IDF’s Schnorrer Culture Targets Donors in Israel and Abroad

Why do individual units come begging to company executives and overseas Jewish communities?

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An IDF unit receiving a donation.
An IDF unit receiving a donation. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Rotem Shtarkman
Rotem Shtarkman

Informal fund-raising on behalf of individual units of the Israel Defense Forces frequently involves the personal touch. Critics of the practice, however, call it “schnorring,” the term derived from Yiddish which has negative connotations of begging, in this case on behalf of an army with a budget of at least 60 billion shekels ($15 billion).

“Hello, my name is Avi,” one soldier writes in a solicitation letter directed to several prominent Israeli companies in an effort to raise small change for his army company. The letter divulges considerable military information and plays on the patriotic emotions of the corporate executives who receive it. Above all, it reveals the fund-raising culture that pervades the IDF and in this case involves scouting around until a donor said yes.

It should be noted that this informal network is separate from the organized fund-raising carried out, for example, by Friends of the IDF in the United States or in Israel by the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers.

Nearly 1,200 guests in tuxedoes and sequined gowns gathered for the $1,000-a-plate dinner inside the Waldorf’s glittering ballroom.Credit: Shahar Azran

Avi’s letter continues: “I serve as a sergeant major in an engineering equipment company in the northern brigade of the Gaza division. The company serves as a standing company as part of the IDF’s engineering force, dealing with all the work connected with the tunnels in Gaza,” a reference to the tunnel network that Hamas built in Gaza and was uncovered by the IDF during the war in the summer of 2014. “Our company has been in existence for almost six years, and as part of the company’s tradition, we mark the company’s anniversary once a year with a major event attended by all of the people in the company, including people who served in it in the past.”

Avi then goes on to invite representatives of the corporations receiving the letter to pay a visit, to see the facilities and get to know the soldiers. “We would be pleased to show you some of the tools that we work with and a little of our routine activity. Our aim is to have new people get to know the company for purposes of cooperation between the corporation and the soldiers to improve the soldiers’ conditions and help them carry out their work in the best possible way.” Avi concludes the letter: “We await your reply.”

Soldiers with French flags

Since TheMarker published an article last month (in Hebrew) on items that parents of a paratrooper company had been asked to buy for their children, the newspaper has received a number of responses noting other pitches that expose the extent to which the fund-raising machine is also directed to donors abroad.

Among the fund-raising material that TheMarker received was a solicitation directed to donors in France, on behalf of IDF units. One unit sent regular e-mail updates on the amounts raised and how much more was needed, in a style reminiscent of crowdsourced fund-raising on the Internet.

One request sought funds for the purchase of battle vests for the Kfir infantry brigade, which specializes in anti-terrorism operations and urban combat. Vests had already been provided to two Kfir units, the solicitation letter states, but a new Kfir unit had been formed that also needed them. The cost, the letter explained, was 36,000 shekels for the unit. The e-mail was accompanied by a picture of soldiers with the vests, along with the flags of Israel and France and an explanation regarding what had already been donated in recent years to the Golani Brigade and the paratroopers.

During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, a range of items was provided including clothing and thermal underwear for Golani soldiers in the Golan Heights, it was explained. The donors also got a synopsis of the specific unit that needs the donation: Kfir Battalion 97, founded in 1999, initially a Nahal unit that became part of Kfir in 2006. One of the goals for the unit, known as Nahal Haredi or Netzah Yehuda, is to provide a place for religious Jews (or more accurately, ultra-Orthodox Jews) seeking to join the IDF, the synopsis says, adding that Battalion 97 was chosen as the outstanding IDF battalion of 2013 to 2014.

Some donors who have received the solicitation e-mails describe feeling ill at ease over the prospect of the IDF coming to them for a handout, and say that the request doesn’t convey a sense of respectability and officialdom.

Is the IDF disturbed by the phenomenon? Apparently not, at least as implied in the response from the IDF Spokesman’s Office: “The IDF provides its soldiers the necessary equipment for routine periods and times of emergency from the day on which they are drafted and throughout their service in units, in keeping with the nature of the changing operations in each unit. Contributions donated to the IDF are directed to the individual welfare of the soldiers and are not used for the purchase of equipment for operational activity.

“Although in the past there was a widespread culture of independent solicitation of contributions for units, we stress that fund-raising by units on the ground is not permitted. With regard to the case at hand, if we are provided with the details regarding the e-mails mentioned, the case will be investigated and dealt with accordingly. In recent months, the IDF manpower branch has carried out work at the head office to regulate the field of contributions to assure that the donations are made in an orderly manner based on priorities set by the IDF for the various units.”

“The IDF likes to look the other way”

An IDF company commander who recently left the military said that for years, many people within the system have lacked the courage to tackle the fund-raising situation in the army. Even the response of the IDF Spokesman’s Office reflects the fact that IDF staff prefer to look the other way and sweep the situation under the rug, he claims. The management of fund-raising in the army is problematic, he says, and the problem is far more deeply rooted than is commonly realized, going beyond difficulties that it creates with parents and other contributors.

“A lot of money that goes into the units makes up for hidden unemployment and mismanagement of entire systems and branches in the army. For example, in the kitchen, contributions of food or money for the purchase of food are received, also in logistical and maintenance branches,” the retired commander said.

An additional problem that he claimed exists is that in many instances career soldiers, particularly combat officers, are forced as part of their service to shell money out of their own pockets to buy military supplies, for events and for soldiers who need financial help and don’t get it through the army’s bureaucracy.

“Reform is needed in the army on this subject in particular and on a number of other issues. The defense budget is huge and will never be enough if there isn’t more efficient oversight over the country’s largest and most wasteful entity,” he concluded.

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