'He who holds the pen has the power'

Meet the conservative activists who want to override the Supreme Court

The right wing is energetic, well-funded, and, as a recent Jerusalem confab showed, determined to rein in a judicial system it sees as controlled by liberal elites

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Simcha Rothman of the Israeli Movement for Governability and Democracy (Meshilut) speaks in front of a slide bearing the image of Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at the Israeli Conservatism Conference, May 16,  2019 (YouTube screenshot)
Simcha Rothman of the Israeli Movement for Governability and Democracy (Meshilut) speaks in front of a slide bearing the image of Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at the Israeli Conservatism Conference, May 16, 2019 (YouTube screenshot)

Before the shocking Knesset vote last week to dissolve the country’s newly elected parliament and hold elections in September, the most consuming issue in the news cycle had been whether the Knesset would pass an “override” law that would effectively neuter the Supreme Court. It was widely believed that the next government would try to pass such a law in conjunction with immunity for the prime minister in three pending corruption cases against him as well as possible annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In Tel Aviv on May 25, tens of thousands of Israelis protested the anticipated move, with some wearing fez hats to symbolize their fear that Israel is turning into an authoritarian state like Turkey. A group of 200 influential lawyers had earlier threatened to shut down the legal system over the proposed reforms, while an acclaimed constitutional scholar declared  that Israel was in a constitutional crisis.

But while the immediate possibility of an override law has receded, the law’s energetic and ideologically motivated proponents are unlikely to be daunted. On May 16, The Times of Israel attended the Israeli Conservatism Conference at the Jerusalem Convention Center, where 700 opinion-shapers, thinkers and activists from the religious and secular right gathered to discuss their beliefs and plans for the future. In stark contrast to the protesters in Tel Aviv, these conservative activists were full of hope. Liberalism is doomed, many said, while the rise of Donald Trump and other right-wing politicians around the world are positive developments.

Not only were many of the conservative activists confident that the arc of history was bending in their direction, but they had specific plans for policies they sought to implement in the near future. Central among these was the override clause, which was seen by many conference-goers as a major and necessary step toward changing the character of Israeli society by scaling back a judicial system felt to be controlled by unelected elites. Fiercely intelligent, with a unique level of access to Knesset members, and flush with cash from (mostly) anonymous sources, these activists appeared to stand a good chance of success in whatever they undertake.

Liberalism as a dead-end of history

If there was a theme to the conservatism conference, which was attended by many of the leading lights of Israel’s right-wing media and social media, it was what was perceived as the intellectual and electoral triumph of conservative ideas over liberal ones.

Amiad Cohen, the director of the Tikvah Fund in Israel, which sponsored the conference, explained that the majority of Israelis are already conservative, and that is why Israel has uniquely managed to avoid the spiritual malaise that plagues other developed nations as a side effect of industrialization and modernity.

Amiad Cohen speaks to the Israeli Conservatism Conference, May 16, 2019 (Youtube screenshot)

“In the West there was a breakdown in commitment to religion, to tribes and to communities. Eventually there was a breakdown in commitment to the family and even to the very framework of coupledom,” he lamented.

Cohen pointed to the fact that the United Kingdom had recently set up a government ministry devoted to the problem of loneliness as a symptom of this breakdown.

Israel, on the other hand, “is the most conservative of Western societies and it is also one of the most vital. There are only two developed countries with a birth rate higher than the replacement rate and these are Israel, at three children per woman, and New Zealand, at 2.3.”

“Children are a project undertaken by people who believe it’s worthwhile to be here,” he noted.

Other speakers echoed Cohen’s themes.

“Who we are deep down does not come from liberalism,” said Yoram Hazony, president of Jerusalem’s Herzl Institute. “It comes from 3,000 years of history that start with the Hebrew Bible.”

He added, “We did not come [to this land] to be another left-wing liberal enlightened group of people. We came for something else, as our forefathers knew. We came for a restoration. to renew our days as in days of old.”

Conservative British author Douglas Murray, who wrote the 2017 book “The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam,” also praised Israelis for clinging to tradition, unlike Europeans, who he believes are committing cultural suicide due to their loss of faith in their own traditions and legitimacy.

“When I speak about my book in Europe,” Murray said, “it’s definitely not the case that nationalism, or even patriotism. is something you can talk about as a force primarily for good. That is a very distinct difference from Israel. Of course not everybody in this country has exactly the same views on this, but broadly speaking the mainstream of Israeli society recognizes that nationalism is a force for good, and for good for Israel.”

Murray also cited Israelis’ commitment to strong borders and openness to religion as highly positive attributes.

“Broadly speaking, the Israeli public recognize that strong borders are a prerequisite for peace. Not so in Europe, where borders are believed to be, erroneously I think, the cause of war.”

