The Israel Defense Forces’ budget is enormous, at some 60 billion shekels ($15 billion) a year, the largest single item in the state budget. But that hasn’t done anything to deter a small, informal industry of people and organizations raising donations for everything from military equipment and “spiritual” goods to food and warm clothing.
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Officially, the army doesn’t approve of this gray market for donations. “A donation will be approved only if it is intended for the welfare of soldiers,” the IDF Spokesman’s Office said. “Donations of combat or training equipment will not be approved, based on the view that the IDF is required to provide the essential equipment to its soldiers as part of the defense budget. It is forbidden for those serving in the army to ask for donations and also to accept donations that have not been approved. These regulations have been distributed to the various units.”
But, in fact, the IDF often cooperates with this fundraising apparatus, or at least turns a blind eye to it. IDF commanders at all levels are involved and thousands of photos and video clips are regularly uploaded to the Internet showing soldiers and officers accepting money and thanking donors for it.
The fundraising machine relies on presenting the army has impoverished and soldiers as lacking the best equipment “because the government does not provide quality products.” Fundraisers go as far as to use deaths and injuries as a marketing tool. Many potential donors from Israel or overseas say they are made uncomfortable by the aggressive tactics.
The most common methods for raising money are through email and websites. One of the emails includes a detailed list of the equipment soldiers want most:
1. Protective vests, $350 each. “To replace the horrible, worn-out, and uncomfortable old vests.”
2. Combat flashlights, $75 each. “To buy the very best, because it is a matter of life or death for soldiers.”
3. Knee protectors, $35 a pair. “To replace the old ones, we use them every day.”
4. Ballistic sunglasses, $70 a pair. “We buy a brand made by a former IDF soldier in Arizona.”
Crowdfunding for the IDF
Articles appear on a website called Europe Israel News asking French readers to donate money for bullet-proof vests and helmets. Email messages from the site update readers every few days about how much money has been raised for one IDF unit or another and how much more needs to be raised to meet goals, much like any other crowdfunding site.
A video clip on another website that has been making the rounds over the last few months purports to show – in a style mimicking the Shopping Channel – how bad the equipment is that the IDF provides its soldiers, compared to the equipment which the fundraisers say they plan to buy with the money they are soliciting. In the video, which was shot on an army base and uses IDF equipment, two soldiers in officers’ training tell of how the equipment issued by the army was responsible for the deaths of three soldiers and injuries to 14 others in a battle during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. The IDF equipment is uncomfortable, they explain, so soldiers were taking off their flack jackets periodically. In one case, a bomb exploded near them, causing the casualities.
The email says a new film will be coming soon, but there was no time to finish it because they needed “to stop the terror in the region.”
A., from Israel, tells how her adult relatives in Canada, Jewish Zionists, are inundated with requests for donations. “My uncle was asked to donate to enable the purchase of socks and wool hats for soldiers. He contributed and told me, ‘If only you had wanted to build a new base, but to ask me for socks? I know Israel and I visit. It ‘s not a miserable country. It has successful high-tech and magnificent hotels.’ They really leech off those people,” A. says.
Some of A’s relatives have volunteered for the Sar-El program, in which thousand of Diaspora Jews volunteer every year for a few weeks on military bases, sleeping in bunk beds on bases like ordinary soldiers and doing work such as painting, cleanup and sorting equipment. The program, run by the IDF logistics branch, has been operating since 1983.
“They are Zionists, and feel that they are doing something good for the IDF and Israel, and it also costs them thousands of dollars,” say A.
But even Sar-El doesn’t hesitate to solicit donations from volunteers. One Friday, while A. was on a tour with her relatives who were staying on a base, the bus tour bus picked up a young man who was collecting money for Givati infantry soldiers stationed in Hebron, who, he said, lacked ceramic vests. One of her relatives immediately collected money from the group, A. says, and sent text messages to relatives and friends in Canada to raise more. After giving the money, the bus stopped so they could see a symbolic handing over of a vest to a Givati soldier, recalls A.
“As taxpayers, we shrunk in our seats when we heard it,” she says. “The army with such a budget needs to schnorr? It causes the Jews overseas to hate us, and this is still our parents’ generation, which believes in Israel and supports it almost unconditionally. What will happen with the next generation, which is already distancing itself from us?”
The Internet isn’t the only way contributions are collected. A machine that accepts credit card donations stands in the English Cake coffee shop at the Gush Etzion junction. It solicits donations, in English and Hebrew, for a package of winter equipment, including a fleece jacket, gloves, ski mask and thermal clothing. Each package costs $100 per soldier and the screen notes that every company has 100 to 120 soldiers. The money donated will allow the coffee shop to provide free coffee and cake to soldiers, too, adds the solicitation.
The managers of the coffee shop say the machine belongs to Standing Together, an organization from Efrat run by David Landau. The group’s website says “it is a non-profit organization that started by sending pizzas to soldiers guarding the checkpoints .... Standing Together then began to cater to the different needs of soldiers, sending drinks, food, clothes, undergarments and more to our soldiers in the field.” The list now includes “spiritual food,” too.
As for supervision and accounting for these donations, the situation is a bit shocking. Even if, in almost all cases, the intentions are good, there is no way of knowing how things are being run, what bank accounts are used, who manages the money and how much of the money reaches its target.
One of the many websites for donations is called Direct to the Soldier, which bills itself as “your direct connection with Israel’s soldiers” and is run from New Jersey and the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. The website releases no financial reports or any information about its operations, so it is hard to know where the money comes from or where it goes.
In an email sent to potential donors, the Friends of the IDF (FIDF) organization launched an appeal entitled "A Mezuzah for Every Door," in which it urged people to donote up to $2,000 to provide mezuzahs for army installations which, it claims, lack them. “I ask you personally to help me buy 100,000 new mezuzot. The IDF needs our help,” the email pleads.
But the IDF isn’t aware it is suffering a serious mezuah shortage. An army source, who asked not to be identified, said he wasn’t aware of any problem but would look into it. Two days later, his answer was, “There’s no lack of mezuzot. It could that be in some remote facilities there’s a problem here and there but there isn’t a widespread problem.” In any case, there is the IDF Rabbinate, which would be attentive to any problem, he added.
The official way to donate to the IDF and its soldiers is through the organizations Friends of the IDF and the Libi Fund, says the IDF Spokesman’s Office. These organizations will direct information about the request to the donations branch of the Manpower Directorate and, if it meets the rules and regulations, it will be approved and given to the relevant unit, says the IDF Spokesman.
Last year, the IDF raised a record $100 million at its annual event at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Thirty soldiers, many of them Gaza war medal-holders, were flown in for the event, and Maj. Gen Herzl Halevi, the head of IDF Military Intelligence, gave the dinner guests an overview of the scary situation in the Middle East and the dangers facing Israel.
IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz differentiates between donations given according to the rules, which the IDF encourages, and gifts of personal equipment to soldiers, which Almoz calls a moral failure.
“There are a lot of donations that are provided in accordance with the rules, and the IDF Manpower Directorate staff deals with it in an organized fashion,” says Almoz. “As to donations of personal equipment to soldiers ... this must end. A culture has developed in which it does not matter what you give soldiers, they think that if they advertise their need something different, they will receive better equipment. It is story that has been built up over years, for no reason.”
Almoz says that not only is the donation of such equipment forbidden for ethical reasons, but the donated equipment is not always safe or does not meet standards. He says the IDF is determined to put an end to donations that violate regulations.
This article was amended on January 27 to correct an editing error: The 'Mezuza for Every Door' campaign was launched by the Friends of the IDF and not 'Direct to the Soldier,' as was published.