At the time of his death in March, at the age of 101, it had been nearly 30 years since David Rockefeller, the legendary family heir and former head of Chase Bank, had last led the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF). As Stephen Heintz, president of the RBF, explained to me, Rockefeller was content to hand his brothers’ chief philanthropic project off to the family’s younger members. “He was the last chair of the board of that founding generation,” said Heintz. “He really believed that it was important to have a generational transition and let the next generation take leadership and be the active participants.”
Rockefeller was the last surviving grandchild of John D. Rockefeller, and the last surviving child of John D. Rockefeller Jr. He considered RBF, which now commands $842 million in assets, to be one of the most significant aspects of his legacy. In 2006, Rockefeller announced that his estate would make a $225 million bequest to RBF after his death—by far Rockefeller’s most sizable single gift to any recipient, larger than the combined total of his estate’s planned bequests to Rockefeller University and the Museum of Modern Art ($100 million each), two other institutions that his family helped found.
Rockefeller’s mammoth donation to RBF reflects the late financial titan’s trust that current and future generations of his storied family were up to the task of carrying the Rockefellers’ philanthropy forward. Today, the fund dispenses some $33 million in annual grants for programs in far-flung places like southern China and the western Balkans and donates to a host of conservation, sustainable development, and climate-related organizations throughout the world. Since 2013, at least $880,000 in RBF funding has also gone to groups working to advance a boycott of the world’s only Jewish state.
Supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel see the RBF funding as validation for their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s not just RBF. The R stands for Rockefeller,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of the pro-boycott Jewish Voice for Peace, which received a $140,000 two-year grant for general support from RBF in 2015. “I think that has particular resonance for people both in the philanthropic world and more broadly.”
RBF’s support for JVP and other pro-boycott groups, which is virtually unique among major American institutional funders, is either a sign that the movement is inching toward mainstream status on the American left—or evidence of a revealing drift within one of the most respected family foundations in America. In Vilkomerson’s view, funding from a brand-name philanthropy shows that BDS is becoming an acknowledged feature of American discourse. “It’s an indicator of an increasing acceptance of our political position in the broader world,” she said. “From that perspective, it was an important moment for us to have a foundation like RBF to begin to fund us.”
David Rockefeller co-founded RBF with his four brothers in 1940. Winthrop became governor of Arkansas, Nelson became governor of New York and later Gerald Ford’s Vice President, while Lawrence and John D. Rockefeller III became influential philanthropists. David was the long-serving chairman of Chase Bank and occupied a position in New York, America, and the broader world that was unprecedented in his time and unlikely to ever be paralleled. He grew Chase into an international banking power, organized several major New York City building projects, including the World Trade Center; and co-founded the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Council of the Americas, and the International Executive Service Corps. He knew every president between Eisenhower and Obama, along with Anwar Sadat, Nelson Mandela, Henry Kissinger, and a host of other major late-20th century figures, and served as a bridge between New York City’s WASP establishment and post-war newcomers to the city’s elite, including Jews and African-Americans.
There is no evidence that David Rockefeller ever had any personal awareness that an organization to which he planned to donate $225 million is funding groups that support the anti-Israel boycott campaign. Though he remained active late in life—Fred Bergsten, a former economic adviser to Henry Kissinger and the founding director of the Petersen Institute for International Economics, recalled seeing Rockefeller at meetings of the Trilateral Commission within the past two to three years—Rockefeller was 98 years old by the time the BDS grants began. Rockefeller himself did not attend RBF board meetings, and only occasionally appeared at events connected to the Fund.
Stephen Heintz, who has overseen the Fund’s move to paying out to pro-BDS organizations, became the president of RBF in 2001, after seven years as the Prague-based chief operating officer of the East-West Institute and a stint as the founding president of Demos, a liberal think tank. RBF’s first grants related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came a decade later, in 2011, when the Fund redesigned its “peacebuilding” program, the part of RBF that dispenses grants related to international conflicts. “Because we’re small, we look for places where we might work that have disproportionate global significance, and the deep involvement of the United States,” Heintz explained. That drew the Fund to the wider Middle East, a region of complex American entanglement. It decided that Afghanistan, U.S.-Iranian relations, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—three topics of particular concern to the Obama administration at that moment—were areas where RBF could have a positive impact.
