Support the Israeli Occupation; It’s Tax Deductible!
Friends of Israel Defense Forces Raises $27 Million Under NY Media’s Radar
by JEFF BLANKFORT
It isn’t every day or night that a tax-exempt non-profit American charity rakes in $27 million in the space of a few hours. When it happens in New York at such a well known landmark as the Waldorf-Astoria, arguably the city’s most famous hotel, it should be news, right?
Wrong, apparently, since not a single TV station nor any New York newspaper, all of which are known for their attention to events in the city’s Jewish community as well as their devotion to Israel, saw fit to cover the annual dinner of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) this past March 12 which raised that enormous sum.
Nor, it turns out, did they cover last year’s FIDF fundraiser at the Waldorf which took in almost as much, $26 million, nor the one in 2011, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the organization that featured the presence of six former Israel Defense Forces Chiefs of Staff and collected $23 million.
More than five weeks after latest dinner, the only paper trails that can be found to the event were in the Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz (a week later), the New York Jewish Week, and the Forward, the city’s national Jewish weekly which is known for printing articles that the mainstream press and other Jewish publications find too hot to handle. The Jewish Week’s reporter, Tim Boxer, in fact, did not mention the amount raised at the black tie, $1000 a plate affair, until the very last paragraph of the story.
“The dinner raised $27 million for FIDF which, since 1981, has been supporting educational and recreational facilities for soldiers and their families,” wrote Boxer. “Among the heavy hitters was Marc Belzberg who announced, ‘I am donating one million dollars and my first-born son to the IDF in August’.”
The FIDF is an organization that most Americans, including Jews not affiliated with the Jewish establishment, have probably never heard of and that is obviously the intent of those who run what has, in the last few years, become one of the brightest star in the pro-Israel fundraising firmament with a $60 million annual budget, all of which, it cannot be overemphasized, is tax-exempt.
“[E]stablished … by Holocaust survivors to provide for the well-being of Israeli soldiers,” according to its website, and headquartered in New York City, the FIDF is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation that operates 16 regional offices in the United States and Panama. Its mission, in brief, is visible at the top of its website: “Their job is to look after Israel. Ours is to look after them.”
True to that motto, the money this “charity” raises benefits exclusively the soldiers of a foreign country that has not fought a war longer than 33 days in 40 years and whose primary duties have been to protect Israel’s illegal settlements, demolish Palestinian homes, make the lives of ordinary Palestinians miserable, and suppress Palestinian resistance to its ongoing ethnic cleansing by whatever means necessary.
The FIDF has a different take: “The Israeli government is responsible for training IDF soldiers and providing them with the necessary tools for their service. FIDF is committed to providing these soldiers with love, support, and care in an effort to ease the burden they carry.” FIDF also brings Israeli soldiers to the states to visit synagogues and lecture at schools and universities. “These events,” according to its website, “offer a great opportunity to meet IDF soldiers and hear the stories of these brave young men and women.”
In 2011, the last year reported, it raised just over $62 million and had $80 million in assets at the end of the year, $546,000 of which goes in salary to its national director, Retired Israeli General Jerry Gershon, plus an additional $10 thousand a month for his New York apartment, according to the Forward.
Given that every year, irrespective of the ups and downs of the US economy, Washington awards Israel’s military establishment with more than $3.5 billion (when it’s all added up) of the taxpayers money, the FIDF’s desire to keep its fundraising activities under wraps and invisible to the larger American public is readily understandable. That they are able to do so with apparent impunity is but further evidence, if such is needed, of the degree to which supporters of Israel dominate our national media.
Considering that an estimated 870,000 US veterans are suffering the after effects, physically and mentally, of multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and comprise a significant segment of the nation’s homeless, the very existence of the FIDF and the nature of its primary concern—the welfare of Israeli soldiers—might be viewed as an insult not only to US servicemen and women, but to ordinary Americans who are forced to confront the increasing costs of medicines and medical care, higher gas and food prices, and underfunded schools, not to mention the more than 300,000 who lose their jobs and forced to file for unemployment benefits every week for the past several decades.
There are some other things about New York’s FIDF dinners that are unusual. With the exception of Monica Crowley, the right-wing Fox News commentator who is routinely brought in to preside over the post-dinner programs, it is largely an inside job. Unlike at other pro-Israel events, there was an absence at the dinner, at least in the reports in the Israeli and Jewish press, of key New York Jewish political figures known for their loyalty to Israel, such as Sen. Charles Schumer and Representatives Elliot Engel, Gary Ackerman, and Nita Lowy, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
There was one prominent attendee, however, whose substantial donations to the FIDF should raise some eyebrows were it not apparently at the service of Israel. His name is Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, another tax-exempt non-profit that raises money for Israel from American evangelicals while paying him a handsome $491,000 for his services.
