On a steamy August morning this summer, hundreds of new immigrants from the United States waited for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the old terminal of Ben-Gurion International Airport. The concrete structure was revivified. A religious band performed wedding songs, soldiers from the Intelligence Corps ("We were told to come here, so we came") danced with the new arrivals, while waiters from Mantbar Entertainers and Productions Ltd. served iced coffee and sandwiches.
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The distinguished guests on hand included Tony Gelbart, the chairman and cofounder of Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN), an organization that encourages the immigration of Jews from North America and the United Kingdom, who lives in an upscale section of Florida. The airport shindig was par for the course for Gelbart, a public relations wizard who is behind many gimmicks that have found their way into the Israeli media, from the "singles flight" to the "doctors' aliyah" (Hebrew for Jewish immigration to Israel).
Short, thin and a master of small talk, Gelbart attached himself to the prime minister at the event. The two are old friends. In return for a fee, Netanyahu, during his interim period as a businessman, organized meetings with Gelbart for those who were interested and wrote him a warm and unusual letter of recommendation, citing his business abilities. Gelbart repaid him by donating to his Likud election campaign in 2007. Now the two were meeting again: one the head of the government, the other a beneficiary of its funds.
An investigation by Haaretz shows how, in the past decade, the process of migration by American and British Jews to Israel has been privatized and become the fiefdom of NBN. The investigation also shows that the organization, which began as an American NGO nourished by private donations, in time siphoned off Israeli public funds on a large scale. NBN has not been able to increase the number of new immigrants to Israel, but has done much to increase the size of the bank accounts of its directors and senior staff.
Indeed, as a result of constant changes in the Israeli government's budgetary regulations, NBN has received NIS 89 million from the state since its inception in 2002, and another NIS 50 million from the Jewish Agency. However, conversations with dozens of new immigrants suggest that, despite these hefty sums, once the airport party ends, many of the newcomers are neglected, if not forgotten; others complain that the myriad of problems they encountered in Israel were either not addressed or ignored.
Follow the money
Nefesh B'Nefesh (which means, loosely, an intertwining of souls) was founded by Yehoshua Fass and Gelbart. Fass, an Orthodox rabbi from Boca Raton, Florida (where he first met Gelbart), immigrated to Israel in 2001 after one of his relatives was murdered in a terrorist attack in Petah Tikva. A year later, as the second intifada raged, with suicide bombings at their height and immigration from the United States at its nadir, the two decided to establish an organization that would encourage immigration and help Jews. Netanyahu, a private citizen at the time, gave the idea his blessing.
From Fass' point of view, it should be noted, his investment in the organization has also produced an economic blessing. In 2010, the cost of his NBN salary was $208,000 (part of which was paid as a wage and part as a fee to his company, Fass Consulting).
Gelbart and Fass complement each other: the former is a smooth talker; the latter, hirsute and freckled, is the aggressive one. Fass is energetic, enthusiastic and has endless patience to explain his life's project. But when criticized, he loses his temper, raises his voice and becomes overemotional.
Historically, the Jewish Agency was responsible for encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel. Fass and Gelbart, sensing that the agency was an archaic body no longer capable of doing its job properly, stepped neatly into its shoes. NBN set out to revise the old model. Instead of slogans about Zionism they promised cash, in the form of a grant of a few thousand dollars to every new-immigrant family. In addition, when the immigrants arrived in Israel, the organization was supposed to walk them through the ordeals of absorption: finding a job, overcoming the culture shock and coping with Israeli bureaucracy.
The Jewish Agency takes an ambivalent attitude toward its young rival. Together with criticism, former senior officials of the agency admit that NBN definitely aids and improves the absorption process. A senior Jewish Agency official told Haaretz: "Immigration is a hard, complicated and cumbersome process. Just think how many hours you have to devote to a mistake that was made in your municipal tax rate, for example. As a new immigrant, you have to be in that type of contact with almost every government ministry separately, and not in your language. If you board a NBN flight, you simply encounter a miracle. Clerks with forms and tablet computers fill out the documents for the families during the flight. Those girls go through the whole plane, so the new immigrants don't have to go to the Interior Ministry. They remove most of the bureaucratic barriers, and immigration becomes an almost automatic process."
