Maccabee Games

The Maccabee Task Force offers free, “progressive” trips to Israel and the West Bank to diverse undergrads. But their aim is to defeat BDS on campus.

Jess Schwalb
December 24, 2019
Maccabee Task Force
A Maccabee Task Force group of “student leaders” in Israel. Courtesy of the Maccabee Task Force website.

This report is a collaboration between Jewish Currents and New Voices.

LAST SPRING, a friend of University of Minnesota student Natasha Sohni nominated her to join a selective cohort of campus leaders on a free trip to Israel and Palestine. The trip, offered through UMN Hillel, promised an in-depth look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and fully subsidized travel to boot. Sohni remembers the friend saying that her leadership on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the UMN Student Association made Sohni a particularly good candidate. “It was called the ‘Fact Finders Leadership Trip,’” Sohni said. “Everyone kept saying ‘thanks to a generous donor, it will be fully funded’ so I just assumed that Hillel was funding it.” 

But in fact, the UMN Fact Finders trip was instigated and funded by the Maccabee Task Force (MTF), an anti-BDS organization founded in 2015 by right-wing billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and currently led by David Brog, the former head of Christians United for Israel (CUFI). During Maccabee’s first two years, the organization donated to more than 40 Hillel chapters across the US and Canada, with an average donation of more than $100,000. This September, Maccabee sent an email update claiming that during the 2018–2019 school year the organization was active on 80 campuses, funded 1,244 pro-Israel events, and facilitated 74 Israel trips like the one Sohni went on through her Hillel.

The largest and best-known free Israel tour for young people is Birthright, to which Adelson is by far the largest donor. But while Birthright is open exclusively to Jewish-identified participants, the majority of travelers on Maccabee Task Force trips are non-Jewish. The tour is also distinguished by its explicit discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Maccabee trips, students go to the West Bank and hear from Palestinians, excursions not found on any Birthright itinerary (Birthright ordered trip providers to stop meeting with Palestinians in 2017). 

On first glance, it seems that Maccabee trips may be a valuable opportunity to expose student leaders—MTF unironically calls them “influencers”—to a more ideologically diverse and politically engaging tour of Israel. Trip itineraries obtained by Jewish Currents do in fact include significant engagement with Palestinian people and narratives, in contrast to Birthright. Yet the organization’s anti-BDS agenda, right-wing leadership, and determination to obscure its involvement on campus (hence its use of Hillel as a middleman) all indicate that something more complicated is occuring. 

University of Vermont senior and J Street U organizer Alec Collins noticed that on his campus, “leaders” or “influencers” seemed to be code for students of color. “MTF aims a lot at ‘diversity group’ leadership such as Black student unions and Asian student unions,” he told me. UMN senior Josh Spencer-Resnik, who has been organizing other students to oppose the Maccabee trip since 2018, observed a similar trend. “They say they’re targeting ‘student leaders’ who they hope to convince to vote no on potential divestment resolutions,” Spencer-Resnik explained. “[And it’s] especially leaders of minority student groups.” 

MTF’s website and monthly email updates stress the importance of rebuilding pro-Israel “coalitions,” particularly with marginalized communities on campus. “What we need is a pro-Israel organization making the progressive case for Israel to the progressive community in progressive language,” Brog told Haaretz in 2015. Maccabee’s desire to put its pro-Israel agenda in progressive language trickles down into how Hillels market their trips. For example, New York University’s Bronfman Center advertised its 2018 MTF trip (which it called “NYU Israel Experience”) as “an effort to promote intersectionality and inclusiveness,” with no explanation of how the trip promotes either. 

Progressive language and a free trip to Israel/Palestine appear to be Maccabee’s antidote for the strained relationships between Hillels and progressive student groups in the aftermath of divisive divestment votes on campus. “Getting our pro-Israel students together on a bus for a week in Israel with representatives of these other communities . . . takes our coalition building efforts on campus to a much higher level very quickly,” Brog explained in an interview with The Times of Israel. To Maccabee, however, coalition means little more than “expanding the size of [the] pro-Israel base on campus.”

