Who is funding Israel's judicial reform protests?

A cursory review shows that some foreign interests have acted strategically to exert influence.

 An aerial view shows protesters attending a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, August 5.  (photo credit: ILAN ROSENBERG/REUTERS)
An aerial view shows protesters attending a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, August 5.

The protests against judicial reform have been remarkably successful in creating a mass movement and influencing government policy. Bringing tens of thousands of people to the street every week for over seven months is not just a political feat, but a logistical marvel. 

Arming legions of demonstrators with all manner of flags, signs, and banners, equipping them with a variety of slogan-emblazoned t-shirts, and setting up camps complete with toilets, tents, and provisions turned citizens into an effective force that brought a halt to the country and a freeze of legislation in March. Yet coordinating and supplying such contingents would seem to require significant financial backing. Coalition members and reform activists have attacked the legitimacy of the protests as foreign-funded.

There have been claims that rivals of Netanyahu, from former prime minister Ehud Barak to former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz, were behind a small circle of influential Israelis who met after the November 2022 election to discuss strategy and funding for a movement against the new government, well before the judicial reform issue emerged. Supporters of the protests insist that there’s no cabal behind them and they’ve exploded in a grassroots, organic manner.

A cursory review shows that the main sources of funding for the protests have been local crowdsourcing and private donors, but that some foreign interests have acted strategically to exert influence.

Crowdsourcing: Putting money where their mouth is

Kaplan Force has become the organization most synonymous with the anti-reform protests in recent months. The group is an evolution of the Black Flags and Crime Minister Anti-Netanyahu protest groups that occupied Balfour in 2020 until he was removed from power, and resumed protest when the Likud leader returned to office in 2022. The rebranding as Kaplan Force came with the success of the weekly Saturday protest in which Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street served as the main locus.

 Physicist Shikma Bressler speaks during a protest, in Tel Aviv, August 5.  (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
Physicist Shikma Bressler speaks during a protest, in Tel Aviv, August 5. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Yet while the eponymous street serves as the main physical venue, Kaplan Force has shown over recent months that the most important location of activism is in the hands of ordinary people – their phones. The group has used well-maintained messaging app channels to issue press statements, protest and travel schedules and instructions, photos and videos, and manage donations.

“Kaplan Force needs your support! Donations can be [made] through a wire transfer to the following account name: The Black Flags LTD,” Kaplan Force said in their public WhatsApp group on July 26.

Bank transfers are far from the only means by which Kaplan has sought to fund itself through crowdsourcing (small donations from a large pool of people) rather than seeking large donations from individuals. The Kaplan website prominently features a link for Paypal and Meshulam donations, and a BeActive campaign has raised NIS 17,000.

“Kaplan Force is now the exclusive producer and sponsor of Israel’s central protests in Kaplan Tel Aviv, attracting hundreds of thousands of democracy fighters every week. This requires significant funds!” the group wrote in a July 31 message geared to Israeli and Jews abroad. “We need your support!”

“Most of the money comes from Israel,” said senior Kaplan activist Nadav Galon. With outside funding, he said, there was concern over its provenance, whether the source was “good or not.”

Millions of shekels were raised through local crowdsourcing, which Galon said showed that the public was “putting their money where their mouth is.”

With Kaplan as the main sponsor of the weekly Saturday protest, it needed the money to fund what it called “the largest production in Israel” in terms of sound amplifiers, stages, and screens.

Kaplan has become a symbol, said Nadav. Indeed, the group has used the funds to brand the symbol on a rainbow of different colored t-shirts, hats, and flags. The merchandise is produced using crowdsourced funds, which was restated in a post last Saturday – now including Google Pay.

Almost all the major groups feature prominently in donations promotion via their online infrastructure, as a means of being active in the protest movement.

Darkenu raised NIS 178,792 to support its petition to the High Court of Justice against the reasonableness standard law that passed on July 24. The court is set to hear petitions on the matter on September 12.

Perhaps the largest anti-reform crowdsource campaign is that of Hofshi B’Artzenu. The organization, with funds gathered through the nonprofit Future Blue and White, serves as a protest headquarters that unites and coordinates all the different protest groups. Future Blue and White is headed by former chief of staff for Ehud Barak Gilad Sher, ex-Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Ami Yaalon, and entrepreneur Orni Petruschka. According to Bloomberg, Sher serves on the Hofshi B’Artzenu steering committee with Halutz, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon,  and former Barak Prime Minister’s Office head Yossi Kucik.