"In addition," the source continues, "they set up a social network in Israel which helps the new immigrants find work. It's too bad the state doesn't emulate their success for the Ethiopians, the French, the Russians and other population groups that find things difficult."
Initially, NBN was a private body in every respect. Most of its revenues came from donations and interest-free loans provided by Gelbart. But the loans proved insufficient and a heavy shadow soon loomed over the organization's activity. At the end of 2004, NBN was $2.5 million in the red and having trouble raising sufficient funds to continue its work.
Gelbart went into action. Over the years he had accumulated no little clout in Israel's corridors of power and in 2005, NBN started to push for government recognition of its activity. Fass tells Haaretz that then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attended a few events sponsored by the organization and loved what he saw. Our investigation shows that in short order the private organization received state funding on a growing scale. So much so, in fact, that at present most of its budget comes from the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency.
In November 2005, the government decided to recognize and financially support organizations that encourage immigration to Israel. On December 28, between the first and second stroke he suffered, Sharon signed off on a document setting forth "criteria for support" in reference to organizations that promote immigration. The fancy legal language covered a situation in which funds were channeled largely to NBN.
A government official who dealt with the matter told Haaretz that the criteria were tailor-made following political pressure that was exerted on the bureaucratic level to ensure that only NBN would get the money. The most blatant example of this, the source added, was the stipulation that the recipient body had to have two years of experience a criterion perfectly suited to Tony Gelbart. The organization stated in response: "Nefesh B'Nefesh denies absolutely all the allegations according to which it threatened anyone or exerted illegitimate political pressure to promote aliyah to Israel."
At first, the government demanded that the "body receiving support" increase immigration by 10 percent a year and give each new immigrant a grant of $1,500. Organizations that met the criteria (namely, NBN alone) would receive from the state a third of the cost of bringing the immigrants to Israel.
Already in 2005, NBN received NIS 9.3 million from the Israeli government.
The immediate beneficiaries of the government's largesse were the organization's directors, who, even then, had little to complain about in terms of salary. The cost of employing Fass rose from NIS 569,000 in 2004 to NIS 776,000 the following year. The salary of Danny Oberman, the organization's executive vice president and there from the beginning, shot up from NIS 613,000 in 2004 to NIS 719,000 in 2005.
In response to these figures, NBN stated, "The lion's share of the organization's budget comes from nongovernmental sources." Sources in the organization added that between 2005 and 2011, 27 percent of its income originated with the Israeli government and 20 percent came from the Jewish Agency. Since 2002, the State of Israel has funded only 23 percent of the organization's cumulative expenses, the sources said, adding, "In 2010, government funds constituted only about 29 percent of the organization's budget. The remainder of the budget in these years came from nongovernmental sources (private donations)."
However, the figure referring to expenses since 2002 is immaterial, because the state did not become involved in funding the organization until three years later. According to documents that were provided by NBN accountants, Jewish Agency funds are considered government funds (in the organization's reports to the authorities in the United States). Accordingly, even by the calculations of NBN, about half its income derives from the Israeli government.
Getting the big bucks
The luxurious headquarters of Nefesh B'Nefesh take up three floors of a marble and wood building in Jerusalem's Givat Shaul industrial zone. The organization's executives enjoy spacious offices. But this comfort comes at a steep price. The annual rent costs NIS 1.5 million (the organization also forked out NIS 800,000 for renovations in 2008). That does not include NIS 74,000 a year for water and electricity, NIS 170,000 for maintenance, and NIS 360,000 for municipal property tax in 2011. (The rent, by the way, is paid to P.P.D. Diamonds, which is partly owned by Avraham Traub, the president of the Israel Diamond Manufacturers Association.)
NBN acknowledges that this is an unnecessary expense, but pins the blame on the Jerusalem municipality. The organization maintains that as a public body they are entitled to a free building from the city, and have been trying - unsuccessfully - to get one for the past three years.
The Jerusalem Municipality tells a different story. According to a council spokesman, "About a year ago, the allocations committee and the municipal council approved the allocation of rooms for Nefesh B'Nefesh in part of the Selisberg School compound in Talpiot [a Jerusalem neighborhood]. As of today, the organization has not signed an agreement to use the building with the municipality, as stipulated by the law, and thus has not made use of the allocated space."
