WASHINGTON (JTA) — David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, was president of a non-profit that donated money to a far-right Jewish group that was reportedly once designated as a terrorist organization by the US State Department.
American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center donated 48,000 shekels — about $12,000 — to Komemiyut in 2013, when Friedman was president of the non-profit, according to a report by the Democratic Bloc, an Israeli NGO that tracks funding for right-wing groups.
Komemiyut in its current iteration was established in 2006, a year after Israel’s government evacuated settlements from the Gaza Strip, to prevent any further evacuations of settlements. Its current CEO, Mussa Cohen, on Friday told JTA that the group is the same group that in the 1990s was affiliated with the Kach movement, founded by the extremist rabbi, Meir Kahane.
The State Department has since 1997 designated Kach as a terrorist group. In a 1999 posting, the State Department listed aliases for Kach, including Komemiyut. The current State Department listing of designated terrorist groups does not include aliases; however, Kach remains listed, and under delisted groups, there is no listing for Komemiyut.
Mussa Cohen later said there had been a misunderstanding, and that his group was not the same one as the organization on the State Department list.
The Canadian government in 2016 listed Komemeiyut Movement, the current name for the group, as a terrorist entity. Mussa Cohen last year told Arutz Sheva that he would seek the movement’s removal from the list.
The US Embassy spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests from JTA for comment. Haaretz on Thursday quoted Friedman’s office as saying that “The Ambassador is not familiar with the Komemiut Foundation, nor is he aware of any connection between those entities and American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center.”
During his 2017 confirmation hearings, Friedman described his leadership of the nonprofit, from 2011-2017, as deriving “from my commitment to Jewish education, the quality of those schools are excellent and everything that we’ve given money to has been in the nature of gymnasiums, dormitories, dining rooms, classrooms, things like that.”
He said he had no association with political activity associated with the Beit El settlement. “So my philanthropic activity there has not been connected to their political activity which I really had no part in,” he said.
Friedman was President Donald Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer before Trump was elected president. He is seen as the main driver behind Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. “I put one of my friends as ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, good choice, one of the great lawyers of our country, made a lot of money as a lawyer,” Trump said at an Indiana rally on Thursday.
Reached by phone on Friday, a spokesman for American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center told JTA that he did not have time to check into the Democratic Bloc’s report or to describe what the responsibilities of a president of the organization would be. JTA has sent the spokesman an email listing the questions.
Mussa Cohen told Haaretz that he did not know if Friedman was aware of the donation. The group funds a range of settler-affiliated programs in Israel, particularly in Beit El, a settlement north of Jerusalem, where Komemiyut is also headquartered. Friedman as a young man studied at the yeshiva in Beit El.
Another of the American Friends of Bet El Center’s major beneficiaries is Arutz Sheva, the influential settler-affiliated news network.
The Democratic Bloc provided to JTA documents it obtained from Israel’s nonprofit registry. They show Komemiyut reporting an NIS 48,000 donation from “Shocharei Yeshivat Beit El” in 2013 when Friedman was president of the American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva. “Shocharei Yeshivat Beit El” translates as Friends of Bet El Yeshiva.
The Democratic Bloc said the groups are the same; it provided to JTA a declaration from another American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center beneficiary, the yeshiva in the Beit El settlement where Friedman once studied. It lists the US employer identification number for its main donor, named in Hebrew as “Shocharei Yeshivat Beit El”; it is identical to the employer identification number for American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center.
Komemiyut translates as “sovereignty,” but also shares a root in Hebrew with the word “uprising.” Its officers are a who’s who of Israel’s hard right, including Knesset member Betzalel Smotrich, a member of the extreme faction of the Jewish Home Party, and Dov Lior, the former rabbi of Kiryat Arba who has repeatedly been accused of incitement. In 2014, Lior said Jewish law allows for the destruction of the Gaza Strip.
On its Facebook page, Komemiyut describes its mission as the “strengthening and instilling of the values of the righteousness of the Jewish renewal and preventing the expulsion of the Jews from Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights.” It has protested on behalf of Israeli Jews accused of incitement and has called on Jewish landlords not to rent to Arabs.
The Democratic Bloc was established recently as part of a counteroffensive by liberal and left-wing NGOs in Israel. There have long been NGOs in Israel that track and report funding sources for left-wing groups.
In 1994, using regulations that previously had been used only against Palestinians, the Israeli government banned the Kach and Kahane Chai political parties for their fiercely anti-Arab rhetoric. Both owed their ideology to the US-born Kahane, who was assassinated in New York in 1990.