The Right-wing Cronies Behind Bennett’s Diaspora Project

Jewish Agency asks attorney general to examine tender process, while key Jewish-American philanthropists decry 'insolence' by Bennett.

Ilan Assayag

The founders of a new company that was recently approved by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to operate a government program to strengthen ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews include key activists in settler and other right-wing groups.

It appears that the names were not vetted at the meeting where the approval of the company, Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People, was given. Nor, as far as is known, was there any mention of a preexisting relationship with the director of the program, Diaspora Affairs Ministry Director General Dvir Kahana. Kahana, a confidant of Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, held a number of executive positions in Elad, a right-wing organization that encourages Jewish settlers to move into Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

Haim Zach / GPO

After Haaretz broke the news of the company’s approval slightly over a week ago, a number of important figures in the American Jewish community had harsh words for the project, which according to an internal Diaspora Affairs Ministry document seeks to address “the weakening of the Jewish foundations of the family unit” among Jews worldwide and “the significant increase in critical discourse against Israel.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency recently turned to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, complaining about the ministry’s conduct in connection to the project. Last week, the organization told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it was pulling out of the project.

Question of probity

In its letter to Weinstein — an unusual move in itself — the Jewish Agency said there were “material questions regarding the probity of [the ministry’s] tender committee,” which awarded the contract to the Initiative.

The government is to allocate 190 million shekels ($50 million) to the program, while the company is supposed to raise an additional 370 million shekels from the Jewish community. Kahana and most of the company’s founders refused to answer questions on the subject. In a statement, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry said in a statement that protocol was followed in establishing the relationship with the company.

Courtesy

By law, a company must be in operation for at least two years before a government ministry can form an association with it. The ministry got around this obstacle by means of a special permit from the Ministry of Justice, which settled for the submission of a few basic documents to the Registrar of Companies.

In addition to transferring responsibilities to an external company which will control a budget of 570 million shekels, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry ousted the Jewish Agency from the project and greatly restricted the involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office and its ability to supervise it. In fact, the Government of Israel-World Jewry Joint Initiative, as the project is known officially, was the brainchild of the Jewish Agency and the PMO.

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry has declined to divulge any information about the founders, directors or foreign consultants of Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People. “I sincerely believe the company is free of any alien interests,” Kahana said at a meeting in July. The political affiliations of some of the company’s founders, who are also shareholders, may be behind the secrecy about their identity.

The most prominent name among the founders is Assaf Nebenzahl, a lawyer who was behind many land deals in the West Bank territories. He worked for over a decade at Elad, and has also worked for a number of companies established in tax havens around the world for the purpose of purchasing property, mainly in East Jerusalem. Nebenzahl was involved in transactions for the purpose of giving legal force to unauthorized settlement outposts, transactions that Israeli courts have determined to be fictitious.

Over the last decade Nebenzahl appears in various Elad documents as one of the highest-paid associates of the group, in part as director of acquisitions for settlement in the organization when Kahana was Elad’s director of settlement and development.

Kahana lives in the mainly Arab neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, in an apartment owned by Elad. The most recent Elad document in which the names of both Nebenzahl and Kahana appear is from 2009. They may have continued working together in Elad after that, but in documents submitted to the state Registrar of Nonprofit Associations, the names of office-holders were redacted.

Mustafa Kharouf

An Elad spokeswoman person initially told Haaretz that Nebenzahl is a part-time employee, later correcting herself by adding that they don’t divulge information about past or current employees.

When contacted by Haaretz, Nebenzahl declined to say if he still works for Elad. “I was fortunate as a private citizen to be among the founders of this initiative; as a volunteer for a welcome cause in my eyes and in the eyes of anyone for whom the future of the Jewish people is dear. I take care to operate within the confines of the law, working with decency and honesty,” he said in a statement.

Another founder is Yoel Gottlieb. Gottlieb, a lawyer, is project manager of East Jerusalem Development, a company owned jointly by the state and the Jerusalem municipality that serves as the executive arm of the Ministry for Jerusalem Affairs. Another founder was attorney Amir Schneider, the head of the young members of Yisrael Beiteinu and a former Knesset candidate for the party.

