Rabbis' Group Slams Tax Exemption Denial

Israel Tax Authority turned down application of Rabbis for Human Rights, leaving group to question neutrality of decision.

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Activist Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann and others from Rabbis For Human Rights join members of the Palestinian Awwad family picking olives in the West Bank village of Awarta, near Nablus, Oct. 13, 2014.
Activist Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann and others from Rabbis For Human Rights join members of the Palestinian Awwad family picking olives in the West Bank village of Awarta, near Nablus, Oct. 13, 2014.Credit: AP

The Rabbis for Human Rights group says the Tax Authority’s recent decision to reject its application for tax-exemption status “seems biased.” The authority said it rejected the group’s application because some of its activities were not “for the benefit of the residents of Israel.”

The organization’s executive director, Ayala Levi said, “We are an organization that tries to promote human rights. It is difficult to understand how this can be perceived as something negative.” The authority decided not to approve the human rights group’s application for recognition as a public institution, status that would allow the group’s donors to claim tax exemption.

A few months ago, the Tax Authority rescinded recognition of another group, Physicians for Human Rights, after the group refused to hand over personal information about people it assists, because doing so would constitute a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality, according to PHR’s director, Ran Goldstein.

The first two applications to the Tax Authority by Rabbis for Human Rights – a decade ago and a few years ago – received no official response. A month ago, a 2013 application was turned down in a letter from Erez Orad, the director for nonprofit associations and public institutions in the Income Tax Commission.

“After examining reports and material you appended to your application, it was found that some of the institution’s activities – such as the ‘territories project’ and the ‘legal project’ – are not for the benefit of the residents of Israel,” the letter stated.

Orad said the application could be revisited “after the aforementioned defects are removed.”

Members of Rabbis for Human Rights come from all denominations of Judaism. According to the group, founded in 1988, two-thirds of its budget is devoted to the two of its four departments working within the Green Line – a social justice department and an education department.

Over the years, Rabbis for Human Rights has won international awards for its work. In the 1990s, it won the Knesset Speaker’s Prize for its contribution to “the advancement of the rule of law, democratic values, protection of human rights and fostering of solidarity, mutual respect and good neighborliness.”

Levi called the Tax Authority’s decision “strange,” adding, “Part of the problem is the process [of awarding the status] is not transparent. Under such conditions, there is no certainty that the Civil Service, which should be professional, makes its decision unconnected to the changing government.”

Levi added that the organization meets all administrative criteria, and therefore “the decision seems biased.”

She noted that in a sampling of the Tax Authority’s information database, at least eight organizations appear that operate in Hebron and the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba.

The seemingly different standards applied when considering Tax Authority recognition were meant to have become a thing of the past when a recommendations committee headed by retired Judge Sarah Frisch was introduced. The committee noted that organizations active in civil society “are the watchdogs of democracy and essential in striking a balance between government, the economy and society. Many of them deal with the protection of human rights, warning against social injustices and criticism of public policy and its application.”

The recommended new regulations were published last May, adopted by former Finance Minister Yair Lapid and approved by the Knesset Finance Committee. However, due to the early elections, the committee’s recommendations have not yet been passed into law.

The Tax Authority responded that political considerations did not enter into its examination of applications for recognition, which is based solely on the fulfillment of criteria according to law. “This approval is revisited from time to time and is renewed accordingly. If, during the ensuing period, activities are found that do not meet the criteria, and that donor contributions are not being used in keeping with regulations, approval is not renewed.”

The authority said it had sent its response to Rabbis for Human Rights six months ago, “and they did not relate to it.” As for its demand that Physicians for Human Rights provide a list of its clients, the Tax Authority said, “The obligation to confidentiality prevents us from providing details with regard to other associations,” adding that “it goes without saying that the examinations and questions to the associations are the same for all.”

However, the mental health hot line Eran, which is recognized by the Tax Authority, said it had never given information about its clients, while the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel said it gives data only in terms of quantity, and that clients’ anonymity is preserved.