WHILE RECENT IFNOTNOW AND J STREET U CAMPAIGNS have prompted increased scrutiny on free and subsidized trips to Israel, Maccabee trips seem to have avoided similar ire from the left. Maccabee’s newness and smaller scale may be contributing to the lack of national backlash against the organization. Maccabee may also be flying under the radar because the group intentionally keeps a low profile on campus. Since 2015, trips have proliferated under vague names such as “Perspectives,” “Building Bridges,” or “Fact Finders,” rarely listing the donor organization’s name. In 2017, Brog told JNS that Maccabee hopes to give Hillel “credit” and therefore thinks it best “to work behind the scenes, and let the students on the frontlines and the pro-Israel professionals . . . lead the way. If you let them take credit and responsibility for what you do, then they welcome the help.”

In response to questions about whether Hillels are transparent about Maccabee’s involvement on campus, Hillel International Vice President of Communications Matt Berger told me that students “have a good understanding of what the trip is. Students understand that the trip is a Hillel program and designed by Hillel professionals with student input.”

While some Hillel chapters publicly advertise their relationship with MTF on their websites, most are less forthcoming, making it difficult for students to make informed decisions about the agenda of the organizing body. University of Vermont Hillel recruited students using a GoogleForm that called the trip “UVM Perspectives” and elided any mention of MTF. Northwestern Hillel similarly called their Maccabee trip “NU Perspectives” and advertised it as “Northwestern Hillel’s leadership journey to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.” 

Daniela Hernandez, a Northwestern student who went on the campus’s second Maccabee-sponsored trip in August 2019, said she didn’t know who funded the trip. “The reason that I went was that everything was paid for,” she said, adding, “It was so clear that there was an agenda, but I didn’t ask who funded it. I didn’t really want to look a gift horse in the mouth.” Natasha Sohni learned that Maccabee funded UMN Fact Finders only after her trip returned. “Learning more about that organization, knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would have gone,” she said.

Maccabee is one of many mega-funders of the crusade against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS). Josh Nathan-Kazis reported last year in the Forward that the Israeli government and American Jewish organizations such as Maccabee, Canary Mission, and the Israel on Campus Coalition spend, in aggregate, “tens of millions of dollars each year” to combat BDS. This powerful, well-funded effort has not come from students or even Hillels, as Nathan-Kazis pointed out in a 2019 interview with Jewish Currents, but “from ideas developed by think tanks in Israel, and leaders of the American-Jewish community.” These anti-BDS efforts recently received a boost from the White House when Donald Trump signed an executive order designed to target Palestine solidarity activists on campus.

Maccabee’s leadership is a who’s who of far-right fixtures in American Jewish life. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, among the biggest donors to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, bankroll the organization; their son-in-law, Patrick Dumont, is MTF’s treasurer. Alan Dershowitz, who in his latest book calls himself “Israel’s ambassador to the Jews of America,” has been on Maccabee’s board since 2015 as an unpaid “director.” Brog, the current executive director, previously headed CUFI, the Christian Evangelical Zionist organization that is currently the largest pro-Israel group in the US, claiming over 7 million members. Though CUFI’s founder and CEO, televangelist Minister John Hagee, has blamed the Holocaust on “half-breed Jews” and praised Nazis, in 2006 Brog wrote to The Nation in his defense, calling him “a proud and reliable friend to the Jewish people.” (CUFI recently lobbied for the Antisemitism Awareness Act, reintroduced this summer in Congress in a prelude to Trump’s executive order.) When asked about MTF’s far-right connections, and about CUFI in particular, Hillel International’s Berger told me, “We’re involved with Maccabee Task Force because we believe in the mission of these trips and the partnership,” and denied working with these other organizations.

