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Israeli Extremists Are Making a Comeback—With the Help of US Tax Dollars

American nonprofits have funneled money to Meir Kahane’s followers, who now have a chance to enter the Knesset

Israeli ExtremistsBenzion Gopstein (left), leader of the far-right Israeli group Lehava, gathers with fellow activists in Jerusalem on December 25, 2014. (Reuters/Nir Elias)

Mairav Zonszein, The Nation, 2/26/19

As Israel’s April 9 election approaches, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has paved the way for a Jewish-supremacist party—which some are dubbing the Jewish KKK—to enter the next Israeli Knesset. He encouraged the merger of three small far-right parties, Jewish Home, National Union, and Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit in Hebrew), since each of them separately was not expected to receive enough votes to make the minimum Knesset threshold. If Netanyahu is reelected, the new far-right party, assuming it receives enough votes to make the minimum, would then help him secure a governing coalition of at least 61 seats.

All three parties are nationalist, anti-Arab, and homophobic; however, Jewish Power stands out because its platform and leaders are inspired by the violent legacy of Meir Kahane and his Kach party, which was barred from running in the Knesset in 1988 on grounds of racism, and then outlawed in 1994 on grounds of incitement to terrorism after Baruch Goldstein, who was active in Kach, murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron exactly 25 years ago Monday. The US State Department followed suit and listed Kach and an offshoot, Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives), as a foreign terrorist group in 1997. One of Jewish Power’s leaders, Michael Ben-Ari, who served in the Knesset from 2009 to 2013, was barred from entering the United States in 2012 because of his affiliation with a “terrorist organization.”

In the 20-plus years since Kach was banned, Kahane’s disciples have found ways to continue pushing a racist, anti-Arab, and antidemocratic agenda—and to fund it. A new investigation carried out in coordination with the Democratic Bloc, an Israeli nonprofit organization founded in 2018 to research and monitor antidemocratic trends in Israel, reveals a web of interconnected groups, individuals, and websites in Israel and the United States—including several American nonprofit foundations that appear to have been founded for the purpose of funneling tax-exempt dollars to Kahanist causes, some of which are directly linked to Jewish terrorist groups. “If in the past, they relied on political mechanisms for fundraising and recruiting activists, today we are talking about a network of organizations disguised as charity groups and social causes that are raising money from the State of Israel and abroad in order to continue inciting and undermining the foundations of democracy,” said Ran Cohen, one of the founders of the Democratic Bloc.

At the center of this web is Kahane protégé and Jewish Power member Benzion Gopstein, who runs Lehava, an openly racist, anti-miscegenation gang active for at least a decade. Its mission is to “save” Jewish women from assimilation. Lehava activists are notorious for violently attacking and harassing Palestinians in the streets of Jerusalem just for being Palestinian. Three activists affiliated with Lehava were convicted of setting fire to an Arab-Jewish bilingual school in Jerusalem in 2014. The next year then–Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon tried—unsuccessfully—to get Israel’s internal-security service to designate Lehava as a terrorist group. Gopstein has been arrested several times, including on suspicion of murdering an Arab couple in 1990, but has never been convicted. He has openly called for the burning of churches and has incited violence against Palestinians. He said in 2014 of Yigal Amir, the Israeli who in 1995 assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “Rabin left him no choice.”

The Nation

The Israel Religious Action Center has been documenting Lehava’s activities for the past seven years. In 2017, IRAC, along with several other civil-society groups, petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court alleging that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was dragging his feet by not indicting Gopstein on various charges, including incitement to violence and terrorism. They also seek to classify Lehava as a criminal organization, which is difficult because a lot of what Gopstein says falls under free-speech protections. According to IRAC director Noa Sattath, “The thuggish activity of the Lehava militia has gone on uninterrupted in Jerusalem since 2009. The Lehava organization carries out physical violence and racial incitement against Arabs in downtown Jerusalem and around the country—with the goal of demonizing Arabs and terrorizing them. Lehava’s activity is racist, antidemocratic, immoral, and goes directly against Jewish values.”