RBF also entered the conflict in part “because of the very deep and direct involvement of the U.S. government in Israel-Palestine,” explained Ariadne Papagapitos, the program officer in charge of the Fund’s peacekeeping grants. “I think American taxpayers are directly implicated.”
RBF began dispensing grants to institutions like Hebrew University, Just Vision, and Breaking the Silence in 2011. Daniel Levy, a minor Israeli diplomatic official during the negotiation of the Oslo Accord who since became a co-founder of J Street (and member of the group’s advisory board) and is now the London-based president of the U.S./Middle East Project, joined the RBF board in 2013. The board traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories in early 2014 and met a range of activists and political figures on both sides of the Green Line. “The visit had profoundly changed members of the board,” Heintz said in a May 2016 interview. Nearly all of RBF’s funding for pro-BDS groups began within a few months of the trip.
The organizations that RBF currently funds engage in a broad spectrum of pro-boycott activity. RBF made a $140,000 grant to Jewish Voice for Peace, the primary Jewish communal validator for boycott efforts in the United States. JVP’s national members meeting this past April featured a speech from Rasmea Odeh, a former Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine militant who recently pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to omitting all mention of a 1970 terrorism conviction in Israel from a series of immigration applications. In 2015, RBF awarded a $50,000 grant to the American Friends Service Committee, which promotes boycott campaigns on college campuses and in various American Christian communities. In 2015, JVP and AFSC co-sponsored an International Conference on the Return of Palestinian Refugees organized by Zochrot, a Tel Aviv-based pro-boycott group that itself received two $20,000 grants for general support from RBF, in 2015 and 2017. In 2012, Zochrot published a document “envisioning a post-Zionist Palestine”; in 2014, the group’s founder, Eitan Bronstein, appeared in a YouTube video filmed at Yad Vashem in which an actress portraying “The Holocaust” recites a monologue in which she asks “who have you learned from to collect people according to their ethnic background and throw them into concentration camps?”
Although RBF claims that it does not endorse BDS, it has nevertheless provided multiple open-ended grants to the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, which is essentially the umbrella organization of the American BDS movement and a group whose Washington office provides boycott activists with an advocacy and policy presence in the nation’s capital. The Fund’s 2015 and 2017 grants to the group are for “general support,” and are not attached to any specific program. The U.S. Campaign lists comprehensive BDS among the coalition’s “common principles.”
Along with RBF grantees Palestine Legal, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the American Friends Service Committee, the U.S. Campaign coordinates a national Campus BDS Support Team to assist in boycott efforts at U.S. colleges and universities. The coalition’s website also lists the Washington, D.C.-based Council for the National Interest (CNI) as a member. That organization’s president is Alison Weir, who has repeatedly appeared on a white supremacist radio show and promoted a conspiracy theory about the Israeli government harvesting the organs of Palestinians for profit. In July 2015, the U.S. Campaign issued a public statement in which it denounced Weir for having violated the organization’s anti-racist guidelines, though CNI—an organization of which she is president—currently still remains a member of the coalition.
Palestine Legal offers pro-bono assistance for college activists looking to bring BDS to their campuses, work that’s partly enabled through a $50,000 grant the group received from RBF in 2016. The Middle East Children’s Alliance, which is a member of the U.S. Campaign’s coalition and has partnered on projects with the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, received two grants from RBF issued in 2015 and 2016. After a visit to the Gaza Strip following Israel’s 2009 military operation in the territory, Barbara Lubin, MECA’s founder and executive director, wrote about a story she heard from “a mother” in Gaza during the trip. The woman said that during the war, she had been
at home with her 10 children when Israeli soldiers entered the house. The soldiers told her she had to choose five of her children to “give as a gift to Israel.” As she screamed in horror they repeated the demand and told her she could choose or they would choose for her. Then these soldiers murdered five of her children in front of her. The concept of “Jewish morality” is truly dead. We can be fascists, terrorists, and Nazis just like everybody else.
