Follow the funds: Tracing the money behind judicial reform protests

The New Israel Fund contributed some NIS 2 million ($600,000) to the anti-judicial reform protests, but this is just a minuscule part of the funding.

 The cumulative expenditure for the protests, distributed among 26 collectives, totals approximately NIS 2 million. Protesters rally in Jerusalem, July 23. (photo credit: GILI YAARI /FLASH90)
The cumulative expenditure for the protests, distributed among 26 collectives, totals approximately NIS 2 million. Protesters rally in Jerusalem, July 23.
(photo credit: GILI YAARI /FLASH90)

The Israeli right-wing camp has always enjoyed blaming the New Israel Fund (NIF), a progressive Jewish-American foundation, in conspiracy theories regarding their influence on internal Israeli issues. This happened during the 2011 Israeli social justice protests, as well as at the beginning of the judicial reform protests, months ago.

This time, they were accurate: A few weeks after the protest broke out, NIF actively publicized the sums of money they invested in more than 40 small Israeli nonprofits, in order to assist in what they see as their fight for democracy.

The cumulative expenditure, distributed among 26 collectives, totals approximately NIS 2 million, equivalent to $660,000. Undoubtedly, funding from the NIF played a pivotal role in triggering the protests, facilitating the initial significant rally on January 7, in Tel Aviv.

But this sum of money, distributed in small grants to tens of organizations, is just a minuscule part of the funding for the protests. In conversations with senior strategists who have been running these campaigns, the sums add up to NIS tens of millions, if not NIS hundreds of millions. There are also thousands of volunteers working around the clock for free, or offering services that would normally cost a fortune, free of charge, making it very difficult to accurately calculate the total fiscal investment in these protests.

Who are the entities helping fund Israeli judicial reform protests?

In a conversation with the Magazine, one of the top leaders of the protest explained that there are about 250 entities “actively engaged in this battle.” He explained that it is “internally complex, with various parties independently raising funds through diverse means.” According to this source, the protest headquarters, the body that is essentially coordinating all of the work of tens of organizations, consists of between 10-12 employees.

 Protesters sleep in tents and on the grass near the Knesset, in Jerusalem, July 24. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Protesters sleep in tents and on the grass near the Knesset, in Jerusalem, July 24. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Interestingly, the organization that has been coordinating the protest headquarters is backed by others promoting a Palestinian state: Blue White Future, Our Way, and Commanders for Israel’s Security.

The Freedom in Our Land headquarters appeared in January 2023, encompassing various protest organizations. According to their Facebook page, this headquarters supports these organizations by providing logistical infrastructure, legal aid, spokesperson services, and more. They are presented as the main financiers of the Kaplan demonstrations (Ayalon roadblocks). Additionally, other organizations also use their platform for fundraising, such as Brothers to Arms.

“The major funding primarily stems from the public, which is evident in both public appearances and transparent financial records,” a source within the headquarters shared.

“While some individuals contribute significant amounts, there isn’t a single dominant donor such as how the late Sheldon Adelson funded right-wing initiatives. In our battle, virtually every entrepreneur or philanthropist plays a role, regardless of their stance.”

He explained that the funds originate from each organization’s resources and capacities, including crowdfunding and contributions from business figures and philanthropists. As opposed to the blame from the pro-judicial reform activists, according to the source, “neither [former prime ministers] Ehud Barak nor Ehud Olmert are heavily involved, although Barak was once a guest at a meeting we held, with limited engagement.” The source added that “no higher authority dictates actions for all.”

He pointed out that while there may be a large amount of funds invested in advertising, the majority of the advertising was via print and digital media and billboards – all significantly below the cost of advertising on national television. One of the main leaders of the protest from an advertising perspective is Ilan Shiloah, an Israeli entrepreneur who previously held positions as CEO and chairman of McCann Erickson-Kesher-Barel, Israel’s largest advertising company. Many sources claim that he has devoted both employees and funds towards advertising nationally – something that has saved the movement a significant expense. According to the source, the most influential financial contributor is Orni Petruschka, a serial tech entrepreneur, social activist, and philanthropist who served as a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. He co-founded and managed successful tech companies, including Chromatis Networks – the first Israeli unicorn (start-up company valued at over $1 billion). In recent years, Petruschka has been active in public and social areas. “He works to advance democracy and equality in Israel, and chairs several NGOs that operate in these fields,” his bio states.

Itay Ben Horin, CEO at Ben Horin & Alexandrovitz, one of Israel’s largest PR firms, has also been mentioned as one of the masterminds behind the strategy of this complex campaign.

According to their official website, Blue White Future’s goal is: “To strengthen and highlight public support for a two-state solution for two nations, Israel as the national home for the Jewish people and Palestine as the national state for the Palestinians, in order to preserve Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Established in 2009 by Petruschka, Gilead Sher (former chief of staff and policy coordinator to Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Barak), and Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Israeli Secret Service (Shin Bet), Blue White Future promotes the idea of unilateral withdrawal, consensual evacuation of settlers, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Both Petrushka and Ayalon previously participated in events of the far-Left organization Breaking the Silence, founded in 2004.

According to a report by N12 journalist Yigal Mosko, the leadership model of the protest headquarters is a “chaos theory” for protests, based on agreed-upon foundational principles.

The most interesting phenomenon of this protest is the novel role of wealthy tech entrepreneurs as social leaders within Israeli society. One of these new leaders is Idan Tendler, a serial entrepreneur in the cybersecurity industry. He currently serves as VP of DevSecOps at Palo Alto Networks, which acquired his startup Bridgecrew for $200 million.

“Delving into the legal reform was a journey from skepticism to realization,” he told the Magazine. The proposed legal reform sparked intrigue and doubt within Tendler, prompting him to embark on a quest for clarity.

“I engaged legal experts from diverse viewpoints and organized open discussions,” he said. As time passed, Tendler’s skepticism transformed into a profound insight: The reform was not just about change, it was a seismic shift in Israel’s governance.

“Hi-tech isn’t just about economics; it’s a societal bridge,” he explained. Recognizing the potential impact of the reform on the tech industry, he highlighted the integral role of hi-tech in connecting a diverse population. With hi-tech contributing 40% to Israel’s economic growth in the past decade, Tendler sees it as a unifying force among secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox, Arabs, Ethiopians, and Druze communities.

His concern extends to the potential ramifications on investments and multinational corporations, should the judicial system lose its independence.

“I witnessed entrepreneurs opting for the US over Israel,” he said, adding that the consequences could be detrimental to the Israeli economy. He lamented the apparent disregard for these economic warning signs by those in power.

In response to these concerns, Tendler found himself joining the growing protest movement against judicial reform.

“The protest slowed down the reform and rekindled public engagement,” he said. The protest, he believes, signifies the resurgence of public involvement and deep introspection about Israeli values and its future.

Tendler’s perspective on the protest movement is nuanced: “It’s a tapestry of diverse initiatives.”

He called for a broader consensus and constructive dialogue, urging a departure from polarized narratives. “We all stand to lose if one side ‘defeats’ the other,” he said, advocating for a collaborative approach to reform.

The tech sector’s participation in the movement is notable to Tendler. “Hi-tech should be integrated, not isolated,” he concluded. He lauded the sector’s growing involvement, both financially and intellectually, and shared that he envisions hi-tech not as a “bubble,” but as a vibrant part of Israel’s societal fabric. 