In the past two Knesset terms, MKs have repeatedly failed to pass laws banning all fur trade, despite the bills having a solid majority among members at the preliminary stage. A report on Channel 1’s “Mabat Sheni” current affairs show on Wednesday revealed the foreign interests that may have played a part in helping the Knesset ultimately reject the bills.
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The bill is essentially a symbolic law in Israel, since the use of fur for clothing is very limited. Also, the bill’s original author, Ronit Tirosh (then a Kadima MK), inserted a special clause stipulating an exception for the ultra-Orthodox, so they could continue to wear fur shtreimels. Nonetheless, fur dealers in northern Europe and Canada worried that the Israeli legislation would inspire parliaments around the world to enact similar laws, which would significantly impact their income.
In their investigative report, Tal Michael and Tomer Avital found that, from 2009-2014, the fur industry spent a lot of money to try to stop the Israeli legislation, which would have been the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
As part of this effort, Gilad Government Relations & Lobbying was hired, as were other PR consultants. Danish fur dealers also purchased “consulting hours” from the Danish embassy in Israel to obtain its assistance in torpedoing the bill. The embassy arranged meetings with MKs and ministers, including Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), Gilad Erdan (Likud) and, later, Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid). In 2013, the government also issued a classified document portraying the bill as a security threat to Israel, since it would harm foreign relations with friendly countries with an active fur industry.
The TV report also disclosed that in 2011-2012, four MKs were invited on paid trips by the European fur industry, in the guise of a visit to the Jewish community in the Diaspora. The trips, paid for by interested parties from the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF), included flights in business class, luxury hotel accommodations, a tour of fur farms and fur fashion shows, in addition to visits to the Jewish community.
The MKs reported to the Knesset Ethics Committee that the trips were funded by the Danish-Jewish community. In reality, though, they were funded by the fur industry, and this was the main focus of the MKs’ visits. The Danish-Jewish community denied any connection to the funding of the trips. Community members said they only invited the MKs due to requests from “interested parties,” and that the community only provided two meals.
The report also revealed that the MKs were joined on the trip by executives from Gilad Government Relations & Lobbying, which continues to represent IFTF, which has set a goal of blocking the Israeli legislation against the fur trade. The lobbyists accompanied the MKs on the flights, during their stay in Denmark, and on the tours of the Jewish community and fur farms.
The MKs who went on the trips were Menachem Eliezer Moses (United Torah Judaism); Faina Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beiteinu); Amnon Cohen (former Shas MK); and Carmel Shama-Hacohen (a former Likud MK, now Israel’s ambassador to the OECD). At the time, all held positions on various Knesset committees. These trips were cited as an example of paid outside intervention in Israeli legislation, and an attempt to bend the public will in favor of moneyed foreign interests.
It was also reported that in the past two years, MKs have taken more than 300 flights funded by outside interests and, as seen in the case of the Denmark trips, the declarations made by the MKs (and available to view on the Knesset website) regarding the funding of such trips cannot always be trusted.
The Knesset responded, “The Knesset Ethics Committee was indeed contacted by the Danish-Jewish community regarding the trips in question by MKs to Denmark, and a [copy of] the official letter of invitation was included. The investigation’s findings require an inquiry, which the Knesset will soon conduct with the MKs involved, as well as other relevant parties.”
MK Moses responded that he was invited “by the Jewish community in Copenhagen to visit. The type of flight ticket, the accommodations, etc., were determined by those who issued the invitation. The invitation was approved by the Ethics Committee in accordance with procedure. The visit to Copenhagen included a tour of the synagogue, the Jewish Museum, a Jewish school and a meeting with the Jewish Agency representative, whose office is in the Jewish Community Center.” Moses’ office added that “during his stay there, he also met with some local businesspeople in the fur industry.”
During Moses’ first term as a Knesset member (2009-2013), long before the trip, he fought the fur bill in the Knesset, calling it the “shtreimel bill.” At the weekly coalition meeting, he would ask coalition chair Zeev Elkin (Likud) not to let the bill come to a vote in the plenum and “not to allow it to advance.”
Amnon Cohen responded, “MKs receive invitations from Jewish communities abroad and the invitations are submitted to the Knesset Ethics Committee, which examines them. In this case, the committee approved the trip.”
Shama Hacohen said, “The trip included visits to, and meetings at, Jewish institutions. There was a visit to the synagogue, the cemetery, the community center, a dinner with dozens of people from the Jewish community, a meeting with the Israeli ambassador at the embassy, education about the fur industry, a tour of the fur exchange, a dinner with industry leaders, and other meetings – all of which were listed in the request that was submitted to the Ethics Committee.”
Gilad Government Relations & Lobbying said, “The company represents the International Fur Trade Federation, which is an important part of the activity of the Jewish community in general, and Denmark in particular. The Jewish community in Denmark considers it important to continue promoting the industry, and in light of the developments in Israel, decided to invite the MKs who deal with this issue – before a decision was taken on this issue – to visit and get acquainted with its business and commercial activity. As per procedure, the visit was approved by the Knesset Ethics Committee. Gilad Government Relations & Lobbying has operated since 1997, with full transparency and total adherence to ethics, rules and the law.”
Kirshenbaum declined to comment.