The incident has never been corroborated, and Lubin later acknowledged that she couldn’t prove it actually happened. In a 2006 article about her career in activism, Lubin lauds “The continuing work of Israeli-Jewish anti-Zionist activists,” and makes the incendiary claim that “Palestine and the Palestinians are in real danger of extermination.” The organization she leads has received $180,000 from RBF.
In a 2016 interview, Fayrouz Sharqawi, one of the leaders of the pro-BDS group and RBF grantee Grassroots Jerusalem, which organizes tours and mapping projects of the city from a Palestinian perspective, referred to the Palestinian Authority as “the No. 1 traitor, collaborator.” In the same interview, Amany Khalifa, another of the group’s leaders, explained that “Without acknowledging the 1948 Nakba, Israel’s fascism, there’s no point in conversation. We’re often asked why we don’t educate or teach Israelis. Non-violence is a privilege, impossible to implement.” Sharqawi added that “We’re tired of compromise.” Their organization received three grants for general support from RBF, totaling $150,000.
Tel Aviv-based and RBF-funded Who Profits produces research for the BDS movement, providing pro-boycott groups with voluminous lists of Israeli companies and individuals alleged to have benefited from Israel’s presence in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Who Profits got a pair of $25,000 grants for general support, in 2016 and 2017.
Al-Shabaka, the Middle East Policy Network, does not take a position on BDS. Still, the organization has published papers endorsing the practice, and BDS movement founder Omar Barghouti, along with Ali Abunimah, the controversial Electronic Intifada editor, have three-year terms as policy advisers with the group. Al-Shabaka has gotten $130,000 from RBF since 2013—an important backstop for an organization that reported $127,000 in total revenue in its 2014 tax filings.
RBF has given money to groups that serve mutually reinforcing purposes within the BDS movement’s ecosystem, targeting a variety of publics within a range of political, social, national, and even religious contexts. It is impossible to argue that these grants are being made without the advancement of BDS in mind. Indeed, this is not what RBF argues. “Given that the occupation has continued for 50 years and there have been numerous failed efforts to negotiate peace, we are looking for ways to disrupt this status quo,” said Heintz, “and some of our grantees, a relatively small number, are either groups that have officially endorsed the BDS campaign, or undertake some related forms of what we might call economic activism in order to protest the ongoing occupation.”
In an email, Daniel Levy argued that funding BDS is consistent with the aims of the Fund’s Israel-Palestine programs, and confirmed that RBF does not disqualify grantees for backing BDS. “That makes sense as part of translating the overall approach regarding the strengthening of constituencies and political will to transform the conflict and advance peace into actual grant-making decisions,” he wrote. “There are a number of indications that economic activism could have a potentially transformative effect, and can influence the political will—or lack thereof—to move toward peace.”
When queried about its BDS funding—by me, and by the Fund’s various private critics—RBF and its officials, including Heintz, have pointed to some of the Fund’s less controversial grantees, and argued that RBF doesn’t actually support the totality of its grantees’ activities. They correctly add that the bulk of the Fund’s grant money related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes to organizations that are not involved in BDS-related work or oppose the boycott movement entirely. The over $3.7 million that RBF has given to J Street, for example, dwarfs the less than $1 million in funds that pro-BDS groups have received. “We’re not funding those groups specifically for their work on BDS, and BDS or whatever forms of economic activism they support are not the only things that they do,” Heintz told me. He offered similar logic for BDS funding in a May 2016 interview with Alliance, a philanthropy magazine.
