U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s senior adviser is a rabbi who previously headed a U.S.-based nonprofit that donated over $1 million to the controversial Israeli right-wing organization Im Tirtzu in 2015.
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An embassy spokesperson confirmed to Haaretz that Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone is now serving as a senior adviser to Friedman at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Lightstone “has spent the past two decades professionally in the startup, real estate and not for profit worlds,” the spokesperson said, adding, “He is a prolific fundraiser for a myriad of philanthropic, political and issue-based advocacy organizations.”
However, the embassy did not answer Haaretz’s questions about Lightstone’s previous role at Shining City, which donated 3.7 million shekels (about $1 million) to the Im Tirtzu organization during Israel’s last election year, 2015.
Im Tirtzu defines itself as a Zionist movement, but is best known for its media campaign at the end of 2015 when it branded various artists and human rights organizations as foreign agents.
In June, Haaretz revealed Lightstone’s involvement in Shining City, which is what is known as a “dark money” organization. The nonprofit was registered under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(4), which gives a special tax-exemption status to nonprofits involved in promoting social welfare goals, and also enables them to use part of their capital to promote political objectives – without revealing their sources of funding.
Shining City was founded in Virginia in late 2014 to educate the public on “relations between Israel and the USA,” and America’s political relationships in the Middle East, according to organization documents.
It was registered by the Virginia law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky. According to a December 2012 Bloomberg report, the law firm was previously involved in registering companies that donated over $250 million to campaigns connected to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, calling it a “nexus of Republican secret money and power.”
Shining City operated mostly during the 2015 Knesset election campaign in Israel, when the nuclear agreement between six world powers and Iran was under discussion in the United States. At the beginning of 2015, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to address Congress on why he was against the accord, the nonprofit promoted his speech on social media and lauded Netanyahu.
During that year Lightstone was listed as the executive director of Shining City, and the only one receiving a salary from it ($73,750).
Haaretz also traced U.S. public records indicating that Lightstone filed several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in the name of Shining City, being particularly interested in records concerning the Iran deal.
He asked the U.S. Treasury Department for “all the records from January 1, 2015 to December 4, 2015 concerning Treasury and other government entities regarding the implementation day of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” He also requested a “signed copy of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached on July 14, 2015 by the P5+1, the European Union and Iran.”
Other records show that Lightstone was working as a consultant to a California-based Republican candidate to Congress, Denise Gitsham.
Though Shining City is still registered as an active organization, it is hard to find any mention of its current activities. Its official website has been taken down and there have been no tweets on its Twitter account since the end of 2015. Its Facebook page (Shining City Community) still shares posts, though, including statements by Netanyahu like this:
As Haaretz previously reported, Shining City had three directors in 2016 – Phil Rosen, Eliot Lauer and Andrew (Andy) Albstein. All are prominent New York lawyers and at least two of them are close to Netanyahu and the Republican Party.
In a conversation with Haaretz in June, Albstein called Lightstone “one of the nicest young men you will find. He is involved in education, pro-Israel.” Albstein added that he got to know Lightstone through their involvement with the same political figure “who is involved in pro-Israel activity.” However, he refused to name that person.
The actual source of Shining City’s funds is unknown, but Haaretz found that in 2015 it received contributions of more than $3.2 million, all from one organization: Americans For Jerusalem. That
group, also a 501(c)(4), was founded under the name One Jerusalem and, according to its 2010 reports to the IRS, operated from the New York address of the philanthropic foundation of businessman and former Netanyahu associate Ronald Lauder. That same organization also donated directly to Im Tirtzu during 2015.
On his LinkedIn page, Lightstone says he was executive director at Shining City for eight months, from July 2014 to February 2015.
On his official page on the Orthodox Union website, meanwhile, Lightstone doesn’t mention his involvement with Shining City but does mention Ivanka Trump.
“Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, formerly Regional Director of New York NCSY, was appointed in April 2017 to serve as advisor [sic] to U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman,” it states. “Since receiving semicha from RIETS, Rabbi Lightstone has been fully engaged in all forms of communal work. A businessman at heart but a klal [people] person in reality, Rabbi Lightstone infuses his entrepreneurial spirit into all of his programs. Over the years, his programs have gained the acclaim of the likes of Ivanka Trump, Senator Joseph Lieberman and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office, among many others.”
In June, Im Tirtzu told Haaretz that most of its donors today “are Israelis, but we are pleased to find private donors from around the world as well (individuals and private foundations) who support our important activity and thereby try to strengthen the Jewish and democratic identity of the State of Israel. The guideline in the movement with regard to raising funds is non-acceptance of money from any foreign state entity or foundations that promote delegitimization of Israeli society.”
Haaretz contacted Lightstone several times in June, but he asked not to be interviewed or to discuss his involvement with Shining City.
“I am not associated with them anymore,” he said, adding that media stories at the time about his appointment as an adviser to Friedman were premature. “I don’t have a job at the moment,” he said.
Lightstone did not respond to phone calls from Haaretz this week for this article.