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Lobby’s Calls for Donations Debated

One email appeal asked for donations to send care packages with toothpaste and deodorant to Israeli soldiers fighting in Lebanon. Another, from New York’s largest Jewish charity, spoke of urgently needed aid to provide trauma counseling for Israelis deluged by daily rocket attacks. Still another, a direct entreaty from a community group in the northern Israeli town of Safed, requested money to repair 15 damaged bomb shelters.

All the solicitations were part of an ample number of emergency campaigns launched in the days and weeks following the outbreak of Israel’s war with Hezbollah aimed at raising funds for the embattled Jewish state. And, as underscored by representatives of most organizations –– including advocacy groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as well as humanitarian charities like the American Friends of Magen David Adom and countless Jewish federations –– monies raised are being spent on meeting the immediate needs of Israeli citizens affected by the conflict.

But one prominent Jewish organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, America’s most influential pro-Israel lobby, is undertaking a different sort of emergency fundraising campaign. When Aipac prominently posed the question “What can you do to help Israel?” in its email solicitations and on its Web site, the organization’s first answer was: Donate to the powerful Washington, D.C.-based group to bolster its political lobbying efforts.

Aipac’s appeal comes at a time when American Jews are clamoring for ways to help Israel in the face of the current crisis. As Katyusha rockets launched from southern Lebanon pounded northern Israel, and as costs and casualties continued to mount, emergency campaigns reached into the tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars. In view of Aipac’s record fundraising year, some officials at other organizations are questioning whether American charitable dollars might be better spent on direct relief efforts for war-weary Israelis.

“My concern is that the soldiers and the first responders are getting as much of the aid as possible, and that money isn’t being taken away from them,” said Steve Saltzman, a fundraising consultant and chair of the emergency campaign for American Friends of Hesder Yeshiva of Sderot, a town in southern Israel hit hard by Qassam rocket fire from Gaza.

Saltzman, a former deputy director of Aipac’s Pacific southwest region, said that as both a committed American Jew and a seasoned professional fundraiser, he is torn between the urgency of providing assistance for Israeli citizens and the obvious window that the war provides for political groups to attract donors. “During times of crisis, there are great opportunities for organizations to be able to fund raise for work that they do,” he said. Still, Saltzman said, the war relief effort should take priority.

Financial contributions to Aipac, which boasts more than 100,000 members, have risen sharply in recent years, as two of the organization’s former top staffers battled indictments for passing on classified information to foreign officials and reporters. Since 2004, the influential lobby has received more than $50 million annually, from individual donations and its non-profit partner organization, the American Israel Education Foundation.

Asked what emergency campaign funds would be used for, a spokesman for Aipac, Josh Block, said in a statement that the organization’s “emergency campaign is focused on expanding the pro-Israel movement in America at a time when the U.S. needs to stand with Israel in its battle against Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.” Block also said in the statement that the campaign is intended “to provide training on how to be an effective pro-Israel political activist.” The statement offered no indication as to how monies raised by the group’s “emergency call to action” would be specifically allocated.

While some criticized the organization’s approach as opportunistic, others defended its aggressive fundraising tactics, saying that public relations on behalf of Israel is as important a means of aiding the Jewish state as directing money to relief efforts.

“Everything is part of painting the picture from which you raise money,” said Naomi Levine, chairwoman of the board for New York University’s Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising. Levine also said that donors have the right to insist on knowing exactly how their contributions are being used. America’s central Jewish charity, the United Jewish Communities, two weeks ago initiated a $300 million emergency campaign; millions have already been distributed to its partner organizations in Israel, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In New York alone, the UJA-Federation is aiming to raise $60 million as part of the national group’s wider campaign. To reach its goal, the Federation has enacted a massive media blitz that includes taking out a series of newspaper advertisements, sending email blasts and launching radio ads.

“One hundred percent of the funds raised will go to Israel,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president of the UJA-Federation of New York. Ruskay also said that all of the administrative costs are being underwritten by individual donors.

The current emergency campaigns on behalf of Israel have so far surpassed Jewish charities’ previous efforts to raise money for victims of both Hurricane Katrina last year and the tsunami in southeast Asia in 2004.

The American Jewish Committee, which is delivering toys and baby supplies to both Jewish and Arab Israelis living in the north, has raised more than $1.5 million since it first launched its campaign in July. The group’s prior emergency campaign for Hurricane Katrina garnered $1.1 million, while its tsunami campaign raised about $1.3 million.

Other groups that have launched major campaigns include American Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, which has thus far raised more than $4.5 million for Israeli soldiers. The organization is providing military servicemen with cell phone chargers, among other necessities, so that they can call their families from the field.

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