Whatever RBF’s intentions, the Fund’s actions tell a different story. The grants RBF made to the U.S. Campaign, JVP, Grassroots Jerusalem, Zochrot, and Who Profits were all for general support; these groups were free to spend RBF’s money promoting a boycott of Israel or staging events with Rasmea Odeh, or even Alison Weir. RBF was satisfied enough with these organizations’ stewardship of the Fund’s resources to renew grants for nearly all of them.
Philanthropy experts disagree as to whether it’s tenable for a funder to underwrite and defend BDS while claiming to be agnostic on the practice. “Heintz is talking out of both sides of his mouth,” Leslie Lenkowsky, professor emeritus of public affairs and philanthropy at the University of Indiana and former CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, said of Heintz’s explanation in Alliance. “You don’t have to actually support particular actions to in effect endorse them. Money is fungible … the real test is: Would you continue to fund an organization that engages in activities that you as an organization do not feel are worth supporting or believe are not worthwhile?”
Lester Salamon, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Civil Society Studies and author of America’s Nonprofit Sector: A Primer, cautions that RBF’s funding for pro-boycott groups should be understood within the broader context of the Fund’s programs. “To me, it’s a little bit disingenuous to pick one thread out of a complex series of threads of activity of an organization and say that that’s what they’re supporting,” he said.
It seems unlikely that RBF is funding pro-boycott groups from a place of ignorance, or because of lapses in oversight. Charities have a history of paying attention. In 2003, then-Ford Foundation president Susan Berresford issued a public apology and ordered a review of the foundation’s funding practices after a Jewish Telegraphic Agency investigation revealed that Ford had bankrolled a number of hardline Palestinian groups, including ones that helped organize the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Berresford pledged the foundation would “never support groups that promote or condone bigotry or violence, or that challenge the very existence of legitimate, sovereign states like Israel.”
‘You don’t have to actually support particular actions to in effect endorse them. Money is fungible.’
The New Israel Fund also reassessed its relationship with anti-Zionist and pro-BDS groups and changed its funding guidelines amid public outcry in 2010. Today, the Fund “oppose[s] the global (or general) BDS movement, views the use of these tactics as counterproductive, and is concerned that segments of this movement seek to undermine the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland.” Unlike RBF, NIF “will not fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organizations that have global BDS programs.”
Interestingly, NIF received a $9,000 grant from RBF in September of 2016 to conduct a study of “anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses.” NIF primarily works in Israel, and is not considered any kind of authority on U.S. anti-Semitism. As Papagapitos explained, the grant “was for an internal report … obviously, we’ve been concerned; anti-Semitism has been on the rise since the election of Trump and we care about it because we care about the dignity of all people and stand against all forms of racism and bigotry.”
RBF is demonstrably neither as oblivious as Ford, nor as self-critical as NIF: The Fund hasn’t altered its practices, despite repeated public and private criticism, including a May 2016 op-ed in the New York Daily News that asked why RBF continued to “finance non-governmental organizations intent on annihilating the Jewish state.” In March of 2016, the Israeli group Shurat HaDin sent RBF a letter warning that their funding of pro-BDS groups could be a violation of New York State law.
Tablet has learned that concerns over BDS funding have been privately raised with Heintz, and with multiple members of the Rockefeller family who sit on the Fund’s board. Heintz has met with representatives from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and corresponded over email with an executive from the Jewish Funders Network concerned over the Fund’s support of JVP. But the most significant closed-door criticism came from within the Fund itself.
Until early last year, former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns served as an RBF trustee. Burns has a long résumé from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, serving as consul general in Jerusalem—heading up the United States’ de-facto embassy to the Palestinians and overseeing U.S. aid and development projects in the Palestinian territories—and as lead negotiator during the U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue, which resulted in the countries’ first 10-year memorandum of understanding on military aid, signed in 2007. As a trustee, Burns was supportive of the Fund’s decision to begin making grants related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Burns opposed funding pro-boycott groups.
