Who’s Behind anti-LGBT, anti-Reform Signs in Israeli Cities?

Huge signs with offensive slogans were posted recently in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area. A Haaretz investigation revealed a number of players involved in the campaigns

A banner reading "Father plus mother equals family" in Jerusalem
Shuki Sadeh

“A mother and a father = a family. The courage to be normal.” These slogans were plastered on a huge banner that appeared one day last month, running the length of the Prima Park Hotel in Jerusalem. The organization behind the sign – sponsored by the Hazon movement, whose name appeared on the bottom – turns out to be a nonprofit called Gevanim, which, according to a Ministry of Justice website, organizes “ethical” events for the Jewish public and various Torah-based educational activities. 

Gevanim, one of number of similar groups operating in Ramat Hasharon (which are interconnected), was started by Netanel Siman Tov – a confidant of businessman Yitzhak Mirilashvili. Siman Tov today serves as a director on Channel 20, owned by Mirilashvili. Through the Meromim Foundation which he controls, Mirilashvili contributed funds until a few years ago to Gevanim and other NGOs associated with it.

In recent weeks several organizations – the Democratic Bloc, the Israeli Reform movement and the Havruta organization for assisting Jewish LGBT individuals in Israel – have attempted to track the means of operation and funding behind the Hazon movement. A campaign the latter launched shortly before the recent political election campaign began aroused a great deal of public anger, and was seen as being homophobic.

Hazon was also behind another provocative billboard erected in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, bearing the words: “A Reform grandfather, an assimilated father, a non-Jewish grandson.” Moreover, the group even planned to mount an advertising campaign in Jerusalem entitled “The Reform Women at the Kotel” with a hazard symbol alongside it. That campaign was, however, rejected by the Jerusalem Municipality. 

The Hazon movement is not anchored in or associated with any official legal entity like an NGO, and it is run by several activists on the religious right and ultra-Orthodox nationalists. The contents promoted by the movement are similar to those in the ads of the Liba Yehudit NGO, which is connected to another NGO: Dror Mesimot Leumiot (Dror National Missions). In fact a Hazon ad was posted on a website registered in the name of Dror, according to the groups trying to investigate Hazon’s activities.

To erect the huge banner on the Jerusalem hotel, Gevanim paid 24,000 shekels ($6,700). (To remove all doubt: This is not the Sderot-based Gvanim association for education and community involvement). That information was discovered after a lawsuit was filed by Gevanim against the Mega Media & Mor firm, which purchased the advertising space from the hotel, but removed the sign a few hours later – after receiving angry responses from the LGBT community and representatives of single-parent families.

From the lawsuit we learn that the sign, which faced Begin Road, was supposed to be posted for two weeks, and that its wording was approved by the Jerusalem Municipality. (The city must approve advertisements appearing in the public domain, even if they are posted on private property.)

In response, the municipality said: “We approved the ad since the city’s legal adviser thought that, according to the criteria cited in the court decision on the subject of the municipality’s authority over ads – there was no reason to prevent its being posted.”

For its part, Mega Media said that the lawsuit has still not been formally accepted, and therefore would not respond.

Several days after the sign was removed, Hazon published an ad on the front page of Haaretz. The publisher, Amos Schocken, apologized for printing it and wrote on Twitter: “This ad was published by mistake, and we will not publish it or anything like it in future. As far as I’m concerned, it reflects a racist opinion that should not be given exposure, like any other racist opinion.” In this case too, Gevanim was behind the Hazon ad (Haaretz abdicated any responsibility for the ad and did not charge money for it.)

In 2014 Gevanim received funding to the tune of 5 million shekels (about $1.4 million) from the Meromim Foundation, which is involved in helping needy and works with Chabad organizations worldwide. Meromim also donated in the past to a Gevanim Torah-education project called Daily Rambam (Maimonides). In addition, Gevanim helped to establish the private King Solomon School, built by Miralashvili in Ramat Hasharon, and maintained contact with the contractors who carried out the project. 

Last year, an in-depth report by the Registrar of Nonprofit Associations criticized the fact that the funding for the school came via a different NGO called Reshit, and that after the school was built, Reshit registered it in the name of the King Solomon nonprofit – a “sister” NGO with a connection to Reshit.

