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This article by Muhi Khwaja was previously published on Nov. 9, 2023 in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Reprinted with permission.
Donors committed to human rights must stop turning a blind eye to the assault on Gaza.
I visited Palestine for the first time this past April at the end of Ramadan. Just a few days before I arrived, the occupying Israel Defense Force used stun grenades and rubber bullets to clear out the Al-Aqsa compound, where the Islamic mosque and prayer hall sits atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Even worshipers were detained.
With my U.S. passport, I could move around the area more easily than the locals. As I passed through checkpoints in the West Bank, I saw surveillance cameras, rifle-toting IDF soldiers, and the separation wall that restricts Palestinians from freely roaming their own country.
I also saw moments of serenity, as people gathered for prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. That’s because Palestinians still have their faith. It’s what connects all Muslims, including me, to Palestine.
Many liken Gaza to an open-air prison — and the Palestinians in Gaza as innocent prisoners. That description has rarely been more apt as Israeli bombs continue to kill and injure thousands of trapped civilians in response to the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel.
Killing innocent civilians is never the answer and must be denounced whenever and wherever it occurs. For anyone in philanthropy committed to human rights, that should mean standing up for the Palestinian people and against what one top United Nations human-rights official — who resigned last month — called a “textbook case of genocide.”
The people of Palestine need non-Arab and non-Muslim allies to voice their opposition to the extremist policies of the right-wing Israeli government. Philanthropy leaders should discuss the issue with staff and invite Palestinians in their communities to participate. Put out a public statement, demand a cease-fire, and fund organizations that help Palestinians.
For me, this catastrophe is both personal and professional. In my work as co-founder of the American Muslim Community Foundation I have formed friendships with people whose families are suffering and whose stories need to be told.
They include Bassim Elkarra, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, for Sacramento Valley, who has lost more than 20 family members in Palestine. Several relatives of former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a Christian Palestinian, were killed during the bombing of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius in Gaza last month. There are many more stories like theirs.
My activism for the Palestinian people started at an early age near Detroit, where during the 1990s my youth group and community raised funds to purchase an ambulance for Palestine and support other struggling countries through Islamic Relief USA. The first rally I ever attended was for Palestine in 2000 in Washington, D.C. A few years later, while a student senator and later president of the student government at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, we distributed petitions demanding that the school divest from Israel because of its apartheid policies.
Many of the sentiments I felt growing up in the 9/11 era have returned, including the dehumanization of Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians. Increasing levels of Islamophobia have resulted in unthinkable acts, such as the stabbing death of a six-year-old Palestinian American Muslim, Wadea Al-Fayoumi, in Illinois last month.
Philanthropy routinely stands up for what’s right, including the Black Lives Matter movement and for the people of Ukraine. Why then have grant makers largely responded with silence to the relentless assault on Gaza?
An Effective Response
The Ford Foundation has set an example for what an effective response from a major grant maker can look like, issuing a statement from President Darren Walker that commits to sending humanitarian relief to Gaza and calling for a “shared commitment to our collective humanity.”
Nonprofit activist and blogger Vu Le last week called on the nonprofit and philanthropic sector to demand a cease-fire, donate to the emergency response in Gaza, and boycott companies that support Israel.
Some grant makers are concerned about giving to Muslim-led humanitarian efforts because of a narrative that these organizations are linked to Hamas. The Muslim-focused crowdfunding platform LaunchGood, for example, is facing allegations from the Israeli government that some of the more than $7 million it has raised to support campaigns for Gaza could end up in the hands of Hamas.
LaunchGood denies the charges, telling the Jerusalem Post that all its campaigns are “strictly vetted” using “industry-leading compliance procedures.” As Amany Killawi, co-founder and COO of LaunchGood, told me: “It’s quite sad to see humanitarian aid stuck at the crossroads of political misinformation and crisis.”
A wide range of potential giving options is available to donors. The Funders for a Ceasefire Now campaign is coordinating the efforts of more than 112 institutional funders and more than 240 individual donors and philanthropy professionals. The American Muslim Community Foundation, AMCF, has distributed more than $11 million since 2017 to many organizations helping in Palestine, with nearly half of our funds going to U.S. registered charities that operate internationally. These include American Near East Relief Aid, Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations Relief and Work Agency — all of which have faced criticism for providing help to Palestinians.
AMCF’s recent Statement on Palestine highlights resources for grant makers and individual donors who want to take action. And our national Interfaith Giving Circle Confronting Hate, which focuses on promoting understanding and denouncing xenophobia, antisemitism, and Islamophobia, provides an opportunity for donors to put their money where their heart is and join interfaith leaders across the country committed to fighting hate.
More funding is also needed for research into giving practices that harm Palestinians. In 2019, with Islamophobia on the rise during Donald Trump’s presidency, AMCF worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center and CAIR to produce a report on how philanthropy helps fund Islamophobia. It found that 1,096 organizations with total revenue of at least $1.5 billion were responsible for funding 39 groups promoting Islamophobia during a two-year period. Many were mainstream charitable organizations, including donor-advised funds like Fidelity Charitable Fund and the National Christian Foundation.
The Israel-Hamas war has made one thing clear: The philanthropic world can no longer turn a blind eye to the collective punishment facing Palestinians. As a student of philanthropy, I believe in the love of humankind. As a Muslim, I believe in compassion for all. My Jewish friends and colleagues believe in Tikkun olam — repairing the world. But Israel’s actions in Gaza are doing the opposite.
Malcolm X once said, “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” As Palestine struggles to survive, philanthropy must stand up for the peace and freedom of its people.
Muhi Khwaja is co-founder of the American Muslim Community Foundation.