During a trustee meeting in late 2015—a time when Valerie Rockefeller-Wayne, the granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller III and the grand-niece of David Rockefeller, was the board’s chair—Burns urged RBF to stop funding pro-BDS organizations. He even suggested that the Fund request certain groups return some of their grant money. After three months of discussions, he failed to sway the board, which included six members of the Rockefeller family. And he couldn’t convince Heintz, someone whom Burns continues to hold in the highest regard.
“I have great respect for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and President Stephen Heintz,” said Burns. “I resigned from the board, however, due to the RBF’s funding of organizations that support BDS. While I favor the creation of an independent Palestinian state, I oppose BDS as fundamentally anti-Israeli.” Burns resigned in early 2016. Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, replaced him on the board shortly afterward.
Stephen Heintz spent the first 20 years of his career working in Connecticut state government and speaks with a calming evenness that never quite becomes a monotone. Though he is nearly unknown to the broader public, he is a superstar in the foundation world: as the Fund’s widely admired president, Heintz has pioneered the activist or “impact” investment of foundation endowments, led the way in divesting from fossil fuels, and reconciled Kosovo’s warring political factions at an RBF-hosted conference in 2007. “My theory is that we have to think of philanthropy as the metaphoric equivalent of acupuncture,” Heintz explained. “All we have are these tiny little needles and the challenge for us is: Where can we insert our needles with the prospect that it could trigger some bigger systemic change?”
RBF certainly can’t be accused of limiting its interest in the Middle East to interventions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or of taking a short-term view of the region. Starting in 2001, shortly after Heintz took over, RBF began quietly exploring how it could help repair the relationship between Iran and the United States. This was partly as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks, which prompted the Fund to begin exploring how it could help improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world. For the past 16 years, the Fund has organized dialogues between prominent American and Iranian figures. These types of closed-door meetings, called “track-two diplomacy” in foreign policy parlance, allow private citizens from different countries to discuss issues of mutual importance with a frankness and freedom that would be impossible for government officials.
In the early 2000s, much of the impetus for the RBF’s track-two push came from William Luers, a former U.S. ambassador in South America and central Europe, then the President of the United Nations Association of the USA. Heintz and Luers had known each other since the 1990s when Heintz was head of the Prague office of the East-West Institute. Luers, a former U.S. ambassador to communist Czechoslovakia, recalled that Heintz “was creative in figuring out how not-for-profits could contribute to the efforts that Slovaks and Czechs were making in trying to develop a civil society and a democratic government.” Heintz proved a natural diplomat in the track-two talks, almost all of which he attended. “When he goes into a meeting, he listens,” said Luers. “He takes notes, he doesn’t talk a lot. He will talk when he thinks he can contribute.”
In 2001, Iran’s UN mission included Javad Zarif, who became the Islamic Republic’s UN ambassador the next year, in 2002, and now serves as the regime’s foreign minister. Luers quickly came to believe that Zarif was someone they could work with on the track two. “I think he set a personal mission to find ways to work out a relationship with the United States that was not perpetually antagonistic,” Luers claimed. Luers said that when Zarif became Iran’s foreign minister in August of 2013, he emailed Secretary of State John Kerry to communicate his belief that Zarif and Kerry “were the pair that was most likely to reach this impossible agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program.
In the early 2000s, Luers told me, Zarif helped identify Iranian participants for track-two diplomacy and was crucial to getting the talks going. “We started this process by engaging with the permanent representative of Iran to the United Nations … and he helped get the foreign ministry in Tehran to organize the Iranian participation,” Heintz also recalled.
The first track-two meeting was held in December of 2002, in Sweden. That year, the UN Association and RBF co-founded the Iran Project. The group, which also involved former U.S. ambassadors and future Iran nuclear deal advocates Frank Wisner and Thomas Pickering, organized the track-two efforts and sought to “encourage greater cooperation between the U.S. and Iran for greater regional stability.”