In any event, the organization's budgetary hole was not created solely by office rental costs. NBN ended 2010 with a yearly loss of $7 million. That huge deficit led to a reform which included staff dismissals and significant cuts in the grants to new immigrants. But the financial meltdown at the organizational level had little or no impact on the earnings of the senior executives. The cost of Oberman's salary was $189,000. Yael Katsman, the director of marketing and communications, cost the organization NIS 621,000; Daniella Slasky, the director of human resources, cost NIS 407,000.
The big earner was a new face in the organization, Erez Halfon, who became vice chairman of NBN in September 2009. His salary cost the organization NIS 959,000 in 2010. Halfon's salary explains the jump in the cost of NBN's executive staff from NIS 1.3 million in 2009 to NIS 2.2 million the following year. However, as part of the cuts, Halfon took a salary decrease of NIS 5,000 a month in 2011.
He told Haaretz that he grosses NIS 45,000 a month (according to his pay slip, his gross monthly salary is NIS 48,000). The Haaretz investigation found that the executives weren't the only ones to have lucked out; the 90 or so staff members also benefited. In 2010, the average monthly wage of the organization's employees was NIS 14,500. According to NBN, "The salaries of the employees are average and reasonable, and comparable to what other organizations pay." As for Halfon's salary, it is "significantly lower than what you claim and is comparable with that of a director general in a government ministry."
The bottom line is that much of the available money is swallowed up in the system and does not reach the new immigrants. According to the organization's preliminary financial statement for 2011, of which Haaretz obtained a copy, grants for new immigrants last year totaled NIS 6 million. In addition, NIS 950,000 was provided in the form of scholarships and NIS 286,000 to cover "post-aliyah expenses." Other money was spent on flying the immigrants to Israel (financed by the Jewish Agency at a cost of about NIS 10 million).
Marketing expenses were NIS 2 million, and programs to encourage immigration cost NIS 2.3 million. In 2011, NBN spent more than NIS 1 million on events for immigrants, such as the highly publicized airport shindigs.
One of the most interesting (yet most minor in terms of prominence) clauses in the financial statement is titled "Help to Immigrants." Only NIS 43,448 was spent assisting the new arrivals last year. In contrast, the organization doled out NIS 1.1 million for "computer services" and NIS 870,000 for phone and communications costs. Vehicle expenses came to more than NIS 1 million in 2011, and more than NIS 15,000 was spent on buying newspapers. Accountancy and legal services cost NBN NIS 900,000 last year. (The organization's lawyer, by the way, is David Shimron, who is also the personal lawyer and cousin of Benjamin Netanyahu.)
One of Israel's declared goals is to integrate new immigrants into society, but it's the Jewish Agency that is responsible for getting them to the country. In 2008, the state and the agency signed a convention to formalize the relations between the two bodies. In practice, the Jewish Agency is in charge of locating potential new immigrants in their home countries, opening "aliyah files" and paying for their flight to Israel. Afterward, the agency conveys the information about the new arrivals to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which gives them a governmental "absorption basket" of funds and other benefits to cover their initial period in the country.
Thus, NBN trespassed on Jewish Agency territory. From the outset, the two sides slung mud at each other. The Jewish Agency claimed that NBN lacked its state orientation and responsibility; the latter shot back that the agency is a petrified, obsolete body that is out of touch with the needs of immigrants in the 21st century. But the crux of the battle was for the hearts and minds of the donors.
The Jewish Agency is part-funded by the Jewish federations in the United States. NBN went directly to them and asked for the donations to be rerouted to its account. The fight was ugly but brief: the two organizations signed an agreement in 2008. The chairman of the Jewish Agency at the time, Ze'ev Bielski, told Haaretz that he signed the agreement under pressure from the donors.
The terms of the agreement are secret, but Haaretz has obtained a copy of it and its details are being made public for the first time here. The agreement states that no other body (such as the Scouts or Bnei Akiva, a national-religious movement) is permitted to bring new immigrants to Israel.
To justify the methods of NBN to the Jewish public, a new mechanism called "examining and processing" was invented for the purposes of the agreement.
Here's how it works: NBN locates a potential immigrant, "examines and processes" his request, and transmits the information to the Jewish Agency, which, as always, opens an "aliyah file" on the prospective immigrant. In exchange, the Jewish Agency pays NBN big money. It was agreed that the agency would transfer $1.1 million to the organization, in addition to $1 million already transferred, "for the full, final and complete defrayal of all past money prima facie accruing to Nefesh B'Nefesh from the Jewish Agency or coming to the Jewish Agency from Nefesh B'Nefesh."
It is not clear from the terms of the agreement why the Jewish Agency has to pay out for money that is seemingly its by right. It was further agreed that the agency would transfer $1.5 million for plane tickets that were bought for 1,421 immigrants, which translates into $1,600 for each one-way ticket.
As for the future, the agreement stipulated that the Jewish Agency would pay for tourist-class tickets for new immigrants on El Al flights. On top of this, it would also transfer $600 for each new immigrant and "status changer" in Israel. (The term "status changer" refers to Jews who are already in Israel and decide to obtain Israeli citizenship.) In addition, NBN alone would set the criteria for awarding a financial grant to immigrants.
Many of the agreement's clauses deal with branding. The two organizations decided that both their logos would appear on all paperwork issued in their name. The agreement states that the Jewish Agency recognizes "the innovations" which NBN introduced into the immigration process.
Another section of the agreement deals with arbitration. Under the agreement, negative comments in the media will bring about immediate official corrections and denials by the organizations. To fight leaks from within, it was decided to create a telephone "hotline" between the sides to report immediately about leaks. Controversies about the origin of a leak will be referred to an agreed arbitrator, who will have the authority to apply sanctions.
In a conversation with Haaretz, a senior source in the Jewish Agency is highly critical of the agreement, which, he says, effectively grants governmental powers to a private body. "Why are aliyah applicants being forced to provide their intimate medical and personal financial information to a private American organization that is not an agency of the Israeli government?" the source asks. "How could the federations have supported this? This is a clear violation of the immigrants' rights of privacy."
But the real problem is that the activity of NBN has not brought about a strategic shift in the meager immigration to Israel from the United States. A senior official in the Jewish Agency told Haaretz, "In the first years they [NBN] said that now there are 3,000 immigrants a year, but they will make the experience so much fun that there will be 10,000 a year. That has not been the case. Maybe 200 more immigrants came, but statistically they have changed nothing. Some 80 percent of Diaspora Jewry lives in the United States, and they haven't put a dent in that.
"If you want to set in motion a significant wave of immigration beyond the 'statistical error' of a few thousand within a community of six million, you have to start thinking differently," the source adds. "If you want Americans to immigrate to Israel a place where it is far harder to live, where the per capita GNP is about half of what it is in their country and where a different language is spoken you need to give them a deep and truly satisfactory reason."
Not quite immigrants
The colorful event at the airport is quite telling about the methods of operation of NBN. The prime minister came to the terminal to greet 140 young people who had immigrated in order to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. The gung ho group, all clad in matching green T-shirts, crowded around Netanyahu, shaking his hand and using their other hand to take a photo with an iPhone.
Perfect PR. But, as it happens, the soon-to-be soldiers were actually brought to Israel by a different organization.
The group actually arrived through Israel's Scouts movement, as part of a garin (core group who choose to do their military service together). The program, Tzofim Garin Tzabar, was established by the Friends of Israel Scouts in 1991, long before the birth of NBN. In cooperation with the social affairs branch of the Defense Ministry, the Scouts operate all over the world not just in the United States to locate candidates for army service, bring them to Israel, integrate them in kibbutzim and keep their morale high during their military service. The involvement of NBN is marginal: it supplies the plane tickets (using money received from the Jewish Agency) and a grant (partly paid for by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry).
In 2010, the Garin Tzabar (tzabar means sabra, or native-born Israeli) was at the center of a row between NBN and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry involving millions of shekels. To its astonishment, the ministry discovered that the reports submitted by NBN about its recruitment of immigrants included these youngsters, who were actually found by the Scouts.
The ministry, which subsidizes the Scouts' project to the tune of NIS 4.5 million a year, had no intention of paying twice. In the wake of a subsequent investigation, the ministry found that 30 percent of the new immigrants reported by NBN were not really in that category: they consisted of participants in the Scouts project or in other programs organized by the ministry; Jews already in Israel who merely changed their status to Israeli citizens; and returning minors. NBN even categorized Israeli spouses of new immigrants as olim (new immigrants, from the word aliyah), claiming they were part of "the new-immigrant family."
Outraged at the findings, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry informed NBN in July 2010 that it would not transfer NIS 10 million to subsidize these "immigrants." Claiming that NBN had engaged in a form of double bookkeeping, the ministry also demanded that the organization return NIS 133,000 it had received for immigrants in 2009.
Stunned by the ministry's decision, the organization mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign. Senior civil servants told Haaretz that they were subjected to unusually brutal pressure tactics. According to these sources, NBN drew on its ties in the Prime Minister's Office, whose staff allegedly tried to intervene in the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. In an email message to the Prime Minister's Office, the organization's vice chairman, Erez Halfon, claimed that in the wake of the "Russian change of government," the NBN budgets were being undercut "for political reasons." (The contemptuous "Russian change of government" refers to the appointment of Sofa Landver, from Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, as immigrant absorption minister.)
In response to the ministry's accusation of double reporting, NBN stated: "The organization rejects out of hand the allegations that it ever submitted a fictitious or false report or received fictitious payment or double funding.
The Immigrant Absorption Ministry's computerized system processes the data transmitted to it from Nefesh B'Nefesh and verifies the identity of those who immigrated to Israel through the organization. Moreover, every payment transferred from the ministry to Nefesh B'Nefesh is under the supervision of the ministry's accountant and its legal adviser."
In the end, after the inter-governmental spat, the money was not transferred, a decision which NBN continues to condemn. The organization says it invested a great deal of work in these groups and therefore deserves to be paid. One way or the other, the organization continues to extract free PR from new immigrants.
Erez Halfon, 41, was appointed vice chairman of NBN in 2009 shortly after he left the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, where he was director general. He came up through the ranks of Likud during the heyday of the party's Central Committee. At the time, he was employed in the security company of the late Likud activist and convicted criminal Shlomi Oz.
Halfon rose to the top by chance. Oz's company provided security at the funeral of Lily Sharon, the wife of Ariel Sharon, in 2000. The tall, burly Halfon prevented the masses from trampling the freshly dug grave. His professionalism caught the eye of Omri Sharon, Ariel Sharon's son, and he was brought into the camp of the Sharon family.
When Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001, Halfon was appointed his tour adviser, then political adviser. In September 2006, when he was 36, the late Ze'ev Boim (Likud) appointed him director general of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. He served under Boim and two ministers from Kadima, Jacob Edery and Eli Aflalo. Halfon resigned when Sofa Landver became the new minister.
During his time in the ministry, Halfon called the NBN project by its name: the privatization of immigration. In July 2008, the Knesset's committee on immigrant absorption, reinforced by Halfon, toured the organization's offices.
They were welcomed by Danny Ayalon, at the time the cochairman of NBN and a former ambassador to the United States (and currently Israel's deputy foreign minister). The minutes of the meeting indicate that Halfon was an ardent supporter of the organization.
"To begin with," he said, "we as a state, as the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, want as many immigrants as possible in the State of Israel. To that end, we are the ones who led the privatization thrust, and of course we welcomed every new organization that joined with the Jewish Agency in promoting immigration to the country in which it is an expert." It would not be long before Halfon did likewise.
Halfon was the ministry's director general in 2008, when, at the ministry's recommendation, it was decided to increase the budget for encouraging immigration. As chairman of the ministerial committee which made this support available, he decided to support NBN that year, based on the criteria laid down, to the tune of NIS 10 million. He was also authorized to revise the criteria for supporting groups that encourage immigration. Halfon was director general when the agreement between NBN and the Jewish Agency was signed. Yet, after quitting the ministry and while he was officially on holiday leave from the ministry and getting a salary from it he negotiated with NBN about joining the organization for a high salary.
