The Israeli Army's Big, Green Donation Machine

The army has tried to streamline the tens of millions of dollars organizations and individuals donate every year, but the system is still messy and some units get more goodies than others.

Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh
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IDF tanks practicing in the Arava.
IDF tanks practicing in the Arava. Credit: Army spokesman
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh

It's evening at a café in affluent north Tel Aviv. A woman is on the phone with her daughter, who is in basic training in the Israel Defense Forces’ Karakal combat unit. Once off the phone, she asks the woman sitting across the table if she knows of a potential donor for the unit. “They need fleece jackets and other items to keep them warm. In truth, I would take care of my girl by myself, but there are those who can’t,” she explains.

“The son of friends of mine is serving in Moran,” she add the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers s, referring to an elite artillery unit also known as Meitar. “They are also looking for contributions. That’s how it is in the elite units. I explained to my daughter that if I am going to raise money for her, I need to know exactly what they need, and I need to know someone, because this field is based on acquaintanceship. I know someone who contributes, but I won’t approach him, because he gives to his son’s Golani [Brigade] company. There are a lot of units and every unit wants equipment with its logo on it.”

The woman knows a thing or two about donations to the army, but she apparently is not thoroughly familiar with the extensive fundraising network that exists for the IDF. Dozens of nonprofit groups, most of them small volunteer operations, work to raise funds for specific units. Almost every combat unit has a nonprofit working on its behalf, most of them established by parents whose sons were killed while serving in the unit or by individuals who once served in it.

The paratroopers’ brigade gets support from a nonprofit, and so do units within the brigade. Similar networks of support can be found elsewhere in ground units. The Israel Air Force also has a nonprofit supporting it as do armored corps brigades, and that’s in addition of course to elite IDF units. The groups see to it that the soldiers doing their compulsory army service get various little perks — backpacks, vests, shoes and fleece jackets. The groups also contribute to commemoration ceremonies and help soldiers who have completed their service, in part through business networking.

Lavish events

The millions of shekels a year that the nonprofit groups raise are totally overshadowed, however, by the donations raised through major organizational efforts by groups such as the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers and the Libi Fund in Israel and Friends of the IDF in the United States. Friends of the IDF is in fact the largest source of donations that the army has. These entities organize lavish events abroad, flying in soldiers to recount heartwarming personal stories to local Jewish communities who then open their wallets.

Officially, these fundraising efforts collectively yield an estimated 250 million shekels ($71.7 million) a year, providing services and other perks to IDF soldiers. But unofficially, several million shekels more is transferred directly to the army by nonprofits or private individuals without their being reported to any agency.

Until a few years ago, chaos reigned when it came to donations to the IDF, as was apparent during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. After equipment shortages were reported, nonprofits and private individuals sprang into action on the northern border to assist the soldiers. As the head of a nonprofit that supports infantry soldiers points out, there were nonprofits that ordered equipment directly from the manufacturer and dispatched them north only to delay orders that were being placed by the IDF itself.

During the war, the situation got to the point that battalion commanders were being handed credit cards by donors, who told them they were simply theirs to use, a former army personnel official recalls. “Companies rented trucks full of chocolate milk or shoes and headed north. Everything was done out of good intentions, but ultimately it was units in border communities and not combat soldiers deep in Lebanon who were the beneficiaries. It caused the IDF to do a major rethink,” he says.

In 2009, the IDF developed new procedures that require every donation to the army, whether it is in the form of cash or goods, to get the approval of the personnel division and then to be transferred via the Libi Fund or the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, which is also known by its Hebrew name, Ha’agudah Lema’an Hahayal.

Picking favorites

Contributions can still be earmarked for a specific unit, even at the company or platoon level, but every contribution must now go through a single authorized channel. Although direct donations skirting the regulations have been curbed substantially, they still exist, coming from nonprofit organizations and through less official channels, such as parents who buy equipment for a group of soldiers.

“I’m convinced that there are units that receive contributions without approval,” says Ra’anan Simhi, who heads the Libi Fund. “But enforcement by the personnel division has absolutely increased.”

A senior IDF official says the chaos that reigned before hasn't subsided completely, noting that the nonprofits are civilian organizations and that no one is going to stop a parent who has lost a son in the military from giving directly to an army unit. “In such situations, judgment comes into play. The army can train soldiers, but not civilians.”

The donations also create inequalities among various parts of the IDF. There are units, particularly elite ones, that get more and whose graduates enjoy the benevolence of donors. Soldiers in specific units are aware of the benefits bestowed on members of other units including Sereket Matkal, the General Staff’s elite special operations force.

“In Sayeret Matkal, which enjoys an inexhaustible budget, they buy the soldiers special mountain boots that cost 750 shekels,” says the head of a nonprofit that supports infantry units. “The moment that Sayeret Matkal starts with this, the entire IDF wants the same thing. I said over my dead body will I buy shoes for IDF soldiers, any more than I would be bullets for rifles.”

Amnon Lorch, a prominent lawyer who at one time filed a petition to the High Court of Justice over the low salaries that draftees get, thinks there is a fundamental problem here. “The very existence of these nonprofits is problematic, because it contributes to disparities within the IDF. Everything needs to be on a single track. That’s also the case regarding the money provided to the army informally by parents who buy equipment such as vests, coats and shoes. There are those who have gone further and bought tablet computers and laptops,” Lorch says.

From the IDF’s standpoint, the personnel division has the task of maintaining equality. The division even provides a directory to Libi and the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, with details of the units that have gotten little in the way of donations. The reality, however, is that many donations are earmarked for particular units and the inequality continues. The IDF Spokesman declined to provide TheMarker with financial figures reflecting the distribution of contributions among units.