RBF and its partners in track two focused on engaging Iran’s regime, eschewing any significant support for civil society, pro-democracy, or human rights-related efforts either in Iran or the Iranian diaspora. Princeton University professor Bernard Haykel, an expert on the modern Middle East who has been invited to speak at Iran Project events, said the organization has an idealistic view of the Islamic Republic and was convinced that Zarif, who had spent his entire career in the service of an often-thuggish sectarian regime, was a trustworthy partner who shared many of their own objectives. “When they talk about him, they use his first name,” said Haykel. “They talk about him the way AIPAC people talk about Bibi Netanyahu. It’s that kind of familiarity.”
Haykel describes his own view of the Middle East “as a place full of mafia-like states that operate as criminal syndicates and who engage in bare-knuckle fighting and warfare and take no prisoners. I don’t think that’s their view of their friend Javad,” he added.
‘We have to think of philanthropy as the metaphoric equivalent of acupuncture. All we have are these tiny little needles: Where can we insert our needles with the prospect that it could trigger some bigger systemic change?’
The track two, which has met more than 15 times, was likely a minor factor in the gradual thawing of relations. But as Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association and an occasional participant in the Iran track-two explained, the meetings “facilitated an exchange of views that would not otherwise have happened through official channels … creat[ing] the opportunity for key players to imagine how the Iran nuclear problem could possibly be resolved despite the long odds.” The Iran Project briefed the Bush and Obama administrations on the talks’ content and progress. As U.S. engagement with Iran accelerated during Obama’s second term, those Washington meetings became even more important.
“Bill Burns was key,” Luers said, referring to Obama’s deputy secretary of state. “He was probably the key person on the part of the State Department. And then there were a lot of people in the [National Security Council], famously Ben Rhodes and some of his colleagues. There were probably four or five people that we talked to a lot and much of it was driven by the NSC.”
Heintz told me that he attended “probably around five or six” Iran Project meetings at the National Security Council, along with a similar number at the State Department and other agencies.
In addition to helping with track two diplomacy, via the Iran project, the RBF was also doing its best to sell the administration’s detente with Iran to a skeptical American public. Between 2012 and 2015, RBF gave $4.4 million to the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that makes grants to organizations promoting nonproliferation and disarmament. This was significant support: Ploughshares got $2.1 million from RBF in 2015, the year of the nuclear deal and a year that the foundation reported receiving a total of $7 million in contributions.
During Obama’s second term, Ploughshares and its grantees led the public campaign in favor of the administration’s Iran diplomacy. Ploughshares underwrote non-proliferation programs at a range of nonpartisan think tanks and research institutes and gave National Public Radio $100,000 toward its coverage of the Iran nuclear issue. The Fund kept a low profile about its rapid expansion into advocacy for Iran diplomacy, and much of the foundation’s grants during the nuclear deal debate, including its NPR funding, weren’t publicly revealed until Ploughshares’ annual report was published in 2016.
RBF was similarly strategic about its own role in funding the Obama administration’s public push for the Iran Deal. Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council, a group advocating closer ties between the United States and the Islamic Republic regime that became one of the leading public validators of the Obama administration’s Iran policy, thanked Heintz and RBF for “generous funding to support my travels” in the acknowledgments of his 2012 book, A Single Roll of the Dice. RBF has given NIAC more than $400,000 since 2008.
In a talk he gave in Melbourne, Australia, in May of 2016, Heintz said that the Iran precedent is one of the reasons RBF has stuck to its current funding approach around the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. “Are we wasting our money in this conflict?” the board had wondered recently, Heintz said in his May 2016 speech. “Couldn’t we use those funds in other areas where we could be more confident of having a positive impact? Thus far they have decided to stick with this, in part, interestingly, because of the Iran example. When I recommended we get involved in Iran in 2002, they were scratching their heads.”
By 2016, Iran, and the final triumph of the nuclear deal, had taught RBF to take solace in the essential wisdom of what it was doing, and in the non-disprovable promise of a long horizon.
