana Gordon, to Iraq to organize a conference of Iraqi women in conjunction with USAID. May, meanwhile, is a one-man media whirlwind, arguing FDD’s case on cable television, on talk radio, and through his column on National Review Online.
The organization’s campus programs have given FDD a cadre of media-savvy mini-Mays in colleges and universities across the country. “We look for students who are very bright, who are articulate, who are interested in being activists on this issue when they get back to their campuses,” May says. And activists they do become, sponsoring campus lectures by foundation staff, organizing 9/11 commemorations that have doubled as war rallies, and writing op-eds for local and campus newspapers.
What makes all of this possible is the support the foundation receives from its billionaire backers. Its nearly $3 million annual budget comes from 27 major donors, most of whom are members of “the Study Group”—also sometimes called the “Mega Group” because of their sizeable contributions—a semi-formal organization of major Jewish philanthropists who meet twice a year to discuss joint projects.
The group’s membership includes, among others, U.S. Healthcare founder Leonard Abramson, New York financier Michael Steinhardt, Seagrams patriarch and Jewish World Congress president Edgar S. Bronfman Sr. and his brother Charles, and Lynn Schusterman, widow of Oklahoma oilman Charles Schusterman. Some of the group’s projects have been establishing and funding Birthright Israel, which provides Jewish youths with free travel to the Holy Land; a synagogue restoration program called STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal); and the renovation and re-invigoration of Hillel, the Jewish campus chaplaincy. More than a few of these projects have generated controversy among some American Jews, who see this small group of mega-donors exercising considerable influence over Jewish-American affairs. But for all the debate that has attended some of these projects, none before has been as overtly political as Emet or FDD.Leonard Abramson was the point man for establishing Emet. He, Michael Steinhardt, and Edgar Bronfman were the foundation’s board of directors at the time of its incorporation in the spring of 2001. Their original plan called for Emet to have centers in both the U.S. and Israel, with the Israeli branch to be located at Tel Aviv University under its president, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich. Emet was to have close ties to the Israeli government as well—so close, in fact, that there was some dispute between the mega-donors and the Israeli Foreign Ministry over just whose project this was. On March 9, 2001, three days before Emet’s articles of incorporation were filed in New York, the Forward reported that “A[n Israeli] Foreign Ministry source leaked news of the initiative—called ‘Emet,’ or ‘truth,’ in Hebrew —to Israel Radio, portraying the effort as a Foreign Ministry project that the Americans were trying to co-opt.” According to the Forward, the mega-donors were quick to assert their control in a letter to the Foreign Ministry, saying in part, “Either the Ministry will be part of the project or the Ministry will be left out.”
Israel was the focus of Emet’s first and only major project. Emet worked through Hillel to sponsor fellowships for 40 undergraduates from North America to go to Israel, where “Hillel experts will help students prepare proactive Israel advocacy action plans for their campuses,” according to a Hillel press release dated July 10, 2001. At that time, Nir Boms was the only person working for Emet full-time. By the beginning of September, the mega-donors were looking to jump-start the organization. According to a report publishing in the Forward on Sept. 7, 2001, Emet—even before it became the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies—was already looking to recruit Jack Kemp and Jeane Kirkpatrick, two future FDD board members, to “speak out on Israel’s behalf.” At the same time a prospective board of directors was being assembled, Emet’s backers and their associates were also in discussions with Clifford May about becoming the group’s executive director. When Emet was re-launched as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies shortly after 9/11, May was its president, and Kemp, Kirkpatrick, and Steve Forbes—and also, initially, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)—were on its board of directors.
Money was still coming in from the mega-donors. Edgar Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, together with Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, each gave the organization $250,000 in 2002. (Bronfman and Marcus gave their money directly; Steinhardt’s contribution came through the Judy and Michael Steinhardt Foundation.) Leonard Abramson, Charles Bronfman, and Lynn Schusterman each gave $100,000 or more individually or through personal foundations, as did several other major donors associated with the Study Group. Dalck Feith, father of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, also gave $100,000. The foundation’s revenue in 2002 came to $2.9 million. In addition to such prominent, high-dollar donors, FDD also boasted a board of advisors that reads like a Who’s Who of neoconservative wonks—Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, and Frank Gaffney among them— and politicians and political activists from both parties, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.). Fully funded, fully staffed, and able to claim support from members of both major parties, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, after a slow start as Emet, was ready to step into action.
Along the way the idea for an Israeli branch was jettisoned. May says he is unfamiliar with any plans there may have been for an Emet center in Tel Aviv. And, although there might be some broad similarities between the Emet fellowship program with Hillel and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ own fellowships, May insists that they are two different things. “My conception of what kind of program we should do was rather different,” he says, “… to be honest, I just wasn’t terribly impressed with [Emet’s] conception.” Israel is still the site for the fellowship program, according to May, because it provides a setting in which students and faculty can see terrorism and counter-terrorism up close.
“We take them to Israel for the same reason that you’d take them to Kansas to study tornadoes or equatorial Africa to study tropical diseases. It’s a place where you know you’ll see the impact of terrorism and you’ll see a small country fighting terrorism every day. You can, as we did this summer, take our students, who include Christians—mostly Christians—Jews and, this summer, two Muslims, and you take them to the border with Lebanon, and you can say, ‘You see right there? Look through the binoculars, that’s the Hezbollah outpost. Notice that it’s flying a Hezbollah flag, not a Lebanese flag. Now look over there. That’s a UN outpost. The UN does nothing about Hezbollah except to protect Hezbollah.’”
May and others at FDD emphasize that the foundation is about more than just Israel, however. If Israel seems especially important, that is in large part because of the extensive experience Israel has had with jihadist terrorism. Jihadist terrorists are of more interest than other kinds of terrorists, such as the IRA or the Columbian FARC, simply as a matter of priorities, FDD says. Andrew Apostolou, the foundation’s director of research, notes that other kinds of terrorism may require more attention in the future: “Remember that the worst war crimes of the last decade were committed by Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and these people are perfectly capable of striking out one day, [but] they haven’t yet.”
And just as terrorist threats may not always arise from Islamic fundamentalists, moderate Muslims can be an important ally in the war on terror, according to the staff at FDD. Eleana Gordon stresses that the foundation is careful not to be seen as calling for a war against Islam, and furthermore that it “also communicate[s] that Muslims are probably the number one victims. If you look at … the civil war in Algeria, they kill Muslims and moderate Muslims first.”
For all that, one will not find anyone speaking in behalf of Palestinian complaints against Israel at FDD. Asked about this, Gordon said that addressing such grievances is outside the foundation’s purview. The foundation’s interest lies in the means chosen to press the case. All at the foundation agreed that when terrorism is the means, it must be seen to reflect negatively on whatever cause it is employed to serve. May agreed that this should hold true for Israel as well, and that some discussion of the terrorism perpetrated by Irgun and the Stern Gang would be appropriate for FDD’s programs.
Does all of this mean that the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has abandoned Emet’s goal of providing public relations support for the state of Israel? With mega-donor funding, a very capable staff, and a presence on campuses across the country, FDD is making a difference for someone. At the very least, the billionaire activists who established and support the foundation seem to be getting their money’s worth.