A senior fundraiser in the field notes that when the army wants to impress donors, it arranges visits to units such as Sayeret Maktal and Oketz, the IDF canine unit. “But these units are loaded with donors,” he says. “What about the transport driver who puts his life at risk and comes from a low socioeconomic background? Doesn’t anyone want to contribute to him?” The army tries to provide such soldiers with gift vouchers or undesignated contributions, but such money is harder to raise, the fundraiser says.

“The problem is that ultimately it’s the donor’s money,” says Simhi of the Libi Fund. “The personnel division is trying to make a difference by directing [funds] to specific units that have been getting few donations, but claiming that there are no disparities is incorrect. There will always be disparities. That’s how it is in every society.”

More money, more problems?

In 2011, an official panel headed by Aryeh Mintkevich, the former chairman of the Israel Securities Authority, issued a report that was particularly critical of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, saying it had a bloated infrastructure. It recommended dismantling the organization and creating a civilian agency that would do fundraising and another within the IDF that would provide services for soldiers’ social welfare and recreational needs. It also recommended dismantling the Libi Fund — which raises 45 million shekels a year, some of which is from Friends of the IDF in the United States — and merging it with the proposed civilian fundraising entity.

When it comes to the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, the Minkevitch panel report found that it had a budget of about 450 million shekels a year, about 40 percent of which was provided by the Friends of the IDF and another third of which came from the Defense Ministry. According to the panel, the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers raised 48 million shekels a year but spent 32 million on headquarters overhead. The organization, according to the committee, was “a pipeline for the transfer of contributions raised by others abroad, most importantly Friends of the IDF in the United States.”

The Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers rejects the criticism and says in 2012, it raised 98 million shekels in cash and goods or services and had only 3 million shekels in fundraising overhead. The organization also cut staff prior to the issuance of the panel’s report, its director, Ilan Tal, says. “It must be remembered that most of our staff is employed in service positions at 18 hospitality facilities [for soldiers] and at canteens around the country at low pay, including some at minimum wage,” he explains.

The recommendations of the Mintkevich committee have not been implemented, and if they are, they will only be partially carried out because the Defense Ministry has decided not to dissolve the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, but to establish a new entity that will include a civilian fundraising arm and another division that will provide soldiers’ services. The Libi Fund is to be subsumed within the civilian division. Friends of the IDF is thriving. Its leadership was dissatisfied with the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers’s management. The group split with the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers and three years ago set up its own office in Tel Aviv, where staff work to maintain contact between American donors and the IDF.

“Friends of the IDF’s donors said they were not willing to accept AWIS’s standards, and they want to know exactly where the money is going. Some of these things were said with justification,” a former senior official in the IDF personnel division says. For his part, however, Tal of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers says relations with Friends of the IDF are “excellent.”

Friends of the IDF raised about $80 million last year, sources at the organization say, including multi-year donations. About $15 million provides soldiers from poor backgrounds with scholarships. After overhead expenses, which to a large extent include the costs of flying IDF soldiers abroad, flying donors to Israel and putting on high-profile fundraising dinners and other events, the direct funding that the army received came to $53 million. At one fundraising event, an IDF soldier who had been wounded in the Gaza Strip even proposed to his girlfriend.

Rounding up

At an event in Los Angeles presided over by Israeli-American entertainment mogul Haim Saban, donors rose one by one to pledge their support of as much as a million dollars. A total of $17.7 million was pledged. Saban announced that he had told his wife that he expected to raise no less than $20 million that evening, so he pledged $2.3 million to round up the total.

Friends of the IDF has also paired specific IDF units with Jewish communities in the United States. Chicago, for example, has adopted the paratroopers and Miami the Golani brigade, a source says, noting that the units were selected by the IDF itself.

The source adds that there have been instances in which the fundraising task has been complicated by nonprofits devoted to one particular IDF unit. In addition, the Libi Fund and Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers conduct their own fundraising efforts abroad in a number of countries and also fly solders in to appear at events.

Simhi, the Libi Fund’s director, says he tried to develop an arrangement combining fundraising efforts with Friends of the IDF, but it did not bear fruit. Friends of the IDF acknowledges that Libi approached it several years ago to jointly coordinate IDF appearances in the United States and says that since then activity is being carried out in what it said is “full cooperation and in the most optimal manner for the soldiers of the IDF.”

Tal of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers says there is no logic to duplication. “It’s not just a matter of duplication regarding contributions. It’s a problem because donors are approached by two separate organizations acting for contributions for the same purpose.” The 250 million shekels a year that are raised may pale in comparison to the defense budget of 54 billion shekels, but Tal counters that it goes precisely for those things that are missing from the budget. “The existence of the donation sends an important message regarding to value of social solidarity and a connection of the public in Israel and abroad with IDF soldiers.”

The IDF Spokesman says that the army’s personnel division develops an annual plan that is approved by the IDF chief of staff, designed to ensure that contributions reach army units in accordance with the order of priorities that it sets and with particular priority to combat units. The personnel division is the only entity authorized to approve the transfer of funds, the spokesman noted. “FIDF [American Friends of the IDF] has invested hundreds of millions of shekels over the years for the benefit of IDF soldiers, in awareness of the IDF’s needs and its order of priorities,” the office says. “All of the contributions are transferred to the IDF in accordance with the law via AWIS or Libi, with which the IDF has been in fruitful dialogue over the years.”

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