Lehava is not a registered nonprofit in Israel, and it’s unclear how and from whom it receives its funding. A Haaretz investigation in 2011 found that Lehava activists are closely linked to a registered Israeli nonprofit, Chemla (sometimes spelled Hemla), whose mission includes helping needy families and, until 2014, supporting settler youth. Chemla, which receives significant Israeli state funds, is a key organization in this web of Kahanist cronies. Gopstein is one of the founders of Chemla, as is Rabbi Yehuda Kroizer, who also serves as head of a yeshiva in Jerusalem founded by Kahane in 1987 called the Jewish Idea (HaRaayon Hayehudi in Hebrew). The Jewish Idea Yeshiva is classified as a foreign terrorist organization by the US State and Treasury departments, listed as one of the groups affiliated with or synonymous with Kach and Kahane Chai. The list also includes several variations on that name, “Yeshiva of the Jewish Idea,” and “Friends of the Jewish Idea Yeshiva.”

Between 2002 and 2005, Gopstein received annual grant money from the Jewish Idea Yeshiva totaling nearly $25,000, and he has lectured there on several occasions, as recently as 2013. (The group stopped reporting on grants after 2005.) Elyakim Neiman, who served as director of the Jewish Idea Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 2017, also served as a board member and authorized signatory of Chemla, at one point even serving as its chairman.

Between 2012 and 2015 the Jewish Idea Yeshiva received amounts ranging from $44,000 to $136,000 from an American 501(c)(3) nonprofit called American Friends of Yeshivat Haraayon (which translates to “the Idea Yeshiva”). The US nonprofit—whose sole grantee is the Jewish Idea Yeshiva—was registered in 1988; its mission, according to its IRS tax statement, is “to produce Jewish leaders capable of acting and reacting Jewishly to the problems and challenges facing the state of Israel and the Jewish people.” The American Friends’ 990 tax form lists the Hebrew phonetic spelling of its grantee, the Jewish Idea Yeshiva, as “Yeshivat Harayon Hayehudi,” (sic) and lists as well the Jewish Idea Yeshiva’s Jerusalem address. Giving material support to a US government-classified foreign terrorist group is a criminal offense in violation of three different legal prohibitions, says Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, based in New York. Kadidal says, “On its face this looks like a very straightforward case: an American nonprofit passing money along to a group that Google says has the same address and the same name in translation as a designated terrorist organization, and telling the IRS about it to boot.”

Michael Ben-Ari, who is the member of Jewish Power likely to enter the Knesset if the united list gets at least five seats, is a member of the audit committee of the Jewish Idea Yeshiva.

American Friends of Yeshivat Haraayon is also directly linked to other nonprofits that appear to operate as thinly veiled fronts for funneling money to Gopstein and the same circle of Kahanists in Israel.

One is The Charity of Light Fund, Inc., a 501(c)(3) registered in 2001 in New Jersey, which added Chemla to its name in 2006 and has since then been donating only to Chemla in Israel and one other Israeli group called Chasdei Meir (named after Meir Kahane, but which also roughly translates to Charity of Light). A defunct web page of Chasdei Meir states that it is affiliated with Charity of Light and is a “Project of American Friends of Yeshivat HaRa’ayon.”

Chasdei Meir, like Lehava, is not listed in Israel as a tax-exempt organization, so it is unclear how it legally receives donations. A researcher with the Democratic Bloc managed in December 2018 to successfully make a donation to Chasdei Meir and received a receipt with their name on it, thanking them for “helping keep the residents of the outposts in Judea and Samaria warm.” However, the bank account and PO box number he was referred to is Chemla’s, directly implicating Chemla in accepting donations on behalf of Chasdei Meir.

According to the Israeli outlet Ynet, Chasdei Meir has been linked to the coordination in 2011 of settler violence against Palestinians known as “price tag” attacks, as well as financing settler youth who inhabit illegal settlement outposts and plant trees there as a way of claiming ownership over the land. According to several defunct websites and past interviews with Gopstein, he has been a key organizer with the group. Up until 2013 the contact on its website even linked to Gopstein’s e-mail.