The rabbi apparently has collected quite a bit from the evangelicals—the friendship often being a one way street–so when he attends an FIDF dinner he is in a generous mood. On March 12th Eckstein’s $5 million dollar pledge topped all the others as did his $8.5 million commitment at the 2011 FIDF dinner and his $9.25 million bequest in 2012.
Those kind of numbers would certainly draw the public’s critical attention, particularly when all of this money that is headed towards Israel is tax-exempt and more than that, thanks to IRS rules enacted in 2008, once it leaves America’s shores it’s not traceable.
Even though the rule was changed, essentially favoring pro-Israel non-profits, five years ago, it went unnoticed by the media until theForward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis reported on it in the paper’s April 12th edition:
“Want to know how an American charity is spending your donated dollars overseas?,” he wrote.
“That’s the effect of an Internal Revenue Service rule change that is making it increasingly difficult for donors and watchdogs to track American not-for-profit dollars after they leave the United States.
“Former IRS officials,” he noted, “have criticized the little-noticed 2008 change, which lifted the requirement that charities in the United States report to the IRS and the public the identities of overseas charities to which they have sent money.
“Charities still have to tell the IRS and the public the names and amounts they donate to other American charities. When American charities send money out of the country, however, they need to say only the region of the world where they sent it and the amount they gave.”
Nathan-Kazis cites, as an example, the One Israel Fund, which in 2003 reported sending tens of thousands of dollars to settlements in the West Bank, and now needs only to note that it sent grants to the “Middle East” for “Security,” among other purposes, as it did in its 2010 disclosure.
The One Israel Fund makes it quite clear on its site where its money is going:
“One Israel Fund is dedicated to supporting the welfare and safety of the men, women and children of Judea and Samaria as well as rebuilding the lives of the Jewish people impacted by the Gaza evacuation. These 300,000+ people are the vanguard of Israel’s security and sovereignty as a Jewish State.”
In other words, One Israel Fund has no qualms about openly raising funds for projects that are in direct conflict with long standing US policy and yet the government not only has not penalized it but made it easier to cover its trail. In 2010, on the last available 990, One Israel Fund reported that it had sent $2, 340,000 to meet its goals, a $600,000 increase from the previous year. It is not hard to speculate that its donations have grown considerably since then.
In its 990 form for 2011, Rabbi Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews made no mention of his donations to the Friends of Israel Defense Forces nor did he so in its annual report which was filled with pictures of children, women and the aged in Israel which the Fellowship claims to support out of the slightly more than $100 million it raises annually.
The largest Jewish organization to take advantage of the IRS’s tax-exempt status is the United Israel Appeal, founded in 1953, which is the funding arm of the Jewish Federations of North America. It funnels its donations through the Jewish Agency of Israel, a quasi-governmental organization that predates the founding of the state and was in charge of Jewish settlement in Palestine.
In 1963 it was revealed in US Senate hearings that between 1955 and 1962, the Jewish Agency had recycled over $5 million ($40 million in today’s dollars) donated by American Jews to Israel back to the American Zionist Council, (AIPAC, before its name change) to pay for pro-Israel lobbying and propaganda in the US. This led to an unsuccessful attempt by the President Kennedy’s Justice Dept. to force the AZC to register as a foreign agent, an effort that would evaporate following his assassination. Private efforts to follow-up on Kennedy’s efforts have been blocked by subsequent administrations.
According to Guide Star, a website that monitors non-profits, the United Israel Appeal took in just under $197 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, the last year it reported its financials. Curiously, according to Guide Star, the United Israel Appeal at this point in time “is not required to file an annual return with the IRS” and no audited financial statements are available.
What a difference 57 years makes. In 1956, when Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion was reluctant to obey President Eisenhower’s order to withdraw Israeli troops from the Sinai which they occupied after joining Britain and France in an attack on Egypt, in the “Suez War,” Ike threatened to end the United Israel Appeal’s tax exemption status and that brought Ben-Gurion to heel.
One can imagine what Eisenhower would think today of an organization of Americans established to help Israeli soldiers, not American troops, and receiving an exemption from paying US taxes at the same time.
The New York and East Coast media have not been alone in protecting the FIDF from possible public wrath. In Beverly Hills, the local chapter has raised sums that while not approaching the amounts raised by its New York counterparts, has not done badly. Its fundraising events, as well, have also been blacked out by the mainstream media, despite the presence of such well known Hollywood stars as Barbra Streisand and Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander, an ardent supporter of Israel who acts as master of cermonies.
