Al-Jazeera / March 12, 2021
From India and the US to Israel and Myanmar, the ‘non-profit industrial complex’ is serving to enforce deeply-rooted structures of domination.
In the name of “charity”, the Jewish National Fund of Israel is buying up Palestinian land in the West Bank for colonial settlements and calling it “environmentalism”; far-right Hindutva nationalist organisations are propagating their fascist-inspired ideology across the world and calling it “decolonisation” and “anti-racism”; and monks who justify genocide in Myanmar are running tax-exempt centres across the United States for the practice of “religion for peace” Buddhism.
While Muslim and Palestinian charities in the US have been listed and prosecuted as “terrorists”, even for donations to hospitals and other entirely non-violent initiatives, those promoting violence against Muslims and Palestinians continue to be subsidised by tax exemptions from the state.
Such absurdities expose the contradictions of the “non-profit industrial complex”: which, like the military-industrial and prison-industrial complexes, serves to enforce deeply-rooted structures of domination. The difference is that the non-profit version operates under the mantle of benevolence and love – “love” being the literal translation of the Latin term caritas, from which the word “charity” is derived.
“Philanthropy is the private allocation of stolen social wages,” as eminent American abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has observed. In fact, as Gilmore points out, the wealth redistributed through philanthropy is actually “twice-stolen – (a) profit sheltered from (b) taxes”. When it comes to the US’s “empire of charity”, one might even say thrice-stolen, considering the foundation of the American state on the theft of Indigenous lands – another genocidal enterprise that self-righteously framed itself as a charitable undertaking.
For instance, the American branch of the Jewish National Fund openly advertises its role in constructing projects in the settlement cluster of Gush Etzion. Yet it somehow simultaneously maintains that it “is not involved in any settlement building and never has been”.
Perhaps the confusion stems from the organisation’s idiosyncratic definition of the Green Line – the line demarcating Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories – which the JNF-USA once bizarrely stated refers to “the millions of trees JNF planted there”.
The continuities between colonial processes unfolding on either side of the Green Line are illustrated by the JNF-USA’s flagship Blueprint Negev project – a “blueprint” for the continuing dispossession of Indigenous Bedouin Palestinians from the Naqab (Negev) Desert within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
On both sides of the Green Line, the “millions of trees” planted by the JNF have functioned as forest cover concealing the ruins and appropriating the land of ethnically cleansed Indigenous villages.
For example, the GodTV Forest – an interfaith collaboration between the JNF and evangelical Christian media organisation GodTV, which also has non-profit status in the US – occupies land constituting part of the Bedouin village of Al-Araqib. GodTV’s channel was expelled from Israel’s airwaves last year for trying to convert Jewish Israelis to the Gospel of Jesus, but the GodTV Forest converting Indigenous land into colonial territory remains.
Three weeks ago, Al-Araqib was bulldozed by Israel for the 183rd time: a continuation of the “Bedouin Nakba”, in the words of academic Eyal Weizman, through which 90 percent of the Bedouin population was removed from their ancestral homes by rape, massacres, and relocation into “concentration towns”.
In JNF-USA promo materials, this violently emptied land of the Negev is portrayed as a “nobody’s land” waiting to be claimed and developed by the state of Israel: the old colonial myth of “terra nullius”. It is soon to be the site of the shining new World Zionist Village, proudly sponsored by the American JNF.
The Bedouins, meanwhile, are reconfigured as the beneficiaries of JNF munificence – as other settler states similarly exalted themselves for charitably providing “care” to Indigenous peoples for diseases and other problems introduced by the colonisers in the first place.
As its unholy alliance with GodTV indicates, the JNF is one part of an extensive archipelago of American non-profits bolstering and bankrolling Israel’s colonial rule. A current search of the US Internal Revenue Service’s database turns up 30 charities whose very names explicitly declare their entire raison d’etre is funding illegal settlements – for example, the Gush Etzion Foundation, or the American Friends of Ariel.
Americans can “adopt a settlement” through the Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, or “adopt a battalion” of the occupation army through the Friends of the Israel Defence Forces (FIDF). FIDF alone raises millions of dollars through celebrity-studded galas for the Israeli army every year, despite restrictions in US law against donating money to foreign militaries.
Yet while US charities donating to humanitarian projects in Gaza have been held liable for deaths attributed to Hamas – on the theory that “money is fungible” and “giving money to Hamas [is] like giving a loaded gun to a child” – lawsuits against settlement-supporting non-profits have consistently been thrown out by American courts.
From under this Iron Dome of impunity, hundreds of US-based charities have been funnelling billions of dollars to every stage of the settler-colonial life cycle: from expropriating Palestinians’ homes, to arming settler militias (whose “loaded guns” are all too literal), to exonerating settlers who murder or maim Palestinians.
