A protestor in Washington DC (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

November 22, 2023   7 mins

Last Wednesday, several dozen pro-Palestinian activists, their faces obscured by keffiyehs and Covid masks, attempted to block the entrance to the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington, DC. Reports of a riot may have been hyperbole, but footage showed a chaotic demonstration reminiscent of the racial justice protests of 2020. The organisers later accused the police of attacking the “non-violent” protestors; Capitol Police claimed that six of its officers were assaulted.

The protest was the latest instance of the growing hostility between the Biden administration and America’s activist Left, which accuses the President of complicity in an ongoing “genocide” in Gaza. Depending on your perspective, this conflict can be read in one of two ways: either it is evidence that Biden, the old white moderate, is out of touch with his party’s increasingly diverse and Left-wing base; or it is reassuring proof that the adults in the Democratic establishment are still in charge of their party, despite their occasional indulgence of youthful radicalism.

This framing is flattering to both sides. For the radical Left, which find its values endorsed by nearly every prestige institution in the country, from Harvard to the CIA, it provides reassurance that they really are an embattled, anti-establishment minority bravely speaking truth to power. For the moderates, not least Jewish Democrats horrified to see Left-wing college students cheering the murder of Israeli women and children, it functions more as a defence mechanism, sustaining them in the illusion that the party is still run by and for people like them.

But the division between the activist Left and the party establishment is little more than a politically useful fiction. In reality, the radical cadres are bankrolled by the same nexus of progressive oligarchs and dark-money slush funds that finance the party establishment.

The DNC protest, for example, was organised by two progressive “Jewish” NGOs, Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow — the same groups behind a rowdy pro-ceasefire protest at the US Capitol at which more than 300 people were arrested. Both groups are funded by an array of big-money progressive donors, including George Soros, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Tides network. JVP, for instance, has received $650,000 from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation since 2017 and at least $350,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, as well as smaller donations from Tides and from the charitable wings of major financial institutions such as Vanguard, Fidelity, and Morgan Stanley. INN, meanwhile, received $400,000 from Soros in 2019 and 2021 and $160,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund between 2017 and 2023. It has also received donations from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, another massive dark-money group managed by Arabella Advisors.

Soros, of course, is the most prominent individual Democratic donor in the country — he personally spent $170 million to get Democrats elected in the 2022 midterms, and his nonprofit spent at least another $140 million. Arabella Advisors is less well-known but may be just as influential. Run by the Clintonworld insider Eric Kessler, the for-profit consultancy manages a vast and opaque empire of funds and nonprofits aligned with the Democratic Party. Its role, in essence, is to allow wealthy donors to hide their donations. For a sense of the scale involved, Sixteen Thirty Fund, the Arabella group that donated to INN, spent more than $400 million on the 2020 election.

Crucially, Arabella is also notable for pioneering the use of “fiscal sponsorships”. This is an arrangement — essentially a loophole in American tax law — that allows smaller nonprofits to be legally merged into a “fiscal sponsor”, meaning that they do not have to disclose their donors or report them to the IRS. As the Washington Free Beacon reported earlier this year, Arabella discovered that these rules allowed a sophisticated and well-funded sponsor to create an army of pop-up “grassroots” activist groups that in reality are completely controlled by their sponsor.

In recent years, it has used these groups to push for Democratic policy priorities ranging from the repeal of Voter ID laws to DEI in schools — creating an illusion, among ordinary people, of widespread organic support for these initiatives. Fiscal sponsorships are also favoured by Tides, another dark-money behemoth which, in 2020, became the fiscal sponsor of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Its list of donors includes Soros, Pierre Omidyar, and Warren Buffett’s son Peter, and it has drawn several current and former board members from the Obama administration.

But it’s not just JVP and INN that benefit from these financial arrangements. Scratch a nationally prominent pro-Palestinian organisation, and you’re likely to find Democratic oligarch money somewhere. Take Samidoun, a pro-Palestinian group that is widely alleged to be a support network for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a US and EU-designated terror group whose most famous alumnus is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal. Despite this, it was reported last week that Samidoun is a fiscal sponsorship of the Alliance for Global Justice, a Left-wing nonprofit that has received millions in donations from groups within the Tides and Arabella networks. (Arabella severed its ties with group earlier this year.)

Similarly, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, the “grassroots” group behind a recent blockade of a US military ship heading to Israel from Tacoma, Washington, is a fiscal sponsorship of Tides, as is the Adalah Justice Project, which organised sit-ins at the offices of House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and California Sen. Ro Khanna.

So, why are Democratic oligarchs financing an AstroTurfed rebellion against a Democratic president? One possibility is that Israel’s war against Hamas could provide a useful pretext for shoving an ageing and politically ailing Biden out the door before 2024. Recent polls have shown Biden trailing Donald Trump in key swing states, with one suggesting that, if the election were held tomorrow, Trump would win outright. Perhaps mobilising this network against Biden now is the donors’ way of telling him, while there’s still time, “it’s time to step aside, old man”. Newsom 2024!