Last December 17th, at the Century-Plaza Hotel in Beverly Hills, its annual dinner pulled in a record $14 million in pledges which some viewed as the Jewish establishment’s defiant response to entertainer Stevie Wonder who had agreed to be the night’s headliner, but pulled out as a result of a petition by from pro-Palestinian activists and a personal plea by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.
There should have been two stories there for the LA media. First, that Stevie Wonder had withdrawn from the event, bowing to public pressure and second, that the FIDF dinner, hosted as it is every year by Israeli-American communications billionaire, Haim Saban and his wife, Cheryl, had raised a record sum for the local chapter. It was not to be. Only the local Jewish Journal reported on the event and Wonder’s cancellation.
Back in New York, in what was headlined, “A LETTER FROM THE WALDORF-ASTORIA the Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis poked fun at the heavy handed security at March’s FIDF dinner.
“For defenders of Israel, danger is everywhere, — even in New York City, even on Park Avenue,” he wrote, “even once they’ve passed a metal detector on the second story of the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
“Such was the conceit of the organizers of the Friends of the IDF gala, who posted two additional layers of security between the cocktail room and the ballroom at their March 12 event.”
Nathan-Kazis noted that guests had been warned not to take photos and that MC Monica Crowley had told them, “Do not even think about uploading anything, anywhere, at any time,” as a live satellite feed from what was said to be a secure Israeli intelligence facility in Jerusalem appeared on screens throughout the ballroom on which “a bald, bespectacled soldier described how his unit eavesdrops on Palestinian phone calls, though this practice was hardly a state secret.”
The FIDF had flown a number of Israel soldiers to New York for the event and, as Nathan-Kazis tells it,
“In the ballroom, Crowley, in her role as MC, talked with a young drone operator identified as Major Yair, who stood in a spotlight on an upper balcony. ‘Flying these kind of remote vehicles sounds really fun,’ Crowley told Major Yair, referring to the rocket-equipped unmanned warplanes.
“’Yeah, it is,’” Yair affirmed.
“Yair grew up in a town near Israel’s southern border. His own home was hit with a rocket launched from Gaza while he was away serving in the IDF, he told the rapt audience. Yair spoke about how he identifies targets while piloting his drone, showing side-by-side infrared images of a man in a stretcher and a man preparing to launch a rocket. The blobs in the middle of the images looked similar, but Yair showed how he could carefully distinguish between them.
“’If someone dropped a rocket on my family I wouldn’t spend so much time deciding which one was which,’” Crowley said. The crowd applauded.”
While in Canada …..
Internal documents show Canadian tax agency protected Jewish National Fund from scrutiny
In 2010 the Canada Revenue Agency was asked whether it would “investigate or revoke” the Jewish National Fund’s charitable status, internal documents seen by The Electronic Intifada show. But this request seems to have been ignored in deference to a “charity” that has long participated in the erasure of Palestinians’ presence from their historic homeland.
Through an access to information request, Montreal-based activist Ron Saba received dozens of Canada Revenue Agency documents concerning the Jewish National Fund (JNF) of Canada in March (documents may be viewed at the end of this article).
In probably the most explosive revelation, the Canada Revenue Agency was questioned if it would revoke the charitable status of the JNF: “If a registered charity undertakes illegal activities abroad, what action will the CRA take? Will the CRA investigate or revoke the registered status of the Jewish National Fund?”
While the document does not make clear who authored it, context suggests it came from Canada’s Auditor General.
Released by the Canada Revenue Agency after Saba’s freedom of information request, the document takes the form of questions and answers based on Chapter 7 of the 2010 Fall Report of the Auditor General of Canada. The JNF is the only specific charity to be challenged in the 30 questions, most of which address issues of performance and targets.
The CRA did not return emails or phone messages from Saba seeking to clarify whether the Office of the Attorney General authored the document.
JNF violates Canadian law
Shutting out Palestinian citizens of Israel, JNF lands can only be leased by Jews. A 1998 United Nations Human Rights Council report finds that the JNF systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the country’s population. According to the UN report, JNF lands are “chartered to benefit Jews exclusively,” which has led to an “institutionalized form of discrimination” (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “Consideration of Report Submitted by States Parties Under Articles 16 and 17 of the Covenant,” 14 December 1998, E/C.12/1/Add.27).
In 2005, Israel’s high court came to similar conclusions. It found that the JNF, which owns 13 percent of the country’s land and has significant influence over most of the rest, systematically excluded Palestinian citizens of Israel from leasing its property (“A racist Jewish state,” Haaretz, 20 July 2007).