Still, Maccabee’s funding of campus Hillels comes with several caveats. For example, Maccabee money cannot be used to fund J Street U; Brog has said that J Street’s positions “step out” of the “broad consensus” among pro-Israel groups. Hillel’s standards of partnership already enshrine red lines for acceptable discourse around Israel/Palestine, restricting campus chapters from partnering with Jewish groups such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. Berger dismissed concerns that Maccabee’s growing relationship with Hillel will further push out students in J Street U (and organizations to its left). “Hillel works with a wide range of donors, some of those donors specifically support [one program] and other donors provide overarching funding,” he said. “It’s no different than a donor asking specifically to support educational programming or Challah for Hunger.” 

But Shira Wolkenfeld, former co-chair of George Washington University’s J Street U chapter and participant on GW Hillel’s first Maccabee-funded trip in 2017, argued that this gatekeeping and lack of transparency cannot be cast as an apolitical decision. “Accepting a grant from an organization that sets a red line about what organizations they will fund sends a message to the Jewish community on campus about which politics are accepted,” she told me, adding that this “made me less inclined to make GW Hillel my home socially, Jewishly, politically.”

MOST OF THE MONEY flowing from Maccabee to individual Hillels goes to “fact-finding” Israel trips. According to Hillel International’s Matt Berger, while MTF covers participants’ travel costs, Hillel staffs are primarily responsible for creating the itinerary, recruiting students, and chaperoning. I reached out to the executive directors of every Hillel that Maccabee has funded during the last four years in order to find out more about how itineraries are created. All but four—the University of Vermont, Long Beach State, University of Washington, and Northwestern—ignored multiple requests for comment, told me they didn’t speak to press, or directed me to Berger. One Hillel director expressed reticence to be quoted in an article that might damage their relationship with MTF. It is therefore incredibly difficult to get detailed insight into how Hillel directors navigate their relationship with regards to Macabee’s politics, oversight, and red lines as they plan their trips. 

It is unclear whether Hillel staffs are in fact free to plan any excursion they choose for a Maccabee trip. Chaya Leah Sufrin, Hillel director at Long Beach State University, told me that she asked other Hillel directors to send their Maccabee itineraries, highlighted what “made sense” to her, and then worked with a tour company called Israel Experts to craft her itinerary. “We do send the itinerary to MTF, and they have some things they insist that you do,” Sufrin told me. “They are the ones that insist that you meet with the [Palestinian Authority], that you have to go see the Gaza border. They want you to go to Yad Vashem.”

A sample of five Maccabee itineraries provided by students and Hillel websites revealed several common activities among the trips. Maccabee trips from UVM, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco, and Long Beach State visited a brewery in Ramallah, went on an LGBTQ “Rainbow Tour” of Tel Aviv, took an “off-road jeep tour” in the Golan Heights, and of course, swam in the Dead Sea. It is unclear if these are Maccabee requirements or if the Hillel directors happened to plan similar excursions. 

Most trips meet with a representative from the Palestinian Authority, a business leader or entrepreneur in Ramallah, and a Palestinian citizen of Israel involved in education or nonprofit work. Northwestern’s 2019 Maccabee trip met with Palestinian businessman and activist Sam Bahour, who has written in support of using divestment as a tool to fight Israeli occupation. Some trips also heard from settlement mayors like Oded Revivi, mayor of Gush Etzion and foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization representing settlements in the West Bank (and, prior to Israel’s 2005 pullout, settlements in Gaza). 

 “Our trips provide students with an immersive and objective look at the region,” Brog said in an email sent through his publicist. “[W]e believe in taking students to see the complex reality and to hear from multiple perspectives, including a range of Palestinian voices.” Still, some students say the range of Palestinian voices was limited. “We definitely didn’t talk to anyone in Area C who lives under threat of demolition or expulsion,” said Wolkenfeld. “In a lot of ways, the trip was designed to make students feel as though they had been exposed to the occupation [without] seeing the full range of what that can look like.” 

UMN’s Sohni was particularly disturbed by her group’s meeting with Arab-Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, whom she remembers telling students that “Palestinians are sitting idly and allowing terrorism to happen.” In a blog post, Sohni wrote that she felt “stunned and disturbed” hearing from Toameh; she later told me that Toameh’s speech had stuck with her group. “Everyone was really disturbed” by his “extreme pro-Israel views,” she said.