“In my observation,” he went on, “even the most secular Israelis recognize that they are in some way in dialogue with the religion. Again, not so in Europe.”

Israel’s ‘deep state’

Many of the conference speakers warned the audience that Israel’s conservative majority is under attack from liberal elites in the media, academia, cultural institutions and the judicial system, who seek to impose their liberal views despite not having been elected to their positions of influence.

Interviewing Murray, Channel 12’s political analyst Amit Segal suggested that Murray’s book was not merely about immigration, but really about “the story of how the liberal media and the elites actually set the boundaries of public discourse, making it illegitimate to have other positions towards immigration.”

Israeli journalist Amit Segal (left) interviewing Douglas Murray at the Israeli Conservatism Conference, May 16, 2019 (Youtube screenshot)

Segal added wryly, to laughter and applause from the audience, “Of course this will be a totally alien concept to an Israeli audience, but the media does have a slant.”

In a panel entitled “Postmodernism, Political Correctness and their Consequences.” Ronen Shoval, one of the founders of the Im Tirtzu movement — which seeks to renew Zionist discourse and combat international delegitimization of Israel — said that when he was a student at Hebrew University in 2005, it would have been easier to go shirtless than to wear an orange shirt protesting the Disengagement from Gaza.

“The social sanction of the professors and everyone else, without saying anything, was unmistakable,” he said. “Allan Bloom described this in ‘The Closing of the American Mind.’”

Gadi Taub, a historian and self-described former leftist who writes a column for Haaretz, said that on the contrary, the left-wing establishment, in the form of the Haaretz newspaper, had made him a celebrity because his views so infuriated the newspaper’s constituency that “they wrote three articles criticizing me every day.”

The left is ‘an intellectual wasteland. It’s so repetitive and monotonous.’ The right, on the other hand, ‘has colleges, a publishing house, think tanks, newspapers, television shows, social media, and an abundance of persuasive ideas. The vitality is on the right and people will be attracted to it. That’s why I’m so optimistic.’

Taub said he was not afraid to speak his mind because he has tenure at Hebrew University, but nevertheless does not even bother to try to get promoted. “I am in two departments and there is one Likudnik in the entire faculty, out of 40 people. It makes no sense.”

Taub said the best way to confront an atmosphere of political correctness is to speak one’s mind without caring. “Take the issue of feminism. If you try to apologize or be nice you’re in trouble. If you attack, you have an advantage. If you’re Ari Shavit [a Haaretz correspondent who resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment] and you apologize over and over, they slaughter you. If you’re Donald Trump, and you make the most annoying and crude remarks, nothing happens.”

Many of the conference speakers reserved their strongest criticism for Israel’s judicial system, which they frequently referred to as Israel’s “deep state,” and which they urgently sought to reform through an override clause that would block the High Court from overturning Knesset legislation or government and Knesset administrative decisions.

Left to right: Ronen Shoval, Gadi Taub and Rotem Sela at the Israeli Conservatism Conference, May 16, 2019 (YouTube screenshot)

The name of deputy attorney general Dina Zilber was brought up frequently by panelists.

During the panel on postmodernism and political correctness, Rotem Sela, who owns a conservative publishing house (Sela Meir), turned to activist Ronen Shoval and said, “You mentioned there is an institution in Israeli society that is forcing political correctness on everyone and until we deal with it, there can be no progress?”

Shoval replied, “It’s not just in Israel. Political correctness is an idea, and when these ideas lose at the ballot box, the way to implement them is through a judicial coup. That’s when it gets scary. Look at Dina Zilber. If the Chabad [Orthodox religious movement] wants to hold a sex-segregated event in Tel Aviv, who is Zilber to impose her politically correct worldview through the law?”

Shoval was referring to a Holocaust Memorial Day event this year planned by the municipality of Holon in which there would have been separate seating for men and women. Despite the fact that most of the attendees were religiously observant, Zilber ordered the city of Holon to cancel the planned separate seating since the event was not private, but a government-sponsored event. (In early June, Prime Minister Benjamin was revealed to have been negotiating with ultra-Orthodox parties on their demand to allow for gender segregation in public spaces.)

We also need to liberate the universities, which are all about silencing people and looking for oppressed people where they don’t exist

Sela, the book publisher, told the panelists he personally feels that the political climate in Israel has never been better for conservatives, as evidenced by robust sales of his books as well as the results of the recent elections. (This was before Netanyahu failed to muster a majority coalition, and resorted to calling new elections in September.) Nevertheless, he asked the panelists, “What the most important big thing an Israeli leader could do to change things [in terms of addressing the problem of political correctness]?”

