The Jewish Federations of North America support Jewish enterprise and life in the diaspora, in Israel – and, sometimes, beyond the Green Line.
The federations' leadership prefers to avoid the topic. “We want to talk about the good things we do, we don’t want to talk about this,” said a senior JFNA executive.
Yet from 2012 to 2015, Jewish federations gave almost $6 million to Israeli settlement over the Green Line (which refers to the 1967 borders). That does not include support for settlers from community foundations operating alongside the federations, oftimes under the same executives or from JFNA itself. That can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars more each year.
Click here to access all the Federations' 990 tax forms (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax), broken down by state and city.
Some of these donations, which are tax-exempt, reached hard-line elements among the settlers, including settlers living in Hebron and in Silwan, in East Jerusalem. JFNA, it bears saying, considers East Jerusalem to be part of Israel and does not see that money as donations to settlements.
Thus for years the federations managed to keep the specifics of their support for the settlement enterprise out of the public eye. Now research by Haaretz into the federations' tax records has revealed the true figures.
Tithing to Israel
The federations' main aim is to support the local North American Jewish communities. Of the $3.6 billion given from 2012 to 2015, most of that money stayed within the U.S., supporting causes from Jewish community centers to schools, fitness centers and synagogues.
Beyond that, each federation allocates certain percentage of its donations to Israel, typically 10 percent or more, via the JFNA or sometimes directly. The JFNA in turn sends money to Israel via the United Israel Appeal, which operates in Israel through the Jewish Agency, and through the Joint Distribution Committee.
In 2014, the last year for which public data is available, UIA sent $214 million to Israel.
It's hard to learn where the JFNA money ends up in Israel. The guidelines are not public and transparency is poor. Nor would the JFNA, or agencies through which it operates, reveal the recipients.
“UIA has policies, procedures and processes in place to ensure that all funds it receives and distributes are in full compliance of both U.S. and Israeli law,” Rebecca Dinar, JFNA’s associate VP for Strategic Communications and Marketing, wrote to Haaretz. “UIA complies with the disclosure requirements of Form 990, the tax returns filed by nonprofit organizations. It is the IRS' position that for security reasons, foreign grants need only be reported on a regional and not country-by-country basis and that identifying information about specific grantees should not be disclosed on the Form 990. We fully support this position and feel that this confidentiality should be respected."
Dinar did explicitly state that JFNA does not fund settlements. “In 2002 JFNA’s Board reviewed its Green Line policy and determined that JFNA could help any Israeli, wherever he or she might live, for humanitarian relief and rehabilitation services without regard to geographic considerations. JFNA’s policy, procedures and processes do not permit funding for construction beyond the Green Line. Our philanthropy and our compassion for every Israeli in need will not be defined by geographic boundaries. Our strategy is people-based and has been made public in various newspaper articles over the last decade,” she said.
Feed the beast
There is method behind the reticence, however. The political spectrum of Jews across the U.S. is vast. To represent as many Jews as possible, the JFNA aspires to stay at the center of the political, religious and cultural map. A JFNA officer acknowledged the organization tries hard not to step into the minefield of 1967 borders and Israeli politics: We don’t want to “feed the beast”, i.e., the media, he said.
Yet public records and conversations with former and current employees find that federations across the U.S. donate to organizations registered across the Green Line, or that operate mainly there. Interestingly, based on tax records, much of the support arrives from federations operating in liberal areas.
Based on Haaretz' research into the federations' tax records, their direct support for settlements averaged $1.5 million in each of the years 2012 to 2015.
In 2015, for example, the Jewish Federation of San Francisco gave $275,300 to Central Fund of Israel, which supports a number of settlements and also Honenu, a right-wing legal-aid group which also supported families of Jews suspected or convicted of violence against Palestinians. The federation also donated $10,000 to Friends of Ir David, which settles Jews in previously Palestinian-owned houses in Silwan, East Jerusalem. It also forwarded $25,000 to the Hebron Fund, supporting the Jews living in the West Bank city of Hebron, and gave $100,000 to the Israel Independence Fund, which among other things, supports Haliba. That organization in turn wants Israel to change its policy regarding Temple Mount.
“These are donor advised fund grant recommendations (distinct from direct grants from the Federation),” wrote Ilan Kayatsky, senior director of strategic communications and marketing at San Francisco. “Within the last year, we have placed Central Fund of Israel on the list of grantees that do not fit into our funding guidelines. We review grantees on an ongoing basis on both ends of the political spectrum to ensure that they are consistent with our guidelines – for both direct grants and donor-directed vehicles (like donor advised funds and supporting foundations).”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston has also given money to organizations operating only or mainly across the Green Line, such as the Gush Etzion Foundation, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, Central Fund of Israel and more.
