Documents Reveal Board Of Shadowy Charity Linked To Canary Mission
The Israeli not-for-profit registered under the name Megamot Shalom was never meant to be found. Until early this month, its online footprint was almost nil. It has no official website, no public spokesman, and its listed address is an apparently empty office building on a rundown commercial strip in Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem.
In early October, the Forward reported that a U.S. Jewish charity had noted in its tax filings that the purpose of a particular $100,000 grant was: “CANARY MISSION FOR MEGAMOT SHALOM.”
Canary Mission, an online blacklist that posts political dossiers on students who advocate for Palestinian rights, has operated in total secrecy for three years. In early August, the Forward reported that a British-born Jerusalem resident named Jonathan Bash runs the website. Public documents that Megamot Shalom filed with Israel’s charity registry show that Bash operates Megamot Shalom, as well.
Now, the Forward has obtained Megamot Shalom’s full public file from Israel’s charity registry. It sheds some light on the group, which is controlled largely by English-speaking immigrants to Israel living in Jerusalem, many of them former employees of a well-known Orthodox yeshiva network.
Yet the organization remains mysterious. The Forward could not locate one of the group’s board members. Another man listed as a board member said he had never heard of the charity. A third acknowledged he was on the board of the charity, but claimed it had no relationship with Canary Mission.
Still, the documents suggest that Megamot Shalom likely operates Canary Mission. In its mission statement approved by the charity registry, it says that it uses digital media to protect the image of the state of Israel against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which closely matches Canary Mission’s activities. Its employees include an editor and a social media expert. Bash created the group in late 2015, months after Canary Mission went live.
The majority of the board members listed in the documents have close ties to Aish HaTorah, a network of yeshivas that focuses on outreach to non-Orthodox Jews. In addition to its religious activities, the network runs pro-Israel advocacy efforts. A spokesman for Aish HaTorah said that he had never heard of Megamot Shalom, noted that many of its board members had not been associated with Aish HaTorah in years, and said that Aish HaTorah had no relationship with Canary Mission.
The documents on file with the charity registry describe the early months of the organization’s institutional life. They show Bash’s early efforts to register Megamot Shalom, or “Peace Trends,” in late 2015. It includes financial results for the end of 2016, when the organization became operational, but none for 2017.
The 2016 financial results show that it received $165,000 during the last six months on 2016, though it appears to have only become active as late as September of that year. At the time, its only reported assets were roughly $5,000 worth of computers. It reported a dozen employees and seven volunteers. The paid employees, five of whom are named in the document, include an editor, writer, researcher, and social media professional. During the period covered by the financial report, their salaries were very small, with the top-compensated staffer earning just over $10,000.
While Israeli charities are required to disclose any donors who gave more than $5,5000, Megamot Shalom is registered as a public benefit corporation, another form of not-for-profit. Under Israeli law, those entities are not required to disclose their donors, and Megamot Shalom has not.
As of September 2016, Megamot Shalom’s board consisted of seven people, five of whom the Forward could locate.
One of the board members, an American-born Jerusalem resident named Rabbi Ben Packer, operates an ideological hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City that sends its lodgers to volunteer at illegal West Bank settlements. According to a Haaretz report, Packer distributes the literature of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the Israeli politician whose party was outlawed for racism in 1988. Packer says he is a friend of Stephen Miller, the Trump administration official who pushed to have families separated at the U.S. border.
“Stephen Miller is not just my friend, he’s not just our friend, HE IS US!” Packer wrote in a 2016 column. “He is part of that new proud generation, no longer relegated to the fringe. His appointment is spectacular news for the Jewish People and he should be blessed with everything to do great things!”
In August, Packer’s hostel drew attention for a list of Jews banned staying there for “crimes committed against the Jewish people.” The list included U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Diane Feinstein, actress Natalie Portman, “all Haaretz staff,” “CNN staff,” Forward columnist Peter Beinart, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the rabbinic human rights group T’ruah. T’ruah filed a complaint in late August with the Internal Revenue Service against the U.S. fundraising arm of Packer’s hostel, saying that the organization and Packer promote the “work and positions of Meir Kahane,” and that its list of people banned from the hostel “incites against prominent Jews.”
Packer hung up on a Forward reporter and did not respond to subsequent messages.
Other Megamot Shalom board members are former employees of Aish HaTorah. The organization drew international attention a decade ago, when yeshiva officials produced two virulently anti-Muslim documentaries, one of which was distributed in swing states in advance of the 2008 U.S. presidential election.
A spokesman for Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith, said that he had never heard of Megamot Shalom, and that Aish HaTorah has “zero relationship” with Canary Mission. He noted that the former Aish HaTorah employees on the board of Megamot Shalom had not worked for Aish HaTorah for “many years.”
Bash, who runs Canary Mission, is himself a former student of Aish HaTorah. Press reports say that he is also a former employee of the organization, though his LinkedIn page is no longer available. From 2008 to 2012, Bash served on the board of directors of an American charity now known as Jerusalem U, a pro-Israel advocacy group led by Rabbi Raphael Shore, the former Aish HaTorah employee who in 2005 and 2008 produced the two anti-Muslim documentaries.
Another of the men on the Megamot Shalom board, an American-born Jerusalem resident named Jason Aguilar, who was Aish HaTorah’s projects/logistics coordinator from 2004 to 2007, acknowledged that he was on the board of Megamot Shalom, but denied any connection to Canary Mission.
“I am going to find out who you are,” Aguilar told a Forward reporter, after the reporter left a business card at Aguilar’s home and followed up with a phone call. “I have friends who will see exactly what you’re doing.”
Rabbi Tzadok Cable, another director of Megamot Shalom, told the Forward he was not familiar with the organization. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Cable, who is from Miami and now lives in a West Bank settlement, headed Aish HaTorah’s rabbinic ordination program from 2001 to 2013. He did not respond to a subsequent email.
Rabbi Efim Svirsky, who led Aish HaTorah’s Russian program for at least a dozen years, is also listed as a Megamot Shalom director. Svirsky did not respond to a message left at his home, and could not be reached via telephone.
Another board member, Daphne Ann Silverstone, is listed in the organization’s filings as sharing an address with Bash near Aish HaTorah’s headquarters in the Old City of Jerusalem. A woman who answered the door at that address in early October said that she did not know a Daphne Ann Silverstone. Bash did not respond to a query about who Silverstone is, and the Forward has been unable to identify her.
The last person listed as a Megamot Shalom board member has a common Israeli name and does not live at the address given for them in the documents. They could not be identified by the Forward.
Additional reporting by Ilan Ben-Zion from Jerusalem.