A third of the Fund’s board, including its board chair, are members of the Rockefeller family, but it has no donors or outside funders to hold it accountable. Instead, RBF holds itself accountable: A five-page PDF document on the Fund’s website identifies broad categories like “capacity,” “public policy,” and “understanding” as areas of “indicator focus” for tracking a given program’s efficacy or progress.
There’s a certain irony that RBF is giving David Rockefeller’s money to groups that boycott the state of Israel. Beginning in 1951, Chase served as the Israeli government’s U.S. fiscal agent for State of Israel bonds. In 1964, when Rockefeller was Chase’s chairman, he faced down a boycott threat from the Arab League, which warned Rockefeller that it would add Chase to their boycott list if the bank didn’t halt its sale of Israel bonds. Rockefeller didn’t buckle under the pressure, and the Arab states never followed through on their threat.
Chase and Rockefeller had long-standing, intertwining relationships throughout the Middle East. Rockefeller met Gamal Abdul Nasser on two occasions and became close enough to Anwar Sadat in the mid-1970s to recommend Richard Debs, then the chief operating officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, as an informal economic advisor to the Egyptian leader. “They always visited together whenever Sadat came [to the United States],” said Debs. “I think David had some influence on Sadat’s thinking.”
I asked Debs whether Rockefeller had ever elucidated his views on the Israeli-Arab conflict. “He felt that the Israelis could do more, but he was fully supportive of anything toward the peace process,” Debs said. Rockefeller never went into specifics about his ideal solution to the conflict, though. “David wouldn’t do that.” Similarly, Robert Armao, an investor and former government official close with both Nelson and David Rockefeller, told me that he debriefed Rockefeller about a meeting he had with Yassir Arafat in Baghdad in 1990, but that Rockefeller himself stated no actual views on the conflict over the course of their discussion.
Rockefeller had a close relationship with Henry Kissinger throughout the 1960s and ’70s, as well as an intellectual kinship. As Kissinger’s colleague Fred Bergsten explained, both had an impact on the other’s understanding of foreign affairs, with the consummate banker and the arch geo-strategist filling out gaps in the other’s knowledge. “They had similar world views but each had a different focus and major point of entry, and a different way of thinking about components of the global picture,” Bergsten recalled. Like Kissinger, Rockefeller—who served as an intelligence officer in World War II, and was at Dachau shortly following the camp’s liberation—believed strongly in an American-guided international order.
Rockefeller was trusted and respected at the highest levels of government (per his memoir, he turned down two offers to serve as Treasury Secretary). In 1970, Rockefeller quietly advocated a more “balanced” U.S. approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict and was part of a group of oil and banking executives that secretly met with Richard Nixon at the White House to urge that the United States reassess its alleged favoritism toward Israel. When news of the meeting leaked, future New York Mayor Ed Koch, then a U.S. congressman, released a statement blasting Rockefeller. Koch and Rockefeller later became friends, and going by his memoirs, Rockefeller was genuinely concerned about any perception that he was hostile to Israel: His first visit to the country was in March of 1971, a trip that was “one positive outcome of the Koch controversy,” Rockefeller wrote.
Rockefeller was a key figure in mainstreaming Jews into New York’s institutional life, ensuring Jews served on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art and Rockefeller University. Former New York Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch describes Rockefeller as “rather shy and unaggressive,” and credits him with helping to repair New York City’s finances in the 1970s, an effort in which Ravitch was also involved. Ravitch, who served as the first president of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said he’s “certainly not aware of any position that the Rockefellers took that was antithetical in any way to the state of Israel or to the Jewish people.”
Ravitch said he knew about RBF’s grants to pro-BDS groups, adding it was “outrageous” that the Fund supported them. “I’m not a Netanyahu fan. I’m a two-state solution guy. But I think BDS is very destructive,” he said. “I was very unhappy to see this.”
Former New York Mayor David Dinkins spoke highly of Rockefeller and said that he would never refuse a call from the former Chase chair during his term in Gracie Mansion. I met Dinkins at his office at Columbia University; by coincidence, it was the morning of a memorial service for Rockefeller at Riverside Church, an event that Dinkins said he “wouldn’t miss.” Although he wore a light blue sports coat during our conversation, Dinkins said he had brought a black suit to the office as well.