Shoval replied, “to cancel the judicial revolution,” referring to what many speakers at the conference indicated they regarded as a period of liberal judicial activism spearheaded by former Supreme Court head Aharon Barak in the 1990s.

“This will liberate us from the fear to speak out. We also need to liberate the universities, which are all about silencing people and looking for oppressed people where they don’t exist.”

Taub agreed that Israel needs to curb what he views as judicial overreach by passing a Supreme Court override bill, but expressed regret that it would likely occur in exchange for granting immunity from prosecution to Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with then-cabinet secretary and current Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, May 26, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

“I am not happy that [the override clause] is going to happen because of the criminal charges hanging over Netanyahu’s head. But I think there is no choice, because a prime minister without an ax over his head would not dare to do this. So this is a small price to pay. What happens to Netanyahu is much less important than that we restore balance among the branches of government. I don’t like when people get carried away and say ‘we will destroy the Supreme Court with a D9 bulldozer’” — a reference to remarks by then-Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev in 2015. “We just want a normal balance between the branches of government, not one branch with no restraints.”

Taub added, “I wish it could happen in a cleaner context. But, the fact is, and that was Netanyahu’s miscalculation, he thought, ‘if I defend the [justice system] they will leave me alone.’ As [right-wing journalist] Erel Segal says, ‘If you don’t deal with the deep state, the deep state deals with you.’”

Taub added that he hoped Netanyahu doesn’t make some deal whereby he is pardoned or exonerated in exchange for leaving political life.

“Netanyahu needs to be all-in and understand that he has no choice and we need to solve this problem now. This will be Netanyahu’s legacy, that you did something important and restored our democracy,” Taub declared, to resounding applause.

A proliferation of conservative NGOs

Outside the main auditorium, a plethora of conservative advocacy groups, think tanks and other organizations had set up stalls and were distributing pamphlets to conference-goers.

The walls of the conference hall were festooned with banners quoting renowned conservative thinkers in Hebrew translation. Bookmarks featuring these quotes were distributed in stalls that sold the “great books” of conservative thought.

“Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.” read one bookmark, quoting William F. Buckley.

“The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money,” read another, quoting Margaret Thatcher.

Attendees at the Israeli Conservatism Conference visit stalls set up by right-wing NGOs, May 16, 2019 (ToI staff)

A few of the NGOs that had set up stalls at the conference have been around for a long time, like the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, founded in 1976, and the Union for the Public’s Right to Know, an organization that monitors left-wing bias in the media, founded in 1995.

But the majority of conservative organizations were relatively new ventures that have popped up in the last decade.

These included the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (founded in 2017), the Israeli Center for Immigration Policy (2012), the New Liberal Movement (2011), the Israeli Movement for Governability and Democracy (2013), the Kohelet Forum (2012), National Horizon (2013), Betzedek (2015), the Forum for Civil Society (2017), the Union of Community Rabbis (2014), and Competition–The Movement for Freedom of Occupation (2015). In addition, there were booths devoted to several intellectual and literary publications including Vayehi, a conservative literary journal established in 2019, Mida, an intellectual journal founded in 2012, and Hashiloach, another intellectual journal established in 2016.

A conservative publishing house, Sela Meir (2014), was offering four books for NIS 100 ($28). Among their titles were Hebrew translations of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life,” Donald Trump’s “How to think like a Billionaire,” and David P. Goldman’s “How Civilizations Die,” as well as books by Israeli authors, including Caroline Glick’s “The Israeli solution: A One-State Plan for peace in the Middle East,” and Erez Tadmor’s “Why Do you Vote Right and get the Left?”

This proliferation of organizations and activity led some of the conference speakers to remark that Israel’s conservative camp is thriving as never before.

“Look at the left,” said Taub during his panel session. “My feeling as a reader is that it’s an intellectual wasteland. It’s so repetitive and monotonous.”

The right, on the other hand, “has colleges, a publishing house, think tanks, newspapers, television shows, social media, and an abundance of persuasive ideas. The vitality is on the right and people will be attracted to it. That’s why I’m so optimistic.”

Many of the participants in the conference were affiliated with one or more of the exhibiting organizations, or were students in educational programs sponsored by the Tikvah Fund. Most of these programs involve reading and discussing seminal works of Jewish and Western political thought.

One conference participant, a religiously observant man who had participated in a Tikvah Fund seminar, told The Times of Israel he had first been exposed to conservative thought online. “I started reading Jordan Peterson and watching videos and that led me to Thomas Sowell’s book ‘A Conflict of Visions,’ which I think is the best summary I’ve ever read of the difference between conservative and liberal thought.”

Asked what the ideas of Thomas Sowell and Jordan Peterson have to do with granting Netanyahu immunity from criminal indictments, as some speakers at the conference had advocated, the man said, “I believe that corruption is a corrosive force that can destroy society. But there is a feeling among many conservatives that the left is selective about whose corruption they choose to highlight. After all, Shimon Peres was corrupt but the left kept silent about it.”