King Solomon, Reshit and Gevanim are among the NGOs established by Siman Tov in Ramat Hasharon. One of his associates is Michael Edry, who up until a few years ago held a position in Gevanim and was a member of the board in the other NGOs. His brother, Ariel Edry, is presently on the board of directors of the nonprofit and a certified signatory; moreover, he was behind the commissioning of the ads in the Prima Park Hotel and Haaretz. Until 2013 Edry served as an assistant and adviser to Naftali Bennett.

About six months ago Siman Tov, the former executive director of Gevanim, resigned from the board of directors; he is no longer connected to the organization. Ariel Edry would not answer questions from TheMarker about the funding of the Hazon advertising efforts. In general, he refused to say whether publicizing Hazon’s message is in keeping with the official goals of Gevanim.

These goals include, according to a website, “producing and initiating ethical and activities for the general Jewish public. Encouraging educational projects in the school system. Publishing various Jewish texts, brochures, newsletters, books. Charity and welfare activities. A gamach [religious charitable, free-loan society]. Activity and events for disseminating religious culture to the general public. Encouragement of publication and dissemination of materials and works of art of a religious Jewish nature, stipends to artists and those engaged in works of a religious Jewish nature.”

According to a report submitted to the Registrar of Nonprofit Associations in 2017, Gevanim employs 105 people; its turnover that year was 7.6 million shekels, of which 1.8 million was received as donations – but the identity of the donors is not revealed. Associates of Mirilashvili claim that the Meromim Foundation no longer donates funds to Gevanim (but didn’t say when the last contribution was received), and that the fund donated money to the NGO in the past for a project called the Daily Rambam book.

Sources in the religious-Zionist community told TheMarker that Dror Mesimot Leumiot, the nonprofit connected to the Liba NGO, provided most of the funding for Hazon’s campaign, which included advertising in various religious media. In a conversation with Meir Elyashar, a board member of Dror and director of Jerusalem’s Har Hamor Yeshiva, he mentioned that Dror was in fact behind the campaign, but refused to say how much money it invested in it or who the main financer of the NGO is. 
An investigation by the daily Yediot Ahronoth in 2016 revealed that Dror and Liba had a connection to a campaign opposing women’s service in combat units.

In response, Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, says that “The activity of Hazon is part of an organized and financed campaign of ultra-Orthodox nationalists against large groups in Israeli society. The activity includes deliberately disseminating false and baseless information. Therefore, it’s no wonder that the sources of funding of this activity are well hidden and it is administered with blatant lack of transparency. Regarding the general public, we believe that Hazon’s efforts are not productive, and only strengthen support for us among the secular and traditionalist public.”

Said Shai Abramsom, spokesman of Havruta: “Havruta is proud to be a leader in the battle against the hate speech that has spread in the margins of the religious community. The path of Judaism is one of pleasantness and all its ways are peace.”

The Meromim Foundation’s response was: “As per a decision of the foundation’s executive committee, support for Gevanim’s activity was discontinued long ago. In past years the foundation supported the Rambam project. After several years, the project met the goals of its multiyear plan and attained financial stability, without any need for donations. The foundation is not familiar with the campaign in question and never supported it – directly or indirectly. Moreover, its support for Gevanim ended long before the campaign began.”

Gevanim offered this comment: “The Gevanim NGO, which has been operating for about 10 years in the field of Jewish identity, is proud of its modest part in the important campaign led by the Hazon movement. The NGO thanks the 617 donors who helped it to pay for the billboard and additional ads in the campaign, and sees the strengthening of the normal family unit as a national principle. The Meromim Foundation is no longer a donor to the NGO and has no connection to the Hazon movement campaign.”

Siman Tov’s response: “As a result of the revelation of the welcome activity of the NGO, I’m considering becoming a member once again, after resigning about half a year ago. I have the great privilege of being a close friend of Ariel Edry, a talented an exceptionally energetic individual. God willing, we will continue to work together for many years to come, for the sake of the Jewish identity of the country, and to provide materials and a livelihood for the Haaretz newspaper.”