Rockefeller backed Dinkins during his trailblazing mayoral campaign in 1989, and Dinkins remains grateful to Rockefeller for recommending he appoint Barry Sullivan, the outgoing CEO of First Chicago, as his deputy mayor for economic development. Dinkins remembers Rockefeller as amiable and easygoing. “If you didn’t know his name was Rockefeller or how much money he had, he was just a nice fellow,” he recalled. It was likely that, during a time when inter-communal relations were not always smooth, the famously broad-minded Rockefeller had actually made the city a more tolerant place. “Chances are that he did,” Dinkins said, “because he was that kind of person.” The former mayor was also surprised to learn that a Rockefeller philanthropy had been funding pro-boycott groups that could be described as anti-Israel. “That’s strange. That’s not what I would have believed,” he said. “I don’t know the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, I don’t know what they do. Of course, I’ve heard of them and whatnot, but that’s surprising to hear that they would be a supporter of organizations that were anti-Israel.”
Yet a lack of accountability and insulation from the real-world impact of their programs can lead philanthropies to some odd places. For instance, RBF believes Jewish Voice for Peace to be a worthy grantee because of the Fund’s apparent desire to leverage American Jewish communal politics, as RBF understands them, toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “What we’re trying to do is to make sure that there is a really robust debate in the American Jewish community that the non-Jewish community in America is hearing as this helps shape the American approach to this conflict,” said Heintz when asked about the Fund’s grants to JVP. “JVP is growing quite rapidly and represent a constituency of deeply committed American Jews who believe that this conflict needs to be resolved in a way that genuinely produces security, dignity, and full rights for the both the Palestinian and Israeli Jewish and Arab populations.”
“I think it’s really important work that they’re doing to open up conversations within the American Jewish community,” Papagapitos said. “And they are, I should add, the fastest-growing American Jewish organization”—a claim for which she provided no evidence. “I don’t think they should be characterized as some small fringe group in the United States.”
“Fringe group” is a highly subjective term, but according to Pew’s 2013 survey of American Jewish attitudes, some 61 percent of U.S. Jews believe a peaceful two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible, while only 11 percent believe that the United States is too supportive of Israel. Jewish critics have told the Fund that BDS is an attempt to delegitimize the world’s only Jewish state; the Fund’s staff responds that they’re mistaken and that BDS is a nonviolent means of pushing for a peace settlement or ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
I asked Papagapitos if she understood why some Jews would find it problematic that RBF funded organizations that believed Israel’s existence to be dispensable or undesirable—like JVP, Zochrot, and other pro-BDS grantees do. The possibility didn’t bother her. “I think what is most problematic is that there would be a monopoly on the solution or on what the correct approaches are,” she said. “And so long as they are striving for the same kind of peaceful and just values or values of justice and peace for the region and for all people, then I think that’s OK, and I don’t see what makes Zochrot or JVP any less Jewish than a different Jewish group.”
RBF has appointed itself arbiter of bigger and more fateful questions than this one—the place of JVP or Zochrot within the American Jewish discussion is a trivial matter compared to, say, the trajectory of U.S.-Iranian relations, or climate change. Still, RBF’s engagement with American Jewish communal life has been minimal or non-existent, at least up until a couple of years ago. The Fund has now thrown its substantial resources behind a sweeping interpretation of what Israel and the American Jewish community really need. RBF’s approach to philanthropy is based on the conviction that a private foundation should take the kinds of risks that government and the private sector cannot. That expansive sense of freedom and mission has now led RBF to stake out a clear—and, to many, unpalatable—position on some of the most wrenching dilemmas in Jewish life.
BDS funding may or may not have been consonant with what David Rockefeller believed about the Middle East. But that is the present-day result of the philanthropic ideal that he pioneered, and that he entrusted future generations of his family to uphold.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.