Israeli Settler School Built in Part on Private Palestinian Land, With a Little Help From U.S. Donors

Expansion to school funded by Ohr Torah Stone, an organization whose budget comes from Israel's Education Ministry and private tax deductible donations from the U.S.

The Derech Avot school in the West Bank settlement of Efrat
Kerem Navot

Aerial footage reveals that part of the campus of a school in the West Bank settlement of Efrat was built on privately owned Palestinian land. The footage was obtained and analyzed by a civil-society organization that monitors land ownership in the West Bank.

Donations to Ohr Torah Stone, the organization that runs the school, which make up a part of its budget, are tax deductible in the United States, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Recent renovations to the portion of the grounds of Derech Avot School that is on Palestinian land were paid for by the Education Ministry, the Efrat local council and Ohr Torah Stone education network. Ohr Torah Stone was founded in 1983 by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Its first institution was the Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva high school, also in Efrat.

The Derech Avot school in the West Bank settlement of Efrat
Kerem Navot

Ohr Stone established a religious school for girls (ulpana in Hebrew) in the nearby settlement of Alon Shvut. It now operates high schools in Jerusalem as well as other institutions, including hesder yeshivas, where students combine religious study with service in the Israeli military.

The organization’s website describes itself as follows: “Ohr Torah Stone is a Modern Orthodox movement shaping Jewish communities worldwide, inspired by the unique vision and leadership of its founder and Chancellor, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, together with Co-Chancellor Rabbi David Stav. Fueled by a unique combination of educational institutions, women’s empowerment programs, leadership development, outreach initiatives, and social action projects, OTS is illuminating the relevance of authentic Torah Judaism in the modern world and making a transformative impact on Jewish life, learning and leadership.”

The most recent report from the Israeli Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations on Ohr Stone stated that turnover from the operations of Ohr Stone and its subsidiaries in 2016 was about 120 million shekels ($33.3 million). According to the same report, between 2015 and 2016 Ohr Torah Stone invested more than 6 million shekels in construction, although the report doesn’t specify how much of that was spent in Efrat, a settlement in Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem.

The Derech Avot school in the West Bank settlement of Efrat
Kerem Navot

The vast majority of the Ohr Torah Stone budget came from the Education Ministry, but last year the organization also received more than 19 million shekels in contributions, including about 11.5 million shekels from Ohr Torah Stone’s American friends’ organization, a non-profit entity with offices in New York, contributions to which are tax deductible. That means that donors to the organization in the United States are entitled to deduct a portion of their contributions from their income taxes, and also means that indirectly, the U.S. government is financing Ohr Torah Stone.

In Canada, donations are transferred to Ohr Torah Stone via the Mizrahi World Movement and in Britain and Germany it is carried out through local Ohr Torah Stone organizations. In its public reports, Ohr Torah Stone doesn’t specify the amounts it has received from these countries or the sources of contributions from Israel.

Aerial photographs on which the so-called blue line demarcating the boundaries of state-owned land appear, reveal that the schoolyard at the Derech Avot school is beyond the boundaries of the state land. Aerial photos from the early 1980s show that the site of the recently renovated schoolyard had been a vineyard.

Dror Etkes, who heads Kerem Navot, the organization that obtained the blue-line layer data from the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank, said: “The Efrat settlement specializes in two fields that come together well in this story – schnorring money from the American right wing and the theft of private land from the village of Al-Khader, on which the settlement built various public facilities, for example parks, libraries, parking lots and various local council facilities. It’s therefore not surprising to discover that the settlement also built part of the school on land that had been a vineyard.”

In response to questions, the director general of Ohr Torah Stone, Yinon Ahiman, stated: “The Givat Hate’enah school in Efrat was built in 1984. Over the years, a number of wings were added. Last year an additional wing was added and there has been no change in the area of the schoolyard in recent years. The playground that was renovated now was put in an area that has been used by the school for decades. Trailers stood there for many years on a portion of it.”

In response to a question from Haaretz, Ahiman added: “[This is] the first complaint that I have received on the subject. I am not aware that the school is located on Palestinian land.”

He also stated: “If you have specific documents on what in my view is a very peculiar complaint, bring them to the authorities to be examined. It’s not clear to me why they’ve waited decades and who exactly is behind the complaint.”

After the Ohr Torah Stone director general was told that the data comes from the Israeli Civil Administration, he wrote: “Even if we assume that you’re right, then in all probability, while building the school, the contractor put excess soil there. As I wrote to you, it was a long time ago, so it’s impossible to determine who put it there, why they did so, etc. and as stated, no complaint of any kind has ever been received. In any event, the schoolyard that was renovated has been used by the school for many years (I would think for more than 20 years). To the best of my knowledge, the most recent renovation would not have enlarged the schoolyard.”

The Education Ministry was asked by Haaretz why it funded renovations that were carried out on privately owned land and how much funding it provided. The ministry did not respond and referred Haaretz to the Efrat local council. The local council did not respond to questions on the issue.