Lee Wunsch, president and CEO of the federation, confirmed by phone that some of that support comes from John Hagee, a controversial Evangelical pastor based in San Antonio, Texas. “We are not a political organization," stated Wunsch. "We are not making a political statement about all the issues the government of Israel needs to deal with. We believe that Jews are Jews wherever they live in, and if they need support for social services or education we want to try to help.”
According to Ari Morgenstern, a spokesperson for Hagee, the John Hagee Ministries gave more than $90 million to Israel over 34 years and most of that stays within the Green Line. "Donations to entities in the West Bank comprise less than five percent of the funds JHM has given to Israeli causes," Morgenstern stated. "What little money [that] has been given for projects over the Green Line is focused on those communities that almost all observers recognize will remain a part of Israel in any negotiated two-state compromise. The funds given to these communities are focused on supporting social services such as schools, hospitals or youth/sports oriented facilities.”
The JFNA itself won't directly fund projects across the Green Line, but helps people living there, a JFNA official says. “We wouldn’t build an ulpan (Hebrew school for immigrants) in Efrat, but we will pay for people from Efrat to go to ulpan in Jerusalem,” the official said.
That point is debatable. This August, Haaretz learned that part of the Derech HaAvot high school in Efrat was built on privately-owned Palestinian land. The educational network operating the school – as well as other schools within and across the Green Line – is Ohr Torah Stone, which is heavily funded by Jewish Federations. The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach, for example, gave Ohr Torah Stone $600,000 between 2012 and 2015. The Houston-based Federation was even more generous, giving the educational network $700,000 in those same four years.
Before the second intifada, which began in 2000, official policy banned transferring funds across the Green Line at all. “But then,” recalls the JFNA officer, “they decided that a victim of a terror attack shouldn’t be discriminated because he lives in a settlement.”
In 2014, as questions about donations beyond the Green Line arose, JFNA sent an email to the heads of the federations, published here for the first time.
“The Green Line is generally understood to be Israel’s pre-67 borders. The area outside the Green Line is often referred to as the West Bank. The State of Israel considers all of Jerusalem, which it unified during the 1967 War, to be its capital,” The JFNA email explains.
“Within the context of the Green Line definition above: Federation core dollars provide social services for Jews in need wherever they live in the world, as we have for more than 100 years," the email continues. "Federation money for building or maintaining physical facilities is spent throughout Israel including all of Jerusalem. Funds are not spent for building or maintenance in the West Bank.”
Qualified organizations beyond the Green Line may receive funding, depending on approval by the UIA, the email elaborates, and sums up: Of $197 million UIA provided to Israel in 2012, "only $291,000 in grants went to social services beyond the Green Line."
The donations have grown since that email was sent. Haaretz has confirmed that in 2015, JFNA directly forwarded about $500,000 to the settlements for endeavors including education and medical facilities. (A previous investigation by Haaretz found that from 2009 to 2013, total JFNA support for Israel plus tax-exempt private donations to the settlements totaled $220 million.)
'We don't know'
The truth is that even the figures presented here are incomplete, as they do not include funds JFNA forwards via the Jewish Agency, Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish National Fund that might have ended in settlements.
When a former senior personnel at a big West Coast federation talked Haaretz through the mechanism of funds transferred to Israel, he stopped after mentioning the Jewish Agency (called "the Sochnut" in Israel). “Good luck in finding out where the Sochnut sends the money,” he said.
A JFNA official said the money they send to the Jewish Agency is “segregated” and is not used in projects across the Green Line. However, a Jewish Agency officer said that since the Agency does not support projects across the Green Line, it’s a “non-issue” and JFNA funds are not segregated.
Haaretz asked the Jewish Agency for figures on how they use JFNA funds and for their guidelines on investment in the West Bank. “The Agency does not invest money in institutions and buildings in Judea and Samaria," stated JA spokesman Yigal Palmor. "However, the Agency's various programs are designated for the entire population of Israel, and we do not check the residential address of each and every participant. Regarding the institutions involved in the various programs the Agency operates: participants in the programs may also choose ones operating in Judea and Samaria that meet the criteria. The Agency operates in Jerusalem with all segments of the population and society in the city: Jews and Arabs, veterans and immigrants, the elderly, adults and youth."
Palmor did not provide the list of activities and organizations supported by the Jewish Agency.
Asked similar questions, JDC declined to provide figures on spending. On politics, it stated: “As an apolitical, humanitarian organization, JDC does not have an opinion or a policy regarding the issue of political borders, but is focused on creating model social service solutions to social problems facing the most vulnerable populations, Jews and Arabs, wherever they may be."
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Akela Lacy contributed to the research.
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