Plausible, perhaps. But what this account ignores is the way that the radicals and the Democratic establishment work together towards shared ends, even when they are fighting. This is especially true when it comes to Israel. As my colleagues at Tablet have repeatedly argued, the Biden administration’s allegedly pro-Israel stance is more rhetoric than reality, a pose adopted to box critics into a corner, constrain Israel’s ability to act independently of the United States, and obscure the true nature of the White House’s Middle East policy. That policy, as Edward Luttwak wrote in these pages, is to fulfil Barack Obama’s “ill-concealed desire to distance the US from Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to reconcile with Iran”.

But wait: isn’t the US funnelling billions of aid toward Israel, and promising even more? Yes, it is — but the meaning of this aid, much of which goes to defensive-only systems such as Iron Dome, is often misunderstood. It is, first and foremost, a lucrative subsidy to the American defence industry, which has the added benefit of buying the US veto power over Israeli policy during crises such as the current one.

Plus, at the same time as it is granting defence credits to Israel, the White House is also funding Iran. On November 14, the administration extended a sanctions waiver that will give Iran access to some $10 billion, following the $6 billion it unfroze in September as part of a prisoner deal mediated by another Hamas patron and Iranian ally, Qatar. Meanwhile, a similar approach is being taken towards Iran’s oil industry. Before the war, in September, The Guardian reported on the booming trade in sanctioned Iranian oil, citing industry analysts who said it was “going on with the full knowledge of the Biden administration”, which had “prioritised diplomatic overtures with Iran over enforcing their own sanctions”. Then there was Biden’s decision to remove Iran’s Yemeni proxies, the Houthis, from the list of US-designated terror organisations, or the various steps his administration has taken to strengthen Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Even on military matters, the US has tried to split the difference between Israel and the Iranian “Axis of Resistance”. Since October 7, the latter, especially Iran and its prized proxy, Hezbollah, has balanced vituperative criticism of Israel with claims that Hamas acted alone and demands that the US restrain Israel from escalating beyond Gaza. The White House has complied, demanding that Israel not carry out any significant operations against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and leaking to the American press that it views Israel’s retaliations to Hezbollah’s daily cross-border attacks as an attempt by Jerusalem to “create a pretext for a wider war” that could draw the US in. The US has, moreover, publicly backed the Iranian and Hezbollah claims that Hamas acted independently and without their knowledge on October 7, despite early public assessments from former US intelligence officials that the “sophistication and complexity” of the attack was “beyond what Hamas could do on its own”.

The United States, in other words, has effectively boxed Israel in. Having been struck hard by an Iranian proxy, Israel can attempt to eliminate that proxy — on an accelerated timeline, at the cost of massive international outrage, and to limited strategic benefit. But it is being prevented by the US from taking any proactive measures to re-establish deterrence against Tehran, including by striking Hezbollah — not, to be clear, because doing so would draw the US into a new war, but because it would derail Washington’s pro-Iran foreign policy. All the while, the Biden administration is micromanaging Israel’s Gaza campaign, publicly criticising its goal of destroying Hamas as unrealistic, and leaking a steady stream of disparaging remarks to the American press to the effect that the Israeli leadership is insensitive to civilian casualties and bent on dragging the United States into war.

Read in that light, the oligarch-funded protests against Biden are somewhat less mysterious. They are, in fact, a useful form of Kabuki: Biden pretends to be the best friend Israel has ever had, while the Left pretends to hate him for it. Both sides benefit: for Biden, pressure from the Left gives him leverage to turn around to the Israelis and say, “you better listen to me, or I’ll have to cave to my party’s flank”, while offering his party’s Jewish and pro-Israel voters a show of the president’s resolute commitment to the Jewish state — even as he courts Iran. And this pose is especially important in justifying the latter policy, since Americans remain overwhelmingly supportive of Israel and overwhelmingly hostile toward Iran and its terrorist proxies. Sending money to Tehran so that it can fund and train Hamas for the purpose of raping women and murdering babies does not, as they say, play in Peoria.

The Left, meanwhile, gets to demonstrate its principled independence from the Democratic establishment while setting the stage to extract concessions within the party and party-adjacent bureaucracies — set-asides for Arab, Palestinian and Muslim staffers, a National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia (presumably to be administered by professional “anti-Islamophobia” activists), and a general resetting of the Overton window for the next round of conflict. Plus, there’s the continued channelling of nominally “anti-system” energies into a web of party-controlled nonprofits, which have already proven themselves adept at redirecting the righteous anger of America’s radicals into a neverending jihad against “racists”, “MAGA extremists”, and other deplorables.

You may not care about Israel, but Israel, or at least the ongoing convulsions in America that are nominally “about” Israel, cares about you. Why? Because this is how progressive governance works in America now: billionaire-funded activist groups stage disruptive protests, sympathetically covered by their allies in mainstream media, to create a false impression of popular support for Left-wing policy demands, regardless of the actual views of the public (see: defund the police). The only difference between this issue and others like it is that the dynamics here are far clearer, since, for now at least, virtually no one in America outside the network of Soros- and Buffet-funded professional radicals actually supports Hamas.

Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet