Funding for Israeli Jewish Identity Unit Doubled Since Its Founding in 2013

The administration’s stated purpose is 'to restore Israel’s Jewish soul'

Naftali Bennett, education minister and head of the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party, walks into the weekly cabinet meeting.
Mark Israel Salem

Government allocations to the Religious Services Ministry’s Jewish Identity Administration have risen by an average of 7 million shekels ($2 million) annually in four years, reaching 35 million shekels ($9.8 million) in 2016, according to Finance Ministry figures.

The administration’s stated purpose is “to restore Israel’s Jewish soul,” according to the ministry’s website. Unlike similar programs of the Education Ministry, the administration ostensibly targets Israelis aged 18 and up.

The Jewish Identity Administration was established in 2013 as part of Habayit Hayehudi’s agreement to join the ruling coalition. It was administered by Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, who was minister of religious services at the time.

The 2017–2018 budget provides for a 30-million shekel disbursement to the program, but this is expected to rise over the course of the two years. In 2016, the original budget for the administration stood at 28 million shekels, but was supplemented by 7 million shekels transferred from the diaspora and education ministries, both headed by Bennett. 

Over and above the budget for 2016 is another 25 million shekels that have not yet come through but were pledged for programs from previous years.

The Finance Ministry figures point to a steady rise in the administration's annual budget, from 14-21 million shekels for 2013-2014 to 25-35 million shekels for 2015-2016.

The agency’s first director, Avichai Rontzki, a former chief military rabbi, was replaced by Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, who is highly influential among West Bank settlers, but Rontzki continued to wield influence within the administration. In its first months, only Orthodox Jewish organizations were selected to operate projects aimed at a general Israeli Jewish audience. It later emerged that non-Orthodox organizations were not even vetted as partners.

The current religious affairs minister is David Azoulay of Shas, but the administration, which is identified with Habayit Hayehudi, has not been dismantled. In the past Shas officials said they would make use of the administration.

A look at the administration’s list of contracts, which appears on the site “Open Budget,” posted by the Public Knowledge Workshop (Hasadna), shows that a large part of the organizations are Orthodox and many are identified with religious Zionism. They include the NGOs Beit Moriah from Be’er Sheva, which operates “family centers in the spirit of Judaism.” The NGO was founded as a religious Zionist group in 1993. One of its founders and its director in the first years was Avi Wortzman, formerly deputy education minister for Habayit Hayehudi. Another NGO is Gesher, founded by Rabbi Daniel Tropper, a senior Habayit Hayehudi official.

Other organizations contracted by the administration are Ohr Torah Stone, which operates a program for “Jewish Identity coordinators in the [secular] community,” intended to “counter the ongoing erosion in the status of Jewish identity values and the lack of knowledge regarding Jewish heritage. This erosion and lack of knowledge leads to ignorance, disagreements, lack of equality in military service, loss of national identity, feeling of alienation from the Jewish nation and social estrangement.”

Another is “Touch the Jewish Soul,” which grants student scholarships for a project consisting of study meetings, lectures, workshops and discussion groups, as well as “Sabbath dinners hosted by the instructors. Once in a few weeks all the participants have a Shabbat experience.” Exceptions to the Orthodox organizations are the Oranim Academic College and Herzog Center.

One of the projects proposes an annual scholarship to students of up to 5,000 shekels to “strengthen Jewish identity, Zionist values and love of the homeland among students in the periphery.”

The Religious Affairs Ministry responded: “There are at least six bodies that are not Orthodox with which we are in contact and there are far-reaching processes to expand partnerships and increase dialogue and involvement with a variety of bodies active in this realm.”

Agriculture Ministry canceled program

Earlier this year the Agriculture Ministry canceled a joint project with an organization called Zehut (Identity), which represents centers for the deepening of Jewish identity in the secular school system. The program was intended to “advance the values of Jewish agriculture” in the schools. The cancellation was decided about two weeks after a report on it was published in Haaretz.

The Agriculture Ministry has so far declined to provide details about the cancellation of the program other than to say: “There is no program. We have nothing to add on the matter.”

In a response to MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union), chairwoman of a Knesset committee on transparency, it emerged that the ministry’s accountant general, who answers to the Finance Ministry, had re-examined the program and found several faults. The ministry informed Shaffir that the program was canceled because it was found to closely resemble another program – the establishment of community gardens.

The program, first announced in December 2016 as a way of “connecting Israel’s schoolchildren with the soil, the agriculture and the Zionist identity of the land,” received expedited approval, including by the ministry’s director general, Shlomo Ben-Eliyahu. The funding for the program, about 4 million shekels a year, was to have been shared equally between the Agricultural Ministry and the roof organization of the Centers for the Deepening of Jewish Identity. The director of Zehut, Itay Granek, is a member of the Habayit Hayehudi Central Committee and many staff members of the centers are activists in the party. The agriculture minister, Uri Ariel, is also a member of Habayit Hayehudi.

When information was broadcast on a media outlet about the program and its cancellation, the Agriculture Ministry called the report “fake news,” and added: “No contracts were made, no [tender] winner was selected and there was no tender.” In fact there was a tender to which a single entity responded, and was rejected.

In a letter to the attorney general on the matter, Shaffir wrote: “It seems that the entire process, which finally ended with the approval of the tenders committee, was tainted with fundamental irregularities, which apparently involve the fact that the NGO Zehut and its leaders are connected to Habayit Hayehudi.”

Shaffir pointed out to the attorney general that Ariel and his director general had been criticized by the state comptroller. The state comptroller’s report, which came out two months ago, found that in Ariel’s previous position as housing minister, he had systematically channeled funds to his political associates, impairing proper management of the ministry.

Zehut director general Granek and Ariel’s spokesman declined to respond for this report.