Within hours of last week’s bus bombing in Jerusalem, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee sent an e-mail blast to its supporters: “Israel is under terrorist attack — please help.”
“Dear Friend of Israel,” the e-mail began, “today terrorists exploded a package at a Jerusalem bus stop killing one person and injuring 30 others, 15 seriously. And in this last week alone, Gaza terrorists have bombarded Israeli towns with more than 50 rockets and mortars.”
The rest of the e-mail concerned AIPAC’s efforts to secure passage of funding for two major programs for Israel and asks for a “special contribution” ranging up to $250 or more.
The reaction was immediate.
Matt Duss, the author of a blog for the left-wing Center for American Progress Action Fund, posted an article headlined: “AIPAC Fundraises Off of Jerusalem Bus Attack.”
“Even before the street had been cleared …. [Aipac] blasted an e-mail to its supporters in a crass attempt to raise money off the attack,” he wrote. “It is disgraceful that AIPAC’s first response to this tragedy is to try and monetize it.”
About five hours later, AIPAC released another e-mail blast headlined, “Apology.”
“Today, you received an e-mail from us about the dangers facing Israel right now and ways in which you can help ensure American support for Israel at a difficult and dangerous time,” it read. “We included information about the horrific bombing in Jerusalem. In hindsight, it was wrong of us to mention this terrible tragedy the same day it occurred in the context of this email. We are deeply sorry. We express our sympathies to all those impacted by today’s events and extend our heartfelt apologies to you.”
The pro-Israel lobby’s letter, and its quick apology, raised questions about so-called crisis fundraising, a technique practiced with regularity in the Jewish community.
Neal Sher, who served as AIPAC’s national executive director from 1994-96, said he has no doubt that Duss’ criticism “did not bother them, but I would not be surprised if they also got calls from donors and some board members saying it was crass.”
“You don’t see such an apology from a group — and certainly not from AIPAC,” he said. “I suspect that there was an eruption in the organization. It’s pretty obvious that somebody was asleep at the switch.”
A spokesman for AIPAC said the organization would not discuss what happened.
AIPAC was not the only organization to issue an e-mail blast solicitation that capitalized on the bus bombing. American Friends of Magen David Adom issued one at 7:15 p.m. that day with the headline, “Israel Under Attack.”
Another from ZAKA, a humanitarian organization whose life-saving and recovery volunteers respond to tragic events in Israel, sent out an e-mail blast at 7:40 p.m. headlined: “Blood in the Streets of Jerusalem.”
Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, suggested that it was not surprising to see such solicitations from ZAKA and AFMDA because “in moments of tragedy people open their pocketbooks, as we have seen a lot recently.”
But, he said, “just as people gave to the Red Cross when tragedy struck Haiti and Japan, there must be a connection between the mission of the charity and the immediate reaction. … The response is usually to help those affected by the tragedy, and that is the disconnect in this situation.”
He was referring to the fact that AIPAC is a political action group.
Sher agreed but added that the timing of all such solicitations could backfire.
“To make such an urgent request when the bodies have not even been buried is crass and can rub people the wrong way,” he said. “It would have been better had they waited a few days. It’s not as though people would have forgotten what happened — as though it would be off the radar screen.”
Judy Mann, chief operating officer of the Jewish Funders Network, agreed that “raising money off the back of a tragedy is inappropriate. … Yes, crisis is an opportunity, but organizations have to decide that balance.”
“Political groups are different from groups like the Red Cross,” she said. “You have to be wise when something hits, and the only way to do that is to have thought through what you believe and how you operate. If you have given it deep thought in advance, hopefully you will know how to respond. And if you make mistakes, apologize — do what is appropriate when you make a mistake.”
This world of instant communication makes it all the more imperative to have thought through one’s solicitation policy, Mann stressed.
“When the Berlin Wall was built, it took two or three days before it was seen in the United States, because the film of it had to be flown here and developed,” she said. “The problem with the Internet is that once something is said, it has a life of its own and the original item may not be linked to the apology. That means one has to be even more cautious. Everything has a life of its own, so think ahead and try to be good on your feet. If you blow it, be honest and always operate with integrity.”
Allison Fine, co-author with Beth Kanter of “The Networked Nonprofit,” about ways nonprofits are struggling to catch up with online technology, said it is “not unusual when organizations realize they have crossed the line for them to apologize — and quickly.”
“It’s more insulting to people if they take a couple of days to respond,” she pointed out, adding that in this day of instant communication “responses from organizations [to tragedies] are quicker and protests come back quicker — and organizations have to be ready for it.”
Fine said she believed that for AIPAC to have sent out that apology, “they would have had to hear a lot of complaints about the appropriateness of their fundraising request. To their credit, they responded within the day. The alternative would have been silence, and that would have been shockingly bad behavior.”
“I’m not a judge of what people find tasteful,” Fine added. “It’s up to the organizations to decide, and clearly AIPAC had heard from its members that it had crossed the line.”