As a senior official, he was obliged to wait a year before taking a job similar to his government position. The Civil Service Commission declined to shorten the waiting period. Halfon went to court, arguing that he was obliged to make the move to NBN immediately in order to prepare for the arrival of the summer crop of new immigrants from the United States. The Jerusalem District Court was persuaded of the importance of the matter and gave him the go-ahead.
Having come from the government, Halfon is in charge of "promoting the organization's strategic cooperation with the various governmental bodies and institutions." An impressive lobbyist, he has brought about repeated easing of the criteria for budgeting NBN. He first did so while he was still director general of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry when a small but significant modification was introduced: In 2005, the organization was obliged to award every new immigrant a grant of $1,500 as a condition for getting government funding. But in 2007 that amount was cut by two thirds.
After Halfon had crossed the divide, a whole new set of regulations was issued in 2010. In its wake, NBN received a substantial increase in government funding, covering half its activity (instead of one third, as previously).
A second modification was related to the number of immigrants. At first, the organization was supposed to increase the number of immigrants it brought to Israel by 10 percent each year. But in 2010, when the world economic crisis which had prompted more Jews to move to Israel became slightly less acute, the annual number of immigrants began to fall, putting government funding for NBN at risk. The new, tailor-made criteria solved the problem. The 10 percent requirement was canceled and replaced with a criterion of "matching the number of immigrants," and a special committee has the power to eliminate even that requirement.
In 2010, NBN reported the arrival in Israel of 4,900 new immigrants, seemingly an improvement over the previous year (4,600). However, as explained above, an in-depth investigation by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry led by the new director general, Dmitry Apartsev discovered that 1,400 of them were either not genuine immigrants or had not arrived through NBN. Nevertheless, the organization received NIS 20 million from the government and another NIS 15 million from the Jewish Agency. At the same time, private donations to the organization fell sharply, by 35 percent.
The regulations were revised again in 2011. The underlying idea was to create an incentive for other groups to compete with NBN. In practice, the result was to help that organization obtain government funding. As immigration tailed off, the requirement to match the previous year's numbers was dropped as a criterion for government support. Now, it no longer matters how many immigrants make aliyah: the money will arrive anyway.
Ultimately, all the millions that have been invested have not produced the desired result: there has been little change in the number of new immigrants.
In 2011, 3,980 immigrants arrived from the United States, Canada and Britain, up marginally from 3,846 the previous year. Moreover, in 2011 there were only 847 more immigrants than in 2002, the first year of activity.
Indeed, a closer analysis reveals that the "good years" were not necessarily connected with the activity of NBN. The end of the second intifada, in 2005, brought about a 10 percent jump in the number of immigrants, and the economic crisis of 2008 generated a leap of 15 percent. Bielski is not surprised. "If we were to eliminate the Jewish Agency and NBN, there would be only a very minor change in the number of immigrants," he says frankly in a conversation at a Ra'anana cafe, located in a neighborhood of immigrants from South Africa.
The directors of the organization reject such notions. First, they claim, the number of immigrants cited by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry is lower than the "true" number: 4,000 in 2011. They also suggest a solution: It's all a matter of money, they say; if the state gives them NIS 100 million, they will bring in 10,000 new immigrants a year.
Helping the rich?
A widespread criticism of the activity of NBN is that it amounts to a privatization of immigration to Israel, and assists immigrants from the richest countries. Nevertheless, no discussion has been held about why new immigrants from the United States are entitled to more resources than immigrants from, say, Holland or Russia. Ze'ev Bielski, the former chairman of the Jewish Agency, tells Haaretz that he was not happy about the agreement he signed with NBN, but "that was the reality."
In a position paper written a year ago for the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, a veteran think tank, Ilana Shpaizman notes that "together with the increase in the number of immigrants from North America in the wake of the activity of Nefesh B'Nefesh, the privatization process undermined the equality between the immigrants, the accessibility of immigration promotion services provided in North America and the state's responsibility for immigration to Israel a responsibility stemming from an overall conception that the State of Israel is a national home for the entire Jewish people throughout the world."
