Israel's welfare agency has recently expanded its cooperation with an organization that seeks to "save Jewish girls" from marrying Arabs, Haaretz has learned.
The Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry has increased funding for a young women's shelter run by Hemla, a group headed by figures associated with the radical right. According to the organization, the shelter is geared toward "female youths from broken homes who are at risk of shmad" – a Hebrew term that denotes coerced conversion to another religion.
In a promotional flyer released two years ago, the head of Hemla, Elyakim Neiman, described intermarriage between Jewish women and Arab men as a "national plague."
"We are doing our best to save these girls before they reach [Arab] villages and give birth to 'Ahmad Ben Moshe,'" he said. "We provide for the girls' physical and spiritual needs."
According to the brochure, the young women receive mental and social assistance until they "return to the path of healthy Jewish life, as is appropriate for the daughter of a king."
Another promotional leaflet for the shelter boasted that the woman who runs it, Rachel Baranes, has dedicated her life to "saving the daughters of Israel from the claws of the Ishmaelites," a term referring to Arabs. An article published in 2009 in "Eretz Israel Shelanu" (Our Land of Israel), a newsletter associated with the radical right, describes Hemla's boardinghouse as the only shelter for Jewish girls "rescued" from Arab villages.
The boardinghouse's operations cost 2.6 million shekels a year ($685,000). The Social Services Ministry has recently agreed to increase funding for the institution to 1.3 million shekels a year, up from 800,000 shekels in 2013-2015 and 650,000 shekels in 2012. The agreements between the NGO and the government agency have been repeatedly extended without issuing public tenders. The ministry's funding and cooperation legitimizes the group and allows it to expand its operations.
"For a decade, we have been cooperating with a racist organization that has officially declared that one of its goals is to save Jewish girls from the danger of" converting out of Judaism, a source in the ministry told Haaretz.
Hemla has in the past been closely linked to Lehava, a radical rightist organization known for its efforts to prevent marriage between Jews and Arabs. Lahava Chairman Bentzi Gopstein was a member of Hemla for years, until leaving in 2014. That year, Hemla paid Gopstein's wife, Anat, 66,000 shekels ($17,300) for "seeking out girls" for the shelter, according to documents from the NGO registrar. In an audit from 2014, the registrar notes the ties between the two groups were severed that year but notes that due to possible illegal activity on Lehava's part, the connection should be reexamined in the future.
The Social Affairs Ministry has responded by saying that Hemla is recognized by NGO registrar, and that the decision to raise the funding is meant to allow the group to expand the shelter, which is meant for ultra-Orthodox and newly religious teens who are in severe distress.
Neiman, Hemla's chairman, said that the group's activity has been fully coordinated with the ministry and that it has received praise for its work.
In his comment for this article, Gopstein, the chairman of Lehava, suggested that "Haaretz, which is funded by German money, should conduct investigations into Peace Now and B'Tselem and not try to undermine the activity of organizations and groups that work for the People of Israel's benefit."
Full disclosure: As part of an investigative report conducted by Haaretz in 2011, journalists Uri Blau and Shai Greenberg entered the shelter and were accused of trespassing by the state prosecutor. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein later suspended the proceeding and the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court closed the case.
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