When Haaretz spoke to him, he first confirmed that he was a founder of the Initiative but refused to give further details. “It’s something private I do as a volunteer. I don’t wish to talk about it.” Gottlieb also declined interview requests, as did two other lawyers associated with the company.

Eli Shmuelian, yet another lawyer on the founders’ list, is legal counsel to Habayit Hayehudi’s National Union-Tekuma faction and VP business development at Moriah Jerusalem Development Company, also a state-city partnership.

On March 12 of this year, the Registrar of Companies informed Initiative for the Future of the Jewish People that because Shmuelian had a controlling interest in a company that was in breach of its corporate duties he could not be registered as a shareholder in the new company until the issue was resolved. As a result, he was removed as a shareholder. Shmuelian declined to comment on the matter.

Initiative is registered as a public benefit company, meaning that it is organized for public or charitable purposes only and cannot distribute profits to shareholders. The few founders who agreed to speak with Haaretz all said their work for the company was unpaid.

The company’s charter specifies that its executives may donate funds to other companies or nongovernmental organizations with similar objectives. Such a donation, by a company that receives state funding, would seem to be in violation of the cabinet resolution that established the Government of Israel-World Jewry Joint Initiative.

The resolution specifies that the company operating the projecting “shall not grant support.” However, any government oversight of such donations or an association with third parties is dubious. The discussions regarding establishing the association with this company included no mention of its founders. A source familiar with the initiative said last week that an external company serves as a bypass. “Someone should ask who is overseeing an external agency that will handle a budget of 570 million shekels. Who will it be accountable to?”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.
Mark Israel Salem

Conflict of interest and political charlatanism

In their letter to Weinstein, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and the chairman of the agency’s board of governors Charles Ratner argued that the conduct of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry violated the cabinet resolution and requested the attorney general’s intervention.

The complaint focuses on the removal of the Jewish Agency from involvement in the project, but they add that they question the probity of the tender committee. They claim that there is a concern regarding personal conflict of interest among some committee members in establishing this new company, which was not required to follow a tender – the committee also did not examine any alternatives.

The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs lamented the fact that “Haaretz chose to serve the interests of the Jewish Agency, which wishes to take over government budgets, instead of supporting a joint initiative of the government and Jewish people.” The Prime Minister’s office had no comment. The Jewish Agency’s complaint relates mainly to organizational aspects of the new initiative. In contrast, Jewish activists in the United States and Canada didn’t hesitate to criticize its principles. This appeared in an internal document of the ministry, published in Haaretz last week.

“The Jewish communities in the Diaspora are contending with a host of challenges, drawing strength from deep roots in their countries, based on a pluralistic environment: says Jay Ruderman, president of a foundation for strengthening links between Israel and U.S. Jews.

“Any attempt by Israel to connect with the Diaspora from a stance of superiority, in which Israel has all the answers to Jewish challenges, will end in failure. Any dialogue between Israel and the Diaspora must be based on mutual respect.”

Stanley Gold, president of Shamrock, the investment arm of the Disney family and the former president of the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles and the chairman of the U.S.-based educational and advocacy Israel-Diaspora partnership, “Hiddush —Freedom Of Religion for Israel, Inc.,” holds similar opinions. “It’s insolence on Bennett’s part to take our money and teach us about Judaism,” he says in a conversation from California.

“They think there is only one right way and that’s nonsense. Israel shouldn’t teach the Diaspora how to be Jewish. It’s better to use the money and teach Israelis how to be pluralistic.”

Ted Sokolsky, a former president of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto, is now a consultant for the Jewish Agency. He says that the initiative was supposed to build bridges but remarks about the Jewish elements of the American family unit only cause damage.

He adds that Israel is undoubtedly the center of the Jewish world but it has responsibilities, such as not talking “with a superior attitude about Jewish communities. There is much love of Israel there and no one can preach about who is a better Jew. That’s absurd.”

He adds that the initiative’s latest form is related to Israeli politics, not to an open dialogue with the Diaspora. “Unfortunately, the government’s conduct only strengthens the bad image Israel has in many Jewish people’s eyes, namely political charlatanism that doesn’t relate to the real challenges facing the Diaspora.

“If people in Israel were concerned about young Jews, the government wouldn’t act this way — no one has the patience for this nonsense.”