She adds that "transferring responsibility for the encouragement of immigration to a private body could generate a situation in which Israel becomes a country that takes in immigrants selectively, in accordance with the type of activity and the interests of the private body, which is not necessarily committed to the state's values and goals. That process could affect one of the foundation stones of the State of Israel. Moreover, the transition from an all-embracing policy to a selective policy was made without any public discussion."
Shpaizman notes that NBN receives support from the Israeli state based on the criterion of granting support in excess of the governmental "absorption basket" that is already available to the new immigrants. The result is that some new immigrants receive only the basic "basket" while others receive an extra $1,000 simply because they arrived in Israel through a private organization and not via the Jewish Agency or Nativ (a government body that works with Jews in the Eastern Bloc). This infringement of equality appears even more serious if we take into account the erosion that has occurred in the absorption basket - which was not updated for some years until the 2011 budget - and the fact that its present value, even after the 2011 update, barely suffices for a new immigrant's basic needs.
NBN stated in response: "The organization's mandate is to encourage immigration from North America and Britain. The devoted treatment and accompaniment afforded by the staff of Nefesh B'Nefesh to the new immigrants before, during and after their immigration to Israel, in addition to the financial grants we give them and the rapid assistance in finding employment in Israel, is essential, justified and correct by any standard. Anyone who claims that this constitutes discrimination does not understand what it means to be a new immigrant and the difficulties he has to face. We are proud of this support and believe it to be a Zionist and national mission."
Responses to the Haaretz investigation
Nefesh B'Nefesh states in response: "Nefesh B'Nefesh was established and registered in 2002 in the United States as a not-for-profit organization and afterward registered in Israel as an external organization for the public benefit in connection with its activity in Israel. The organization was founded with the purpose of reviving immigration to Israel from North America.
In its ten years of activity, the organization, which works in partnership with the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, has brought more than 33,000 new immigrants to Israel from the United States, Canada and Britain."
"In light of the fact that many of the organization's activities are split between the United States and Israel, the salaries of some of the members of the directorate in Nefesh B'Nefesh are divided between the countries. This is done lawfully, with reporting to the authorities in Israel and the United States. The organization's outlays are direct expenses for the purpose of maintaining its activity (including flight costs, which are direct expenses for seminars to prepare candidates for immigration, and for flying immigrants to Israel) and meet the requirements and standards of the Registrar of Associations and of the accountant general in the Finance Ministry."
"The true facts show a significant increase from year to year in the scale of immigration from North America thanks to the activity of Nefesh B'Nefesh. According to the data of the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B'Nefesh, in 2001, before the organization began to operate, there were 1,653 immigrants from North America. In contrast, in 2010, 3,980 immigrants arrived from North America an increase of 140 percent."
A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office stated: "The allegations raised about the Prime Minister's Office are incorrect."
The Jewish Agency's response: "From the day it was founded, the Jewish Agency dealt with bringing immigrants to Israel, and it continues to do so. Its primary activity involves bringing Israel to communities around the world and bringing the communities to Israel. The range of programs operated by the Jewish Agency enables an encounter between the Jews of the Diaspora and the Israelis, and thereby encourages a Jewish-Zionist affinity which also brings about immigration all this in addition to its direct activity in bringing immigrants to Israel..."
"The Jewish Agency welcomes every organization in the world that encourages Jews to immigrate to Israel, such as Nefesh B'Nefesh in the United States, and views this as principled Zionist activity which is consistent with the Agency's vision. The fact of the agreement with Nefesh B'Nefesh was made public at the time it was signed, in 2002, with the support of the Zionist federations in North America and of the government of Israel, headed by Ariel Sharon."
"The agreement between Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Jewish Agency is renewed and updated yearly, and the two bodies conduct a productive dialogue between them for the constant improvement of their joint work. The Jewish Agency conducts its activity with transparency and in coordination with the government of Israel and the Jewish federations worldwide, and it is audited by the comptroller of the National Institutions."
The Immigrant Absorption Ministry: "Since 2005, Nefesh B'Nefesh has received state support within the framework of the 'criteria of support for organizations that promote immigration' program. In the wake of a government decision in 2008, the criteria are now under the responsibility and implementation of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.
