The administration of former President Barack Obama objected to Israel’s expansion of settlements in the region, and most foreign governments, and the United Nations, consider the settlements illegal. Critics say their expansion undermines the possibility of any peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, and exacerbates conflict in the region. Even President Donald Trump has said that the further expansion of Israel’s settlements endangers the chances for peace.
Through his charitable organization the MZ Foundation, Zimmerman has contributed more than $1 million since 2012 to nonprofits that support Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Zimmerman has also funded anti-Islamic right-wing organizations based in the United States, such as the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The land deal with the council gives Oakland city staff twelve months to negotiate with Portfolio Development Properties, a Walnut Creek-based company, over the terms of the property’s sale. Portfolio approached Oakland last November with an unsolicited proposal to build a drive-thru Starbucks on the empty lot at the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and 73rd Avenue. The city didn’t seek proposals from other developers.
According to city records, Portfolio’s main financial partner on the project is a company called MZ Investments, which city staff confirmed is run by Zimmerman. It’s unclear if MZ Investments is a for-profit company, or whether it is Zimmerman’s nonprofit foundation that funds organizations in the occupied territories.
In an email to the Express, Oakland’s director for economic and workforce development Mark Sawicki wrote that the exact Zimmerman-affiliated entity would be determined by the developers at a later date.
Zimmerman didn’t return a phone call or email seeking comment for this report. But according to tax returns and other records, his for-profit real-estate ventures are significantly intertwined with his nonprofit foundation.
The MZ Foundation has been a direct investor in previous Portfolio real-estate projects, including a deal in Colorado, a housing development in Alamo, near Danville; and another land investment in Washington state. The MZ Foundation and Portfolio also purchased a 7-Eleven store near the Bay Fair shopping mall in San Leandro in 2011.
And in 2012, the MZ Foundation disclosed in its tax return that it loaned $75,000 to three individuals, including Jeffrey Neustadt, the CEO of Portfolio. (Neustadt didn’t return a phone call and email for this story.)
The MZ Foundation — which has the same San Francisco mailing address as Zimmerman’s for-profit real-estate business — funds at least five nonprofits that operate in the Israeli settler-occupied territories east of Jerusalem.
According to federal tax records, the MZ Foundation provided the Central Fund of Israel with $786,412 since 2012. The Central Fund is run out of a textile company’s offices in New York. A 2015 investigation by Haaretz, a liberal-leaning media outlet that is the oldest newspaper in Israel, called the Central Fund a “funnel” between the United States and Israel’s controversial settlements.
Zimmerman’s nonprofit provided another organization, the Israel Independence Fund, with a total of $105,259 in 2014 and 2015. Among other things, the group pays for armed guards that patrol Israeli settler farms in an area that is also claimed by Palestinians. The Fund also underwrites a “religious pre-military academy” for boys in the settlement of Shilo in the northern West Bank.
Another group funded by the Israel Independence Fund is HaEer Halvrit, an Israeli political lobby that promotes the deportation of Muslim Eritreans and Sudanese, who recently migrated to South Tel Aviv. According to the Israel Independence Fund’s website, the migrants are “illegal infiltrators,” and HaEer Halvrit advocates for their removal because they “have imposed tyrannical terror upon Jewish inhabitants of the neighborhoods they occupy.”
The MZ Foundation is also a major funder of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative nonprofit that describes its mission as “combat[ing] the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values and disarm this country.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies right-wing groups, characterizes Horowitz as a “driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements.”
Zimmerman’s foundation also provided $50,000 last year to the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which describes itself as acting “against the treason being committed by national, state, and local government officials, the mainstream media, and others in their capitulation to the global jihad and Islamic supremacism.”
The American Freedom Defense Initiative is known locally for its 2012 ad campaign on San Francisco MUNI buses, that which the Israeli-Palestianian conflict as a war between “civilized man” and the “savage.” More recently, the group sought to run ads on MUNI supporting a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States.
Some members of the public objected at the recent council meeting when the exclusive negotiating agreement with Portfolio and Zimmerman was approved. They asked the city council to hold off on making any decisions about the property until after a new public-land policy is in place. Oakland has been developing a public-land policy for over a year. Many community members want the city to prioritize housing on city-owned properties, and to hold competitive auctions when public land is sold to gain the maximum price.
But several councilmembers dismissed the public’s concerns about the land deal, saying a retail development is appropriate for the site. They noted that an appraiser would estimate the market value of the property before it’s sold.
In past years, the Oakland City Council has weighed in on political controversies by boycotting and restricting certain contractors. For example, in 2010 the council barred companies based in Arizona from bidding on city contracts due to that state’s anti-immigrant legislation. And earlier this year, the council approved rules barring contractors who work on a possible U.S.-Mexico border wall from contracting with the city.
However, the city has never officially taken up the issue of Israeli’s controversial settlements in the West Bank.
Members of the Oakland City Council did not respond to an email seeking comment for this report.