Pro-Kahane Israeli Group Raising Funds in U.S. With Tax-exempt Status

A complaint notes that despite promoting a movement blacklisted as 'terrorist' by the State Department, the group's fundraising efforts for a Jerusalem hostel still enjoy tax benefits

The Heritage House hostel in Jerusalem's Old City, November 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

A complaint was filed on Thursday with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service against a hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City that is run by an extremist rabbi aligned with radical factions of the settler movement.

Filed by a rabbinical human rights group, the complaint notes that the organization that fundraises for the hostel in the United States enjoys tax-exempt status, even though the facility is used to promote a movement and ideology blacklisted as “terrorist” by the State Department.

Ben Packer, an American-born rabbi, took over operations at the Jerusalem Heritage House a few years ago. He is known to be an outspoken supporter of Meir Kahane, the racist rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League and was assassinated in 1990. Kahane enjoyed a brief stint in the Knesset before the political party he created was banned in Israel.

“This organization and its director promote the works and positions of Meir Kahane, primarily through a youth hostel in Jerusalem that caters to young Americans,” according to the complaint filed by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “In 1994, Israel outlawed the organization that Kahane founded (Kach) as well as an organization founded in his memory (Kahane Chai). Through his Facebook page, Ben Packer has sold the works of Meir Kahane, and regularly promotes videos of his speeches.”

Kach and Kahane Chai were added to the State Department list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” in 1997. They are the only Jewish organizations on the list.

The complaint notes that the Jewish Heritage Movement violates the terms of its tax-exempt status because donations “are being used to support illegal or terrorist activities.”

An investigation published in Haaretz last November found that the Jerusalem Heritage House is decorated with photos of Kahane, and books and other literature about the American-born rabbi are regularly distributed to guests.

A few years ago, Packer set up a 501c fundraising organization in the U.S. to incentivize potential donors through tax breaks. The organization goes under a different name than the hostel, though: It is called Jewish Heritage Movement and is based in Staten Island. According to its tax forms, it raises about $150,000 a year in donations in the United States. Of that sum, $30,000 goes toward Packer’s salary.

The tax forms describe the primary purpose of the hostel as providing “an outreach program for young adults that will share with them the richness of their Jewish heritage through dissemination of information, social and cultural events, discussions and similar projects, to promote understanding and inspire the embracing of their heritage.”

The complaint filed by T’ruah notes that the hostel recently published a list of “Haters of Israel” banned from its premises. That list included Jewish-American celebrities such as Jon Stewart and Natalie Portman, as well as Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah (although it misrepresented her affiliation) and the staff of Haaretz, among other media outlets.

“This list incites against prominent Jews, mostly Americans,” the complaint said.

The Jerusalem Heritage House often provides free room and board to its guests. In exchange, they are encouraged to volunteer for “service projects” in settlements over the Green Line – Israel’s internationally recognized borders. These projects have included working the fields of illegal West Bank outposts and helping Jewish families move into properties in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. A common theme of the volunteering work is creating a “Jewish presence” in areas with a large Palestinian population.

The hostel serves two main groups: participants in Birthright – the organization that provides free trips to Israel – who are interested in extending their stay, and “Lone Soldiers” – Jews from abroad who volunteer to serve in the Israeli army.

One of Birthright’s key trip providers used to promote the hostel for participants extending their stay but no longer does. Based on conversations with recent guests, the hostel’s main clientele today is lone soldiers.

When reached for comment from Haaretz, Packer hung up the phone.

T’ruah also lodged a complaint on Thursday with the IRS against the organization that fundraises for Haraayon Hayehudi (“The Jewish idea”), a yeshiva established by Kahane. This is already the second complaint filed by the rabbinical association against the radical right-wing school. The organization, called American Friends of Yeshivat Haraayon Hayehudi, is based in Skokie, Illinois.

Additionally, T’ruah sent a follow-up complaint to the IRS against the Central Fund of Israel, an organization that donates to several extremist groups in Israel, among them Haraayon Hayehudi, Honenu (which provides financial assistance to Jewish terror suspects,) and Hemla (which serves as a conduit for funding to Lehava, an organization known for its anti-Arab activities.)

“As rabbis and Jews, we have an obligation to combat those who promote and support terrorism through a twisted reading of Jewish tradition,” Jacobs wrote to Haaretz. “As Americans, we refuse to allow our tax dollars to subsidize those carrying out the legacy of the two organizations tied to Rabbi Meir Kahane, which were banned in Israel as terrorist organizations in 1994 and designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the U.S. Department of State in 1997."

U.S. taxpayer subsidized funding, said the letter, "including that to the Jewish Heritage Movement, Yeshivat HaRaayon HaYehudi, Hemla, and Honenu, directly supports incitement against Palestinians, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Israeli and American Jewish human rights leaders. In the worst cases, this funding has supported physical attacks, vandalism, and even murder.”