State Gives Nonprofit That Guards Jewish Farms Millions to Run Schools Project on Judaism

Religious Services Ministry is cooperating with Hashomer Hachadash on project aimed at 'strengthening the link between the Jewish people, its heritage and its land.'

A farmer working the land on a farm near the Gaza Strip, May 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Religious Services Ministry’s Jewish Identity Administration has recently expanded a $10-million project called Zionism and Judaism, which it runs with an organization whose primary mission is to protect Jewish farms and lands from attacks and theft.

According to treasury documents, the project is being funded generously: Its annual budget is 37.5 million shekels ($10.2 million), divided equally between the government ministry and the organization, Hashomer Hachadash.

Hashomer’s director, Yoel Zilberman, says support will also come from the education and Diaspora affairs ministries, both of which are headed by Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett. The money will fund projects in schools and with Jewish youth from abroad.

The Jewish Identity Administration was set up by Bennett under the last government. Even though the Religious Services Ministry is now in Shas’ hands, administration officials remain close to Bennett and meet with him periodically.

Cooperation between the administration and Hashomer, which is a secular nonprofit group, began two years ago in a much more limited fashion. Funding for the group has since jumped more than sevenfold, documents show.

Earlier this month the treasury granted approval to expand the project, which aims to “lead thousands of young people who are involved in various realms of Zionist activity to take an active role in clarifying their Jewish identity.”

This pursuit would include activities “to strengthen the link between the Jewish people, its heritage and its land,” as well as such activities as “guard duty and assistance to farmers and cattle ranchers.”

The program also includes “educational activities in ethics from Jewish sources and Israel’s national heritage.” A “high point” will be an Independence Day event to include “agricultural activities and Israeli heritage studies.”

The descriptions of the Zionism and Judaism program recall another program revealed by Haaretz a few months ago, in which the Agriculture Ministry initiated a project to “promote the values of Jewish agriculture” in schools. The agriculture minister is Habayit Hayehudi’s Uri Ariel.

Hashomer Hachadash was founded a decade ago with the aim of “aiding farmers, cattle raisers and all citizens of the state with guarding, farm work and retaining the open areas in the Negev and the Galilee,” as stated in its documentation at the Registrar of Nonprofit Associations.

The group runs a number of projects, including farmland watch activities to “assist farmers and ranchers in safeguarding land and livestock from persistent theft and vandalism,” as it says on the group’s website. According to Zilberman, the group has some 2,000 volunteers and works in tandem with the Border Police.

In an interview with Arutz Sheva, Zilberman said, “No perimeter fence, cameras or iron gates that we might hide behind will improve our situation; they will only make it worse. We need to go back to the days of guarding ourselves and making sure there’s no need for outside security in our communities.”

Zilberman told Haaretz Hashomer is only getting 6 million shekels from the Jewish Identity Administration, adding, “The education and Diaspora affairs ministries are joining this initiative to fund activities similar to what there was in Gadna for schools and world Jewry.” He said the program will involve some 5,000 pupils and a similar number of youths from abroad aged 16-25, and will include farmwork “with Zionist components.”

Religious Services Ministry documents say the link with Hashomer Hachadash was made after “a comprehensive examination of organizations that initiate and organize idealistic Zionist activities on a large scale.” The documents, however, do not specify what criteria were used to evaluate the groups.

According to a source active in this area, Hashomer Hachadash is headed by “a secular, right-wing group that enjoys close cooperation with Habayit Hayehudi. The significance of doing business with government ministries is to get a lot of money for a political agenda.”

Hashomer Hachadash responded that the group has been “apolitical from the start. It’s a tragedy that in the State of Israel, dealing with love of land and connecting to the land has in some quarters turned into a political issue labeled right-wing. The organization began getting support from the Israeli government five years ago, in close cooperation with then-Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon of the Labor Party and Silvan Shalom of Likud. We are pleased to each day connect secular, religious Zionist, ultra-Orthodox and Druze, and even Arabs in the future.”