Jewish Groups Re­ject Is­raeli Money Fear­ing 'For­eign Agent, La­bel

Forward Magazine - - FOREGROUND -

By Josh Nathan -Kazis Last fall, of­fi­cials with a shad­owy Is­raeli gov­ern­ment agency started knock­ing on the doors of Amer­ica's lead­ing Jewish in­sti­tu­tions. They came of­fer­ing money with few strings at­tached. They wanted Amer­i­can Jewish in­sti­tu­tions to help them fight the boy­cott, di­vest-ment and sanc­tions move­ment by run­ning "mis­sions" to Is­rael for in­flu­encers, some­thing some of them were do­ing any­way. Jewish in­sti­tu­tions aren't usu­ally in the busi­ness of turn­ing down grants. But then, one by one, at least four did. The Jewish Fed­eraions of North Amer­ica, ar­guably the cen­tral in­sti­tu­tion of the or­ga­nized Jewish com­mu­nity, said no. So did the Jewish Coun­cil on Pub­lic Af­fairs, an­other key es­tab­lish­ment group. The Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions re­jected the of­fers, ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple Jewish com­mu­nal of­fi­cials who spoke with the For­ward, be­cause ac­cept­ing the pro­posed deal would have re­quired them to regis­ter as for­eign agents with the Depart­ment of Jus­tice. At least four or­ga­ni­za­tions turned down of­fers from the same Is­raeli agency, the Min­istry of Strate­gic Af­fairs. Of­fi­cials with the min­istry were grow­ing "anx­ious and frus­trated" amid the re­jec­tions, ac­cord­ing to one Jewish pro­fes­sional whose or­ga­ni­za­tion the VISA of­fered to fund. They were "anx­ious to fig­ure out a way to spend the money," the pro­fes­sional said. Now, even after the ini­tial re­jec­tions, the min­istry is back with a new of­fer. In re­cent months, with the help of a for­mer head of a ma­jor Jewish in­sti­tu­tion of the or­ga­nized Jewish com­mu­nity, said no. So did the Jewish Coun­cil on Pub­lic Af­fairs, an­other key es­tab­lish­ment group. The Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions re­jected the of­fers, ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple Jewish com­mu­nal of­fi­cials who spoke with the For­ward, be­cause ac­cept­ing the pro­posed deal would have re­quired them to regis­ter as for­eign agents with the Depart­ment of Jus­tice. At least

or­ga­ni­za­tion, min­istry of­fi­cials have met with Amer­i­can Jewish lead­ers to de­scribe a new ef­fort to fund anti-BDS work here. This time, the money would be fun­neled through a mys­te­ri­ous Is­raeli not-for-profit group that has a war chest of $35 mil­lion in Is­raeli gov­ern­ment funds.

“The Is­raelis are… not quite un­der­stand­ing how things are done here, and cer­tainly not un­der­stand­ing well that you can get Amer­i­can Jewry into trou­ble with their neigh­bors if you are not sen­si­tive to the way things are legally done in the United States,” said Jonathan Sarna, a pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Jewish history at Bran­deis Univer­sity.

The min­istry’s re­peated ef­forts to push Is­raeli gov­ern­ment money into Amer­i­can Jewish in­sti­tu­tions comes at a time of height­ened sen­si­tiv­i­ties over for­eign govern­ments’ quiet at­tempts to use money to in­flu­ence Amer­i­can dis­course. And they come from a min­istry whose ac­tions, even within Is­rael, are veiled in se­crecy.

The Min­istry

The Min­istry of Strate­gic Af­fairs is a strange hy­brid. Call­ing it­self a “startup” min­istry, it ex­ists in a vague space be­tween the port­fo­lio of the For­eign Min­istry, with which it has clashed, and Is­rael’s in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. Tasked with op­pos­ing the global BDS move­ment, it is led by Gi­lad Er­dan, a one­time Likud up-and-comer thought to have higher am­bi­tions. The min­istry’s sec­re­tary-gen­eral, Sima Vaknin-Gil, is Is­rael’s for­mer chief cen­sor.

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s gov­ern­ment has poured money into the min­istry to fund its ef­forts against BDS. But in­side Is­rael, hu­man rights ob­servers have ac­cused it of op­er­at­ing as a po­lit­i­cal po­lice force. When Is­raeli author­i­ties stripped an em­ployee of the Amer­i­can NGO Hu­man Rights Watch of his visa in early May, his at­tor­neys re­ceived as sup­port­ing ev­i­dence a Min­istry of Strate­gic Af­fairs dossier de­tail­ing his po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties.

“I have con­cerns that this is in fact a kind of po­lit­i­cal FBI,” the Is­raeli hu­man rights at­tor­ney Michael Sfard, who rep­re­sented the Hu­man Rights Watch staffer, said of the min­istry. “It’s not about vi­o­la­tions of the law. It’s not about se­cu­rity mat­ters. It’s not about ter­ror­ism. It’s about what peo­ple law­fully are do­ing, and that’s some­thing in­con­ceiv­able in a lib­eral democ­racy.”