Toameh works for the Gatestone Institute, a conservative think tank widely accused of fabricating Islamophobic articles. MTF trip itineraries from UVM, UC-Berkeley, Long Beach State, the University of San Francisco, and Northwestern all had Toameh listed as a speaker, though, in an email, Northwestern Hillel director Michael Simon told me that the summer 2018 group did not end up meeting with Toameh. Whether the other four Hillel directors coincidentally booked Toameh for their Maccabee trips as well or were encouraged to do so by Maccabee remains unclear.

Ali Soleimani, a UC Davis student and Open Hillel activist, said that they perceived an ideological slant on the Maccabee trip they attended last summer. “If you looked hard enough you could tell that it was funded by a group that was very pro-Israel,” they said. “A lot of it seemed like a modified Birthright trip to me.” Authentic Israel, the tour company that ran Soleimani’s trip, indeed boasts of an official partnership with both MTF and Birthright on its website. Long Beach State Hillel planned its Maccabee trip through Israel Experts, which claims to have run Birthright trips since 1999 and, on a page for academic programs, advertises “MTF & Fact Finder Tours” in ways that muddy the distinction between the nonviolent BDS movement and violent action, and between criticism of Israel and antisemitism: “At a time when Israel is at the heart of ongoing controversy, when political stances towards the Jewish State are hard to differentiate from anti-Semitism, and when the language of dialogue is being replaced with boycotts and violence, there is no better time for your students to experience the region for themselves.” Wolkenfeld said that this speaks to the clear bias of Maccabee trips: “You can’t claim to be balanced and nuanced when you have one of the most right-wing forces in the political donor world funding an initiative expressly for political purposes. It’s absolutely misleading.” 

Many students expressed feeling overwhelmed, overprogrammed, and emotionally drained by the trip. “The messaging of the entire trip was that this conflict and the occupation were far too complicated for any student to understand or to have an opinion on,” said Wolkenfeld. “I think they were hoping that students would go home and say ‘I don’t support BDS because it’s just way too complicated.’” UVM’s Alec Collins noticed similar framing. “They really try to overwhelm people and reinforce the message that because it’s not black and white, you can’t pretend to know how this should be resolved,” Collins said. “Basically, stay out of it because it’s too complicated for you.”

And yet few trip participants leave reciting taglines from the Maccabee website. In fact, after Soleimani’s group witnessed IDF soldiers harassing Palestinians at a checkpoint, their cohort seemed to become more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. “People said to me, ‘I can’t believe it’s this bad,’” Soleimani remembers. Other students expressed appreciation for the ability to see the horrors of occupation up close. Hernandez said that her Northwestern group often clashed in discussions but “all agreed on the fact that the occupation of the West Bank is unacceptable.” 

In spite of Maccabee’s investment in GW Fact Finders (and the targeting and harassment of GW students by several other anti-BDS organizations), one year after Shira Wolkenfeld went on the inaugural Maccabee trip, GW’s Student Association Senate successfully passed a resolution calling on the university to divest from nine companies that allegedly contribute to Palestinian human rights abuses.

THIS OCTOBER, MTF’s monthly email update was joyous in tone. Signed by Brog, the message deemed the 2018–2019 academic year “extremely successful” and announced that next year Maccabee will be expanding to 100 campuses. Brog appears confident that the funding and trips will deter students from supporting BDS and, eventually, bring more young people onto the pro-Israel bandwagon. “We look forward to reporting great progress,” Brog wrote.

Natasha Sohni is not so sure. “Before the trip, I was like ‘I don’t know much,’” she said. “After the trip, I’m really set in that I support Palestine.” She doesn’t regret going on a Maccabee trip. “I did go halfway around the world. And the trip helped me form my own opinions about everything,” she said. “I just don’t know if the opinions I have now are the ones Maccabee wanted me to form.”

Jess Schwalb is the Jewish Currents 2019-2020 New Voices fellow.

Jess Schwalb was the 2019–2020 Jewish Currents fellow and currently lives in Chicago.