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Rabbi Ehud Bandel has been active in the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel for 23 years, spending many years as its spokesman and the last six years as its president. Bandel, the movement's most prominent member in Israel, has been at the forefront of all its battles and is arguably the one individual whose name is identified with the movement here. Despite his impressive record, a Masorti Movement steering committee dismissed him a month ago, and the movement's general assembly approved his firing last week. The explanation is the movement's severe financial crisis in Israel. There is no question that the decision to cut funding to the presidential office - but not to synagogues or the youth movement - has far-reaching implications.

The movement will operate next year with virtually no organizational center and will forgo the sort of public activity that occupied Bandel. Spokeswoman Inbal Cohen was sacked along with Bandel. Irit Zamora, who chairs the Masorti Movement on a voluntary basis, expressed hope that the crisis would come to an end within a year and that a new president would then be appointed. Otherwise, she admitted, the movement will become "a collection of synagogues."

One factor contributing to the thorny financial crisis is a split between Masorti Movement organizations and unfettered competition for donations. According to one senior member of the movement, that made it possible for the movement to build the lavish cultural and religious Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem at a cost of $35 million. The movement's academic Machon Shachter institute in Israel, according to this source, was established at a cost of $3.5 million.

However, donations to the movement in Israel, in a fund-raising campaign led by Bandel, plummeted from $1 million per year to only about $500,000 this year. The movement now has an overdraft of NIS 2 million at the bank. "There's the rub," said the senior movement member. "There's no such thing as the Conservative Movement. There's no umbrella organization, no hierarchy, no authority, and no leadership. It is a flimsy federation and everyone gets by on their own."

No life without a head

In response, Bandel says that he thinks that the Masorti Movement "erred, and fund-raising will be more difficult in the future without public activity. This is a harmful step, lacking a vision and a message, and I was quite hurt. I know of no organism that can continue to exist after it beheads itself." But he stressed: "This is my movement even when it makes mistakes. Zamora expressed hope that "the movement will not remain without a president or someone else to lead it for a long time."

Now you see two panels

Who is to formulate Israel's immigration policy? Only a few months ago, the cabinet created a committee of ministers and senior officials, led by Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz to address this need. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Shlomit Barnea (legal adviser to the Prime Minister's Office) and National Security Council head Giora Eiland also sit on the Pines Committee. The committee's makeup aptly suits its goal, as defined by the cabinet: To implement the decisions of the National Security Council and sharply strengthen immigration policy.

About one month ago, the interior minister established another committee, which could be dubbed the "Dean's Committee," including four deans of judicial faculties and Professor Shlomo Avineri. According to an Interior Ministry press release, this committee "was authorized by the Interior Minister to propose immigration policy and to examine the relevant legislation, including the Law of Return, the Citizenship Law, and the Entry into Israel Law." This creates the impression that this committee, led by Amnon Rubinstein, was appointed by Pines, in large part, to replace the committee which he leads.

In response to questions from Haaretz, Justice Minister Livni said that this is not so. "In my opinion, this legislation is primary, and I consider my role to be that of a policy maker - not someone who decides whether to reject or adopt a report laid on my desk." According to her, she made this position clear to the interior minister, "and I was clearly apprised that policy would be formulated within the context of the Pines Committee. I requested that there be joint meetings of both committees, and I would be happy to hear the positions of experts in this matter."

Officials in Pines' office say that Pines made it clear, from the beginning, that the Dean's Committee "would assist the ministerial committee." In theory, everyone agrees that the Pines Committee takes precedence. In fact, it is impossible to ignore the severe difference of opinion between Livni, who supports a much stiffer immigration policy, and Pines, who supports stricter policy but is more moderate. It is difficult to discount the impression that the expert committee was established to assist Pines in moderating decisions and to balance the positions of Livni and Eiland. It will come as no surprise if the rift between Pines and Livni underlies the entire working process of the committee and worsens with time.

Charity begins with a tax deduction

One roundabout way the government funds non-profit organizations is to grant a tax deduction of 35 percent on the donations they receive. The result: These are not pure contributions but "matching" of government support. In effect, for every two shekels donated, the government kicks in one shekel. This practice is accepted throughout the world. It is a way of encouraging richer segments of society to transfer funds to "Third Sector" associations. The disadvantage of this system is that a tax deduction committee is actually lord and master of the capital, and the state allows the committee to decide how to distribute the funds.

How much does this cost the nation? Israeli bureaucracy is not known for its valid statistics. Therefore, the treasury merely publicizes estimates in its annual reports. A new document, prepared by the Knesset Science and Research Center in response to a request by MK Yaakov Margi (Shas), summarizes these estimates. According to treasury estimates, the cost of tax deductions in lieu of donations in 2005 will be about NIS 150 million.

In other words, about NIS 450 million were approved as charitable contributions subject to tax deductions during this year. According to treasury estimates, the cost of such donations was only NIS 100 million in 1991, indicating that there were NIS 300 million in approved donations. This means that the treasury estimates that approved donations will rise by an average of NIS 25 million annually, and that contributors may expect NIS 8 million in deductions. Do these statistics have any significance? It is not absolutely certain that they do. A senior government official estimates that donations are considerably higher than these figures.

Tax Authority spokeswoman Idit Lev-Zerahia said in response that the authority cannot provide exact statistics because reports prepared by auditors are not computerized and only a portion of the reports are examined. It is only possible to derive estimates based on a sample taken from the reports. But Lev-Zerahia has some news on this front. From the beginning of 2006, assessors will be required to provide computerized reports, and one result will be that it will then become possible to calculate the cost of tax deductions on donations.