The min­istry’s ef­forts to di­rectly fund Amer­i­can Jewish groups ap­pears to have be­gun in the fall of 2017. At the time, min­istry of­fi­cials ap­proached the main­stream Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions, of­fer­ing fund­ing to be­gin or greatly ex­pand their of­fer­ings of trips to Is­rael for so-called in­flu­encers. The trips, ver­sions of which are al­ready run by a number of Amer­i­can Jewish groups, were meant to build sym­pa­thy for Is­rael among po­ten­tial al­lies in the ef­fort to op­pose BDS.

The min­istry made of­fers to the JCPA, JFNA, and Al­pha Ep­silon Pi, a Jewish fra­ter­nity, ac­cord­ing to a pro­fes­sional staff mem­ber of one of the three or­ga­ni­za­tions. JCPA did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. JFNA said that it had ac­cepted no money from the min­istry. AEPi did not re­spond to an in­quiry from the For­ward. The min­istry also made an of­fer to at least one other Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tion that the For­ward can­not pub­licly iden­tify.

Mul­ti­ple Jewish com­mu­nal of­fi­cials said that the rea­son that none of the groups ac­cepted the min­istry’s funds was a con­cern that ac­cept­ing the money would re­quire that the or­ga­ni­za­tions regis­ter as for­eign agents.

“The way that the con­tract was set up, groups might have to regis­ter as a for­eign agent to get the money,” one Jewish com­mu­nal of­fi­cial told the For­ward.

Fed­eral law re­quires that in­di­vid­u­als or or­ga­ni­za­tions that en­gage in cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties on be­half of a for­eign gov­ern­ment sub­mit to an oner­ous regis­tra­tion process with the Depart­ment of Jus­tice. Cur­rently, the only Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions in the U.S. reg­is­tered as for­eign agents are the Amer­i­can sec­tions of the Jewish Agency for Is­rael and the World Zion­ist Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Other groups that work in sup­port of Is­rael, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, do not regis­ter.

The For­eign Agents Regis­tra­tion Act is an­ti­quated in its lan­guage and dif­fi­cult to parse, but the regis­tra­tion re­quire­ments it im­poses fall to a broad range of re­cip­i­ents of for­eign fund­ing.

“The law cov­ers more than just lob­by­ing, but in­cludes pub­lic re­la­tions work and can be trig­gered when those ac­tiv­i­ties are fi­nanced or sub­si­dized by a for­eign prin­ci­pal,” said Caleb P. Burns, a part­ner at the law firm Wi­ley Rein who spe­cial­izes in FARA.

Run­ning trips paid for by the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment and meant to con­vince in­flu­encers to back Is­rael’s cause could ar­guably be con­sid­ered pub­lic re­la­tions work that would re­quire regis­tra­tion un­der FARA.

In mak­ing the pro­posal last fall, the min­istry ap­pears to have mis­read the mood in the U.S. around for­eign govern­ments send­ing funds here. “Given the sen­si­tiv­i­ties over Rus­sian ‘med­dling,’ there’s go­ing to be height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to tak­ing money from a for­eign gov­ern­ment to pro­mote their in­ter­ests,” Sarna said.

FARA it­self was a rel­a­tively ob­scure law un­til the fall of 2017, when fed­eral prose­cu­tors in­dicted Pres­i­dent Trump’s for­mer cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort for fail­ing to regis­ter as a for­eign agent.

“There’s been a full-on awak­en­ing in this coun­try that this law ex­ists,” said Burns.

Even be­fore the cur­rent anx­i­eties around for­eign in­flu­ence, Amer­i­can Jewish groups have long been wary about tak­ing di­rect gov­ern­ment funds from Is­rael, driven by a fear of be­ing seen as loyal to Is­rael rather than Amer­ica — the “dual loy­alty” ca­nard. In re­cent years, how­ever, Amer­i­can Jews have grown more com­fort­able with the no­tion of tak­ing Is­raeli gov­ern­ment funds. Birthright trips, for ex­am­ple, are sub­si­dized by Is­rael, and Is­rael’s Min­istry of Di­as­pora Af­fairs re­cently pro­vided funds to Hil­lel to sup­port its work on U.S. cam­puses.

“The fact that they’re tak­ing in­ter­est in Amer­i­can Jews, on a cer­tain level, is pos­i­tive,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, for­mer head of the Union for Re­form Ju­daism. “That’s a good thing. I’m one of those peo­ple who al­ways talks about the fact that this is a re­cip­ro­cal re­la­tion­ship.”

Still, there has long been cau­tion among Amer­i­can Jewish groups, which no­tion­ally rep­re­sent Amer­i­can Jews’

‘There’s been a full-on awak­en­ing in this coun­try that this law ex­ists.’

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