Bad Blood, Forged Signatures Star in Legal Battle Over 'Lost Tribes' Aliyah

Israeli court finds that Shavei Israel head Michael Freund forged his ex-wife's signature to create the impression she was involved in its operations bringing members of the Bnei Menashe community to Israel

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A member of the Bnei Menashe community in Israel.
A member of the Bnei Menashe community in Israel.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The head of a nonprofit active in bringing members of “lost tribes” of Jews to Israel regularly forged his ex-wife’s signature on organizational documents, a court has determined.

In a verdict handed down just over a week ago, Tel Aviv District Court found that Michael Freund, the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, signed his ex-wife’s signature, without her knowledge or consent, on numerous organizational documents over the years – including financial reports and protocols of annual board meetings. This created the impression that she was actively involved in its operations when she was not.

Since its founding in 2004, Shavei Israel has received more than 25 million shekels ($7.6 million) in government grants and contracts – most of it in the past seven years. A large share of its private funding comes from evangelical Christian organizations.

About three years ago, Freund’s ex-wife, Sarah Green, filed a 50-million-shekel lawsuit against Shavei Israel and several individuals who had received large sums of money from the organization. In the suit, which was also filed in Tel Aviv District Court and is still pending a decision, she argued that this money was taken without her consent or knowledge from a special trust bequeathed to her by her father, Pincus Green.

Pincus 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 ruling handed down on April 15 refers to a separate suit filed by Sarah Green against her ex-husband for forging her signature on documents submitted over the years by Shavei Israel to the Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations.

According to the verdict, Freund’s ex-wife had become aware of “suspicions about nonkosher activities taking place at the organization, including false reporting,” and did not want to be held accountable should they be proven true. For that reason, the verdict noted, she had decided to take the matter to court.

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

Freund, an immigrant from the United States, worked as a media adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu during the latter’s first term as prime minister in the 1990s.

Judge Naftali Shilo, who wrote the decision, found that Sarah Green’s signature had also been forged on the original request to register Shavei Israel with the Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations and on a request to amend its bylaws.

The Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations, which comes under the auspices of the Justice Ministry, was also named as a defendant in the suit.

Freund denied all of his ex-wife’s allegations, the ruling noted, but Shilo found that his account of events “lacked credibility.” The judge also found inconsistencies in Freund’s testimony.

Shilo noted in his decision that the similarity between Freund’s signature and that of his ex-wife on the organization’s documents “should be obvious even to a fool.

“And the fact that the nonprofit did not bring even one witness that could support its claims that Sarah Green participated even in one board meeting out of the 10 that took place between 2004 and 2015 cries out and shows that Sarah’s account is correct,” he added.

Shilo ordered Shavei Israel to reimburse Sarah Green for 50,000 shekels in court fees. In addition, he ordered the registrar to retroactively correct all the Shavei documents in its files that include her signature.

Asked for a response, Freund issued the following statement through his lawyers Tal Shapira and Meirav Bar Zik: “This is a suit that was filed as part of an emotionally charged divorce dispute between the founder of the nonprofit and his ex-wife – one that has made its way through various courts. The suit concerns trivial incidents that occurred more than a decade ago when the couple was married and ran a household together. The organization plans to study the verdict that was handed down on the eve of the [Passover] holiday and to consider its next steps accordingly.”

The Registrar of Nonprofit Organizations said it was “studying the verdict and considering its ramifications.”

In an investigation published last year, Haaretz found that Shavei Israel had been awarded a 10-million-shekel government contract, despite complaints of serious abuse of power by many of the prospective and new immigrants it was meant to help. The funding was meant to cover the costs of bringing hundreds of members of the Bnei Menashe community from northeastern India to Israel.

Shavei Israel had won the contract from the Aliyah and Integration Ministry without having to go through the usual bidding requirements. The investigation found that the request had been approved, even though the ministry had been made aware by then of harsh allegations against the nonprofit by members of the Bnei Menashe community.

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