For example, Americans are among those who donate the most to Israeli legal organisation Honenu – which specialises in securing exculpation for settlers who attack Palestinians and providing financial support to their families.
Honenu casts itself as a courageous David confronting the Goliath of anti-settler persecution. Forget that David (like many Palestinians classified as “terrorists”) was armed only with stones – while settler communities are equipped with sniper scopes, armoured vests, thermal imaging, and other advanced surveillance technology, thanks in significant part to the generosity of charitable givers in the US.
A similar Goliath-as-David inversion complex is manifest by Hindutva and Buddhist nationalist organisations, which depict themselves as bravely standing up to Muslims and other minorities being crushed underfoot by the Indian and Myanmar states.
The US is the new virtual homeland of the Hindu Rashtra (“nation”). As of 2012, more websites propagating Hindutva ideology were hosted on the US servers than on the Indian ones. Many of these sites are connected to organisations registered as non-profits in the US, such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA).
Take the reaction of the VHPA to the Indian Supreme Court’s Ayodhya decision – which despite characterising the destruction of the ancient Babri mosque, followed by anti-Muslim pogroms, as an “egregious violation of the rule of law” effectively legalised it anyway by giving title to the destroyers. According to the VHPA, this represents a triumph against “five centuries of colonial subjugation”.
On top of supposedly having invented air travel, plastic surgery, and the genetic sciences, Hindutva nationalists also seem to have discovered a new meaning of “colonial subjugation” – one in which the alleged colonisers are some of the most impoverished, politically marginalised, and abused communities in India.
Hindutva’s founders spoke of relegating Muslims “to the position of negroes in [Jim Crow-era USA]”. Now, the VHPA has the audacity to analogise its supremacist struggle to the American “Civil Rights movements, or to the movements of Native tribes to reclaim back their sacred grounds”. (Israeli settlers have similarly been known to liken themselves to Rosa Parks.)
In addition to campaigning within the US to censor governmental criticisms of rights-abusive Indian policies – not to mention the extracurricular participation of some members in the US Capitol siege – the VHPA is also currently in the process of “obtaining regulatory approvals” from India, to collect donations for the Hindutva cause celebre of building a Ram temple on the Babri mosque ruins. The “approvals” are to circumvent the strictures of India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act – the same law wielded by the Modi government to shut down Amnesty International India last year and target thousands of other social justice NGOs for the “offence” of receiving foreign funding.
As a 2014 study found, US non-profits send millions of dollars to Hindutva-affiliated projects in India. The Ekal Vidyalayas, or “one teacher schools”, for example, which “the VHP leadership [in India] has publicly stated [are for] training tribals to confront the [Hindu] nation’s internal and external enemies”.
At the latest Ekal Foundation-USA “transformation conference” attended by 110,000 in Lucknow, the headline speaker was none other than Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose own “transformation” agenda for India is evident in his reference to Muslims as a “green virus”.
Adityanath’s fellow holy man and anti-Muslim agitator, “Myanmar’s most influential genocidal monk” Sitagu Sayadaw, has a network of tax-exempt religious centres across the US. While sanctioning Myanmar military leaders responsible for the Rohingya genocide with one hand, the US is subsidising one of the foremost figures stoking the genocidal fires with the other.
An ideological father of the infamous “face of Buddhist terror” Wirathu, Sitagu Sayadaw was vice chair of the MaBaTha: the organisation of monks behind Myanmar’s “race and religion protection laws” restricting Rohingya marriages and births. (Measures to prevent reproduction constitute a genocidal act under the UN Genocide Convention and Statute of the International Criminal Court.)
Hailed as a great humanitarian for his contributions to natural disaster relief, he has simultaneously fomented the human-made disaster against the Rohingya by urging stronger cooperation between monks and the genocidal military, praising Israel for “fencing in [Muslims] like pigs and bulls”, and absolving mass slaughter of Rohingya on the ground that they are not fully human.
Sitagu Sayadaw’s comments illuminate the paradox lying at the heart of the concept of charity – repeatedly used to justify oppression and domination in the name of “love for humanity” against those deemed sub-human, from the Crusades to colonialism.
Political philosopher Hannah Arendt famously analysed the “banality of evil”. Here, we have the “benevolence” of evil. Violence is rationalised not simply as mundane, but morally imperative.
Against this colonial caritas, communities and movements are demonstrating their own forms of decolonial love: building up interfaith and intercommunal solidarity against the politics of genocidal nationalism and fascism, from Myanmar to India to Israel to the US.
As philosopher Cornel West said, “justice is what love looks like in public” – even if it continues to be punished by the “charitable” state.
Azeezah Kanji – Legal academic and writer based in Toronto.