In 2022, 99% of Future Blue and White’s budget came from Israeli donations, but these donations have likely exponentially grown through its subsidiary organization. Hofshi B’Artzenu’s campaign on BeActive, through 57,047 supporters, raised almost NIS 27,500,000 – with over NIS 600,000 donated in the last month. According to the group, these funds are allocated to a variety of projects and also assist in financing the 200 protest groups affiliated with the protest headquarters.

“In order for hundreds of thousands of people to go out to demonstrate across the country, several times a week, you need buses, stages, signs, flags, amplification equipment and screens, safety and authority approvals, branded clothing, and more,” Hofshi B’Artzenu wrote on its donation page. 

The group also used the funds towards legal resources for arrested protesters, social media campaigns, billboards, and special projects. At the late July Jerusalem Sacher Park protest encampment, retired IAF brigadier-general and activist organizer Asaf Afmon said that the protest headquarters in general provided the larger logistics umbrella, helping to organize things like the hundreds of tents and the portable bathrooms. Tables were set up with food for marchers who had walked from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The smaller organizations brought their activists and original branded content. Afmon also related how at the beginning of the protests, there had been a dearth of Israeli flags, so the protest headquarters had to purchase and ship 200,000 flags from China. 

CEOs, members, and students

The morning after the passing of the reasonableness standard bill on July 24, Israelis awoke to many of the major newspapers – Israel Hayom, Yediot Ahronoth, Haaretz, The Marker, and Calcalistcovering their front pages with a black square.

“A Dark Day for Israeli Democracy,” read the cover text. Inside the pages was the logo of the hi-tech protest.

The funding for these expensive advertisements came from CEOs of companies that were concerned about the reforms, explained hi-tech protest representative Amir Breiner. Much of the funding for the hi-tech protests comes from such private citizens, as well as other citizens, with almost 50,000 donors. While hi-tech isn’t normally political, said Breiner, its workers feel that certain rights are required to facilitate innovation, and philanthropy is already a norm in the field.

“The Israeli public are familiar with donating,” said Breiner. “People are looking to donate.”

The hi-tech protest belongs to the numerous profession-themed pop-up groups, but many of the other leading organizations have been around for years. Groups such as the Movement for Quality Government in Israel fund themselves, in large part, through members fees. In 2022 MQG was almost 18% funded by member dues, according to Guidestar. Almost 75% of MQG’s funds came from Israeli donations, and 6.7% came from foreign donations. It has been noted that MQG also received NIS 52,770 from the US State Department, but this was for high-school programs. Other organizations also rely on monthly donors. Darkenu claims that 5,000 people, 96% of them Israeli, give them monthly donations of around NIS 25 each.

Some grassroots protest groups, such as the student protests, don’t really have much financial backing. While they have a website for crowdsourced donations, Ariana, a Technion student and protest coordinator said that they “mostly make do with what we have.” Most of the student protest signs and installations are handmade. They sometimes borrow equipment from other protest groups or join them in projects.

Strategic foreign involvement

While the majority of the funds for most protest groups appear to come from local sources, the input of foreign sources has had a strategic influence on the movement. This includes involvement in coordination between the many protest organizations, injecting other causes into the protests, and creating the initial sparks.

The New Israel Fund has given upwards of NIS 2 million to different groups according to an April 3 funding report. The report detailed that it gave left-wing peace group Standing Together $20,000 for the production of the “first demonstration that started the protest.” Indeed, press statements and organizing messages for the first Saturday protest on January 7 at Tel Aviv’s HaBimah Square primarily feature Standing Together as the organizer. A great deal of the media content produced that day featured purple Standing Together signage, and the stage backdrop was emblazoned with their slogan “This is the home of all of us.”

At the July 24 protest, Agmon also told The Jerusalem Post that Standing Together had organized the permits for the first protest, allowing their flags and signs to be more prominent during that event. In the weekly protests, Standing Together became a less dominant force, with the subsequent January 14 protest already being primarily led by Black Flags and MQG. There were also signs of divisions, with Standing Together accusing Ya’alon and MQG of excluding Arab and other minority speakers.

While Standing Together does receive foreign funding, including from foreign political actors like peace consultants Forum Ziviler Friedensdienst (forumZED) in 2022 and prior years – according to Guidestar in 2021 foreign donations accounted for 27% of its finances – the rest comes from local Israeli donations. 

NIF’s funding of the first Saturday protest shows how foreign funding doesn’t need to be the primary source of an organization’s income to influence events, although it can be strategic. NIF claimed to have provided $3,285 to fund the first protest against the judicial reform in Beersheba. The demonstration was led by Rabbis for Human Rights, which according to Guidestar in 2022 was funded almost 56% by foreign donations.

Another initial notable protest was one by Darkenu on January 6, outside Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s home, just under 48 hours after his announcement. Levin’s house became a popular site for protests, and Darkenu was the first to argue that altering the judiciary could bring international courts to bear on IDF soldiers. 

