Millions in Stolen Money Behind Return of ‘Lost Tribes’ to Israel, Lawsuit Alleges

Estranged wife of Shavei Israel founder Michael Freund says he transferred 50 million shekels without her consent or knowledge to his organization for outreach work to emerging Jewish communities

Michael Freund, left, and then-Interior Minister Silvan Shalom greeting members of the Bnei Menashe community arriving to Israel, June 2015.
Ilan Assayag

An Israeli organization known worldwide for its work with members of so-called “lost tribes” has been hit with a multimillion dollar lawsuit.

The 50-million-shekel lawsuit, filed in Tel Aviv District Court on Wednesday, claims that Shavei Israel has been the beneficiary of stolen funds since its establishment 15 years ago.

The organization, which engages in outreach to emerging Jewish communities around the world, was founded in 2004 by U.S.-born Michael Freund, a former communications adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The suit was filed by his estranged wife, Sarah Freund. (The couple is in the midst of divorce proceedings.)

In the suit, Sarah Freund contends that her estranged husband transferred a total of 50 million shekels ($14 million) to the organization over the years, as well as to individuals and groups connected to it, without her consent and knowledge.

This money, she argues, was part of a $30 million inheritance bequeathed to her by her father, Pincus Green, and put in a special trust designated for household-related expenses.

Green is a billionaire commodities trader who, together with his former partner — the late Marc Rich — received a presidential pardon from Bill Clinton in 2001 after being indicted in the United States on charges of tax evasion. (There was speculation at the time that they received the pardon because of their ties to senior Mossad officials, who advocated on their behalf.)

“The plaintiff could not have imagined that Mr. Freund would embezzle these funds and transfer huge sums to the defendants and to others connected to the organization, certainly not sums surpassing 50 million shekels(!),”the lawsuit states.

Members of the Bnei Menashe community at Ben-Gurion International Airport, June 2015.
Ilan Assayag

Sarah Freund claims in the suit that her estranged husband forged her signature on Shavei Israel documents in order to create the false impression that she was involved in running the organization.

The suit further claims that, between 2005 and 2015, Michael Freund transferred 27.4 million shekels from the inheritance trust money to Shavei Israel without his wife’s consent and knowledge. According to the suit, after divorce proceedings were filed in 2016, Sarah Freund suspected that her estranged husband violated a court injunction against withdrawing money from the trust and transferred another 3.3 million shekels.

In addition to Shavei Israel, two other respondents are named in the lawsuit: Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, the educational director of Shavei Israel; and Eitan Tzafrir, the organization’s legal adviser.

Both men, the suit claims, received money from Michael Freund that came from the trust. The money, the suit claims, was transferred to them without his estranged wife’s consent and knowledge.

Tzafrir, a former chief of staff at the Israeli Communications Ministry, was interrogated last year in connection to one of three corruption cases pending against Netanyahu. However, no grounds for indictment were found. (Case 4000, as it is known, involves the give-and-take relationship between the prime minister and Shaul Elovitch, the owner of the Bezeq telecommunications company and the Walla news website.)

In February 2015, Haaretz published an investigation into the flagship project of Shavei Israel: the airlifting of thousands of members of the Bnei Menashe community from northeastern India to Israel. The Bnei Menashe (“Sons of Manasseh”) claim descent from the ancient Israelite tribe of Menashe, but no scientific proof has been found for that.

Shavei Israel has brought about 3,000 members of the Bnei Menashe community to Israel in recent years. Upon arrival in the country, they immediately undergo Orthodox conversions.

The investigation revealed that the so-called Operation Menashe was fraught with controversial government decisions, an ambiguous rabbinical ruling and a potential conflict of interest. Many members of the Bnei Menashe were ultimately housed in West Bank settlements.

Bringing the Bnei Menashe to Israel requires special cabinet decisions since they are not eligible for immigration under the Law of Return. Michael Freund actively lobbied recent Netanyahu-led governments to obtain such approval. (Previous governments had rejected his requests.)

He never succeeded, however, in galvanizing support for his project in the mainstream Jewish world. Most of the money donated to Shavei Israel — aside from his own family funds, which covered most of its expenses — came from Christian evangelical groups.

In response to questions about his role in the project and the organization, Birnbaum told Haaretz at the time the investigation was published that he worked for Shavei Israel on a purely voluntary basis.

But according to the lawsuit, Birnbaum received a total of 1.74 million shekels from Michael Freund between 2009 and 2016. That money, the suit claims, came from the trust and was transferred without Sarah Freund’s consent and knowledge.

According to the lawsuit, Tzafrir received a total of 1.6 million shekels from Michael Freund between 2010 and 2016. A long list of individuals and groups connected to Shavei Israel, the lawsuit claims, received a total of 10.4 million shekels between 2009 and 2016. All this money, according to the lawsuit, also came from the trust and was transferred without Sarah Freund’s consent and knowledge.

Also according to the lawsuit, all attempts by Sarah Freund to have the money returned by the defendants have failed. She is being represented by Zohar Lande and Gal Livshits from Barnea Jaffa Lande & Co. – Law Offices.

Politically, Freund belongs to the ideological right. In a column published in The Jerusalem Post in September 2001, he spelled out his motivations for working with so-called “lost Jews.”

"It seems fair to say that, aside from the danger posed by nonconventional weapons in the hands of Israel’s neighbors, the issue of demography might very well be the greatest threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish state,” he wrote. “As the percentage of Jews continues to decline, it will grow increasingly difficult for Israel, as a democracy, to ignore mounting calls by its Arab minority for cultural autonomy and perhaps even self-rule. And if the day were to come when Arab Israelis could elect more representatives to the Knesset than Jewish Israelis, the Jewish identity of the State would be in grave doubt.”

Because the lawsuit was only formally filed on Wednesday, Shavei Israel has yet to formally respond to the accusations.

Michael Freund could not be reached by telephone for comment.

Tal Shapira and Meirav Bar Zik, the attorneys representing Shavei Israel, issued the following response: “This is a futile and cynical suit, driven by personal interests, and its entire purpose is to serve as a means of pressure in an ongoing familial financial dispute. It is not a coincidence that the suit was filed on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, with all that entails, and it is not a coincidence that the defendants, who have yet to be served, learned about it through the media. 

“We regret that Mrs. Freund decided to involve in this dispute third parties as a way of exerting improper pressure on her husband, Mr. Michael Freund, as well as Shavei Israel, which he heads and which has been engaged for years in the blessed activity of bringing Jews to Israel from the Diaspora; Rabbi Birnbaum, an honest and exceptional man; and attorney Eitan Tzafrir, who for years has been providing legal services to Mr. Freund and his organization, and receiving, in return, payments legally owed to him. Shavei Israel strongly rejects the claims in the suit and its response will be presented in court, not on the pages of a newspaper.”

Tzafrir, for his part, termed the suit “ridiculous.” He said that as the lawyer representing Shavei Israel, he received his fees “and did not ask whether the wife had approved them or not.”

He added that Sarah Freund had requested information from him that would have required him to violate lawyer-client privilege and confidentiality agreements. “We will provide our responses to the court,” he said.

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