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, divestment 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 Federations of North America, perhaps 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 MSA 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 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 nonprofit 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 of Strategic Affairs is a strange hybrid. Calling itself a “start-up” 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 of 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.
According to the professional staff member, none of the groups accepted the ministry’s funds. Multiple Jewish communal officials said that the reason 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 Hillel funding is routed through an Israeli non-governmental organization that also raises money from private donors.)
“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’ interests, about appearing too close to successive Israeli governments.
“American Jewish philanthropic organizations and communal institutions don’t want to be owned by any government that’s in power in the state of Israel,” said Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of American Jewish history at Temple University. “If Jewish life sees itself as being controlled by entities of the Israeli government, then it cedes this space of being able to say there is vital, important, independent Jewish life in the Diaspora.”
The ministry seems to have gone home last fall with its pockets still full. It didn’t take them long to try again.
In December, shortly after its funds were rejected by the American Jewish establishment, the ministry announced a new plan to send $35 million over three years to a non-governmental entity that would use it to fight BDS. Jewish donors were said to be matching the government’s contributions to the entity.
Haaretz reported in January that the ministry was working with a public benefit corporation called Kela Shlomo, or “Solomon’s Sling,” and that its directors include the former CEO of the Israeli American Council, an American Jewish nonprofit supported by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Kela Shlomo’s work is, like much of the ministry’s efforts, shrouded in secrecy. Its supporters have described it as mounting an anti-BDS campaign that, despite being funded in part by the Israeli government, operates independently. “Imagine that right after [the pop singer] Lorde announced she was canceling her Israeli show, she was hit that same day with a viral campaign in websites all over the world and full-page ads in all major world newspapers,” an unnamed source “with knowledge of the initiative” told the Israeli news outlet Ynet in December 2017. “That’s something the official State of Israel could not have achieved.”
Inside of Israel, critics have argued that Kela Shlomo is an effort to hide Israel’s hand in its anti-BDS campaign. “They say they don’t want people to know if it’s done by the Israeli government,” Shachar Ben Meir, an Israeli attorney who has brought a lawsuit challenging the ministry’s operations, told the Forward.
Now, the ministry is speaking with American Jewish organizations about taking government funds indirectly through Kela Shlomo.
Misha Galperin, a former top executive at the Jewish Agency, has aided the ministry in its outreach. Galperin has served as a fixer and go-between for ministry officials. He did not respond to a list of comments from the Forward about his role with Kela Shlomo.
A spokesman for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee confirmed to the Forward that Galperin arranged a meeting between its top executive and ministry officials. The spokesman said that the JDC had not heard from the ministry since the meeting.
In presentations and conversations with American Jewish leaders and funders, ministry officials have described Kela Shlomo’s proposed work in the U.S. as consisting of five key aspects: research and information gathering, running influence campaigns, running missions to Israel for influencers, supporting the activities of the pro-Israel network, and new programs. They have also discussed creating rapid-response rooms in the U.S. staffed with professionals available to oppose anti-Israel organizing.
The influence campaigns could include support of the work of Act.il, an app previously promoted by the ministry that operates as a sort of pro-Israel human “botnet,” allowing its operators to try to influence the online discourse about Israel. Act.il is co-sponsored by the IAC, whose former CEO, Sagi Balasha, is a director of Kela Shlomo.
Act.il’s director, Yarden ben Yosef, did not respond to an inquiry about his organization’s relationship with the ministry and Kela Shlomo.
What the ministry means by research and information gathering is less clear. A ministry spokesman did not respond to a list of questions. In a statement, he said: “The Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy carries out all of its activities in a legal and professional manner. Regarding the [public benefit corporation], once it is up and running we will be able to answer inquiries regarding its operations.”
Other Jewish organizations, including the Israeli American Council, did not respond to questions about whether they had received funding from the ministry.
Experts said that the propriety of any funding relationship between an entity like Kela Shlomo and an American Jewish organization would be dependent on the transparency of the relationship. “Certainly there’s nothing wrong with a foreign country seeking to pursue their objectives with the U.S.,” said Andrew Miller, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “But the extent to which they’re seeking to go around FARA regulations and disguise the role of foreign governments in these activities, that does raise some problematic questions.”
The efforts to fund American Jewish charities come as Israel continues its campaign against charities operating within Israel that take funding from foreign governments. Netanyahu has called for a blanket ban on foreign-funded NGO’s, and the Knesset has passed restrictions on their operations.
“It’s very challenging for them to continue to argue that that kind of external engagement with Israeli civil society represents some sort of threat to Israeli sovereignty if they are attempting to do the same things themselves,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.
The ministry did not respond to an inquiry about the apparent contradiction.
“This shows not just a double standard, but how cynical they are,” said Sfard, the Israeli human rights attorney.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.