In 2022, 54% of Darkenu’s support was from abroad, according to Guidestar. The organization is also intimately tied to the US nonprofit OneVoice, the principal project of American entrepreneur Daniel Lubetzky’s PeaceWorks Foundation. Darkenu receives financial and strategic support from OneVoice, one of the two primary beneficiaries of the $15 million donated to Israeli and Palestinian causes since 2015. In 2020, PeaceWorks received a US government grant from the Small Business Administration. OneVoice had elicited controversy in 2015 over its support of the anti-Netanyahu political campaign Victory15. The NGO was accused of using a 2013 $300,000 US State Department grant to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations to support V15. While a 2015 Senate Committee investigation said that there was no evidence that grant funds were used in the campaign, it had used infrastructure in part built with US government funds to support V15.

 A protester shouts slogans near the Defence Ministry as IDF reservists sign a pledge to suspend voluntary military service if the government passes judicial overhaul legislation in Tel Aviv, July 19. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A protester shouts slogans near the Defence Ministry as IDF reservists sign a pledge to suspend voluntary military service if the government passes judicial overhaul legislation in Tel Aviv, July 19. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Coordinating a movement

While the bulk of inter-organizational coordination seems to be managed by Hofshi B’Artzenu, NIF also has its hand in the affair. The Civil Society Protection Hub is a coordination project by several organizations and is supported by NIF.

Hub spokesperson Dawn Kerlik told the Post that the project “aims to provide defense, legal and mental support, as well as knowledge and  resources to organizations and individuals who are affected by the narrowing democratic space in Israel, whether due to government policies or directly by physical and/or digital attacks by anti-democratic forces.”

NIF’s Shatil program also provides consultation to help new organizations develop – offering strategic, organizational, policy, media, and financial development consulting, as well as partial or full subsidies.

Individual groups have also received funds from NIF to help them better organize. Idea – The Center for Liberal Democracy received $20,000 for a coordinator responsible for connecting its 450-person network to active protest groups. Donations totaling $30,000 were apportioned for activity and social media coordinators at the volunteer-based Israeli Law Professors’ Forum for Democracy. Another $25,000 was given to a civilian headquarters to serve as a “war room” for protests.

Integrating causes

The anti-judicial reform movement has seen many other political ideas and ideologies bleed into the demonstrations. Some of these ideas can be argued as connected to the reform, such as concerns about the protection of rights, allegations that the reform is aimed at improving Netanyahu’s legal situation regarding his ongoing corruption trials, and the facilitation of coalition promises such as the ministerial appointment of Shas chairman Arye Deri.

Many protest organizations have a particular interest or angle that concerns them about the reform – and still others had particular missions prior to the reform, that seem naturally integrated into their work, such as the anti-Netanyahu narrative of Black Flags and Crime Minister. 

Other ideas are less natural, such as issues with the budget, which become part of a general anti-coalition sentiment. Agmon and Galon said that the protest movement acts as a tolerant umbrella of different world views and groups, even if they don’t always agree with one another in private.

While many of these ideas might naturally or accidentally be folded into the protest movement, NIF funding shows another identifiable in the funding, in the way that other political and ideological causes are intentionally injected or conflated with the anti-reform effort. 

One of the most glaring examples was the $15,000 given to Looking at the Occupation in the Eyes for an anti-occupation activist bloc “to regularly present the subject of the occupation in the main centers of the central protest.” Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, was given $20,000 to translate articles into English and write position papers that discussed the threat to democracy and annexation of the disputed territories.

“The goal is to use the articles and position papers to encourage the international community to use negative and positive incentives to influence government moves,” wrote NIF.

NIF funded Life and Environment to coordinate environmental organizations in protest against the judicial reform. The Aguda – Israel’s LGBT Task Force, received a donation of $10,000 for an LGBT community demonstration. I’lam – the Arab Center for Media Freedom, Development and Research was given $36,000 for a video on the consequences of the overhaul on the Arab sector, and Women Against Violence was given $29,000 for a campaign on how the reform would impact the rights of Arab women.

Grassroots or astroturf?

The political divisions around judicial reform have created suspicion, with both sides challenging the legitimacy of each other’s political movements.

While some of these suspicions about foreign interference are warranted and should be considered, for the most part, it seems that the protests are very much homegrown – and that Israelis aren’t just protesting by marching with their feet and raising their voices, they’re also demonstrating with their wallets.

To learn more about how wealthy individuals are contributing to the judicial reform protest, click here.

To learn about how protest groups plan and coordinate against the judicial reform, click here.