There is a strong case to be made that the Jewish National Fund’s bylaws and operations violate Canadian policy and law. Discrimination in the provision of housing is illegal under the Canadian Human Rights Act. And a September 2003 Canada Revenue Agency public policy statement titled “Registering Charities that Promote Racial Equality” makes clear that racial equality is a stated aim of Canadian charitable policy.
Registered charities that operate abroad are supposed to adhere to domestic policy or else lose their ability to provide donors with tax subsidies. “An organization is not charitable at law if its activities are contrary to Canadian public policy,” explains the Canada Revenue Agency.
But the CRA and politicians in Ottawa have shown little interest in applying the rules in the Jewish National Fund’s case. They seem to have ignored the call to investigate whether the JNF’s practices contravene Canadian law. In particular, the CRA has not properly addressed the question of whether the JNF is a racist organization.
The internal documents suggest the CRA has spent hundreds of hours devising strategies to respond to complaints about the JNF and covering up what Ron Saba has dubbed “the Racist JNF Tax Fraud.”
Protecting the JNF
This public relations strategy is spelled out explicitly in a document of “Media Lines” on the JNF prepared for use by the Canada Revenue Agency’s media handlers — another of the documents released to Ron Saba.
It notes that Saba has been “questioning the legitimacy of the charitable status of the JNF” through a “wide distribution list, including members of Parliament, senators, Canadian and international media and human rights and social justice groups.” The document also expresses concerns that while “the JNF has not generated any mainstream media coverage” so far, “because of Mr. Saba’s wide distribution list, the potential for media interest remains.”
The document then specifies some general lines about information access requests and charities, along with several specific lines on the JNF. The latter do not address the reality of the JNF’s racist policies that exclude non-Jews. Instead they claim that the “Federal Court of Appeal has ruled, in the  case of Canadian Magen David Adom for Israel v Canada, that there is no clear public policy prohibiting charitable activities in the Occupied Territories” — avoiding the point.
In what seems to be part of this effort to protect the JNF from scrutiny, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Caitlin Workman emailed Canada Revenue Agency media spokespersons in 2011, suggesting they “monitor” an Independent Jewish Voices sponsored talk in Ottawa.
Under the headline “Event you may want to monitor,” Workman sent a 13 May 2011 communication stating “author of the Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Yves Engler, will give a talk on Canada and the Jewish National Fund.”
The tax agency’s protection should not be surprising. Conservative officials have strongly backed the JNF — even though the internal documents show that since 2007, six different Conservative ministers have received documentation detailing the racist nature of JNF policies (at least two of the ministers circulated the information).
Challenges and successes
Over the past nine months, immigration minister Jason Kenney and foreign minister John Baird have spoken at Jewish National Fund galas, while environment minister Peter Kent toured southern Israel with officials from the organization in December. At the end of the year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is set to be honored at the JNF Negev Dinner in Toronto, which will be the first time a sitting Canadian prime minister has spoken to a JNF gala in the organization’s 100-year history.
Hopefully, Harper will be greeted by protesters. While getting the prime minister to speak is obviously a boon for the JNF, it also provides a unique opportunity to draw attention to an institution that most people are unfamiliar with.
It’s time to turn Independent Jewish Voices’ nascent campaign to revoke the JNF’s charitable status into a major element of pro-Palestinian activism in Canada. Groups elsewhere have had successes on this front recently.
In 2011, Stop the JNF in England sucessfully pushed Prime Minister David Cameron to withdraw his patron status from the JNF. Additionally, 68 members of parliament have endorsed a call to revoke the organization’s charitable status because “the JNF’s constitution is explicitly discriminatory by stating that land and property will never be rented, leased or sold to non-Jews.”
In Scotland, the Green Party and Friends of the Earth have endorsed the Stop the JNF campaign and the Green Party of England and Wales have also called for JNF to lose its charitable status. In 2011, legendary US folksinger Pete Seeger distanced himself from a previous event with the JNF, and a board member of the US organization quit in protest over the JNF’s role in the eviction of a Palestinian family from East Jerusalem. And at the start of this year, Stop The JNF prompted the new owners of a major South African toy retailer, Reggies, to sever ties with the organization.
While the political climate is more difficult in Canada, there’s no reason that a major campaign can’t bring successes. If made aware, most Canadians would be uncomfortable with the idea that public money is supporting an openly racist institution. They would also be appalled by the JNF Canada’s direct (and documented) role in displacing Palestinianssince the late 1920s.
While it’s hard to imagine the Canada Revenue Agency (under Stephen Harper) revoking the Jewish National Fund’s charitable status — at least without a lengthy and expensive legal battle — the campaign can play an important educational role. The organization is at the heart of Israeli apartheid and drawing attention to this institution is a way to discuss the racism intrinsic to Zionism.