Both the Jewish Idea Yeshiva website and Chasdei Meir website list as their US address the same PO box in Skokie, Illinois, where the American Friends of Yeshivat Haraayon is incorporated. When you visit the Jewish Idea homepage, it describes the Jewish Idea Yeshiva in Jerusalem, but the contact page lists “American Friends of Yeshivat Haraayon Hayehudi.” Another page links to sermons by a slew of Kahanists, among them Gopstein and Ben-Ari from Jewish Power, as well as Meir Kahane’s son Baruch.

In addition, the Israeli address listed on the Chasdei Meir site is identical to the Jewish Idea Yeshiva’s, and contact information in Israel listed on the Chasdei Meir website is for Levi Chazan, a notorious Kahanist who was convicted and imprisoned for participating in the 1984 shooting of a bus in Ramallah in which six Palestinians were wounded. Chazan has his hands in all these groups. He has been a board member of Charity of Light Fund since 2006 and serves as director of the board of the American Friends of Yeshivat Haraayon.

When reached by telephone, Chazan confirmed that the Charity of Light Fund is the same thing as Chasdei Meir, with the former being the US nonprofit for the Israeli-based outfit. Chazan also confirmed that the American Friends of Yeshivat Haraayon is the US counterpart to the Jewish Idea Yeshiva—but he denied that the latter is a terrorist organization, claiming, without supplying proof, that it is distinct from the Jewish Idea listed by the State Department, even though the address for the two is the same. When asked who pays his salary, or what is Chasdei Meir’s connection to Chemla, he ended the conversation.

Online, the Chasdei Meir Fund/Charity of Light Fund share the URL, which, like Lehava, appears to be an anti-miscegenation group claiming to save Jewish women from Arab men. Their banner and contact page lists “American Friends of Charity of Light/Chasdei Meir Fund” and has the same contact number as American Friends of Yeshivat Haraayon.

When Chemla was contacted for comment, it provided a telephone number for the Jewish Idea Yeshiva. A response was later sent by e-mail stating that Chemla operates a hostel for the rehabilitation of abused children, that it has no connection to any political entities, and that Gopstein’s work with them ended in 2014.

Another American tax-exempt nonprofit, the Traditional Fund Inc., donated $52,000 in 2016 to the American Friends of Yeshivat Haraayon, and much smaller amounts in 2015 to American Friends of Charity of Light Fund, to American Friends of Chasdei Meir, as well as to other extremist Kahanists, among them Itamar Ben Gvir ($3,000 in 2015), another member of the Jewish Power party. The Traditional Fund also gave $25,000 in 2016 to the Central Fund of Israel , a notorious clearinghouse for funding settlements and far-right nonprofits in both the United States and Israel, and which receives significant funding from American Jewish federations. Its 2016 budget was $20 million. The Central Fund of Israel itself donated 91,350 NIS (New Israeli Shekels, or about $22,000) to Chemla in 2015 and 34,235 NIS in 2014.

The American nonprofits were all contacted by phone but could not be reached for comment. When asked about the allegations in this article, Gopstein provided the following comment: “These are lies. The objective of this report is another attempt to overthrow the right and prevent Jewish Power from entering the next Knesset. I will continue my legal battle against assimilation in the Holy Land.”

In August 2018, T’ruah, an American nonprofit of rabbis and cantors who advocate for human rights, filed an IRS complaint against the Central Fund of Israel and American Friends of Yeshivat Haraayon for their support—amounting to millions of dollars annually—of Kahanist groups.

In a rare rebuke directed at the Jewish Power party, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tweeted on Friday that “it has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.” However, it did not call out Netanyahu, who has solidified an alliance with this network of Kahanists, tying his own political fate to theirs.

Yehuda Shohat, head of investigative reporting at the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, contributed to this article.

Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American journalist who writes about Israeli politics, American foreign policy, and human rights. A blogger and contributing editor for +972 Magazine, she has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Review of Books, among others.