"In 2009, after Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver and the director general, Dmitry Apartsev, took over, a decision was made to increase the number of organizations encouraging immigration to Israel throughout the world that are supported by the ministry, and to strengthen organizations that lack financial resources. Accordingly, it was decided to remove the principal barrier to the organizations' ability to meet a prerequisite for receiving support, namely the obligation to award a financial grant to the new immigrants. This move proved highly successful, as demonstrated by the fact that in 2012 four organizations in addition to Nefesh B'Nefesh are receiving support within this framework. The ministry examines in-depth and on an ongoing basis all its ties with external organizations, including Nefesh B'Nefesh. This is done by means of implementation and monitoring reports, drawn up by the ministry's professional units and its accountancy."
"A few clarifications are in order about the changes in the criteria over the years: 1. The presentation of the amount and percentage of state support is misleading. It is important to make clear that the amount of funding that accrues to an organization is calculated as the lower of the following two possibilities: the total of the supports budget divided by the points received by the organization that year (based on the real number of immigrants), though no more than NIS 6,500 per immigrant; or 75 percent of the cost of the direct services provided by the organization to the new immigrants that year. This does not include management and general outlays, grants given to the immigrants, expenses involved in fund-raising and the cost of flying the immigrants to Israel which are exclusively at each organization's expense."
"It should be emphasized that in the criteria introduced in 2011, the possibility of doubling the state's payment for the same immigrant was significantly reduced. Thus, no additional support will be given for an immigrant for whom the ministry made a payment to a different body (such as the Scouts' project); no support will be given for anyone who was in Israel within the framework of a state-funded program (such as Israel Journey); nor will support be given for people already in Israel who change their status."
"2. In regard to the number of immigrants, beginning in 2011 a precondition [for support] is that the organization brought at least 100 immigrants in the previous year, while no limitation exists regarding the year for which support is requested. One reason for this is to enable as many organizations as possible to receive support, and another is that the number of immigrants from any particular country is fluid and depends on many factors, such as the economic situation, anti-Semitism in the country of origin, the security and economic situation in Israel and more."
"3. In regard to Israelis who were born abroad, this is not a 'new invention.' Israel has always treated people who were born abroad and received Israeli citizenship because they were born to an Israeli parent and afterward settled in Israel as "citizen-immigrants," and they receive all the rights that accrue to new immigrants. The amendment to the criteria in 2010 only enshrined in written form an already existing situation."
"The examination and review carried out on an ongoing basis by the ministry's professional unit found duality in the reporting about certain new immigrants for 2009, involving Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Scouts' project. The ministry found that this involved payment of about NIS 133,000. The accounting with Nefesh B'Nefesh for 2009 has not yet been completed, and the ministry intends to offset that amount when the accounting for the year is finalized."
The Justice Ministry (which is responsible for authorizing the criteria for government support): "The criteria for giving financial support to organizations that promote immigration to Israel, according to which the Prime Minister's Office (in the past) and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry (currently) supported Nefesh B'Nefesh, were set lawfully under Article 3A of the Budget Foundations Law of 1985 and in the wake of government decisions made on this subject."
"The process of consulting with the attorney general, which is obligatory under the law, was upheld, as with all criteria for government support, involving the experts in the advisory and legislation department. The same applies to the amendments which were introduced in the criteria over the years."
"The formula for the criteria or for the amendments was worked out in coordination with the relevant government ministry, and in all cases was set after it was determined that it would infringe neither the principle of equality nor the rules of good governance. In every case in which the criteria were amended, a draft of the amendment was published for the public's comments, and in some cases the wording of the amendment was changed in accordance with comments that were received. Over the years, support was provided according to these criteria, not only to Nefesh B'Nefesh."
"It should be emphasized that according to the criteria, every public institution or association that meets the preconditions is eligible to submit a request for support. Indeed, precisely the annulment of preconditions for grants on the part of a public institution, or setting a minimal number of immigrants which the public institution is required to bring, makes it easier for additional bodies to become involved in encouraging immigration and to receive support. Some of the changes introduced into the criteria over the years stemmed from lessons that were drawn, adjustment to changing circumstances and a desire to enable continued support to be given for this activity."