From reading Great Books to passing legislation

In an afternoon session entitled “From Vision to Reality,” a number of conservative activists explained how lofty conservative ideas can and should be translated into Knesset legislation aimed at scaling back the power of unelected gatekeepers like judges, legal advisers to government ministers, and the state comptroller.

“It’s so amazing to sit with 700 people and speak about Burke, de Toqueville and Hayek,” Professor Moshe Koppel, chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum, exclaimed from the podium, adding, “Until now you’ve heard a lot of theory. My job is to speak about reality.”

Since its founding seven years ago, Kohelet has been trying to pass laws related to economic freedom, Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and governance, Koppel said.

Professor Moshe Koppel speaking at the Israeli Conservatism Conference, May 16, 2019 (YouTube screenshot)

“Governance is a euphemism,” he clarified. “What we mean is dismantling centers of power that are unelected and that use the power of the state to coerce their worldview.”

“You know who we’re talking about,” he said, to laughter from the audience.

Koppel is an American-born professor of computer science at Bar-Ilan University who has done groundbreaking work in the field of machine learning as well as Jewish scholarship, applying his computer science ingenuity to determining the authorship of ancient Jewish texts. Koppel was also an instigator of Israel’s controversial 2018 nation-state law, a draft of which he first presented to the Knesset in 2004. He also drafted a 2011 law to require Israeli NGOs to report funding they receive from foreign governments. “The goal of the law is only transparency,” he argued at the time the legislation was introduced.

Koppel’s concern with unelected secular, liberal elites has a long history.

As far back as 2000, he wrote an academic article entitled “Mamlachtiut as a Tool of Oppression: On Jewish Jews and Israeli Jews in the Post-Zionist Era,” in which he posited that there are two types of Jews in Israel, “Jewish Jews” and “Israeli Jews,” and that “Jewish Jews are, in the best case, no more than tolerated guests in the corridors of power.”

In the article, Koppel argued that Israel’s ruling class consists of “ideological progeny of the Mapai party” whose values are “assumed in public discourse to be self-evident,” while the efforts of “Jewish Jews” to express their views are seen as coercion. He expressed a desire to see this balance of power changed.

It doesn’t help to come to Knesset members with ideas. You have to write the law or the decision. Come with a text

Similarly, in a 2017 blog entitled “Judaism without Apologies,” Koppel, a resident of the Israeli settlement of Efrat, recalled how, as a 23-year-old student at Princeton University, he met a liberal Jewish woman who professed disdain for his observant lifestyle and tribal loyalties. Koppel’s blog is concerned with arguing that the halachic, communal Jewish way of life has staying power while that of universalist liberals like the woman at Princeton is “doomed.”

Koppel told the Conservatism Conference that the Kohelet Forum has about 80 employees, most of whom are researchers, with very few administrators.

The organization works hard to develop direct relationships with decision makers, he said, including Knesset members and ministers, especially at the start of every Knesset term, before the unelected professional echelon tells the lawmakers what they can and can’t do.

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

“It doesn’t help to come to Knesset members with ideas,” he elaborated. “You have to write the law or the decision. Come with a text.”

Koppel told the audience that at some point an unelected bureaucrat in the Justice Ministry will destroy the draft of a bill you wrote, “but the challenge is to hold the pen for as long as possible. He who holds the pen has the power.”

The professional echelon in various government agencies is usually hostile to legislation brought by conservative activists, like Kohelet staff members, Koppel asserted.

“For some reason these bureaucrats are not our friends. If it was random, then at least half would be with us.”

Once again, Dina Zilber was singled out as particularly problematic. “You can’t speak about bureaucratic delusions of grandeur in the state of Israel without mentioning Dina Zilber,” he said.

Koppel chuckled along with the crowd, adding “It’s my evil impulse that is making me mention her, I shouldn’t do it, but I can’t help myself.”

Judging the judges

Simcha Rothman, of the Israeli Movement for Governability and Democracy (Meshilut), who spoke on one of the conference panels and later talked to The Times of Israel, said that his organization’s purpose was to act as a watchdog of Israel’s judicial system through research and advocacy.

“We want to hold our judges to the same standards that they use to judge others,” he told the audience.

Rothman’s organization has tried to reform the process of judges’ appointments, which he said largely happens behind closed doors without the transparency the judicial system demands of others.

Among the organization’s immediate goals, he said, are passing the override clause, and changing the way legal advisers to ministers are appointed so that they are appointed by the minister him or herself.

We want to hold our judges to the same standards that they use to judge others

Rothman told The Times of Israel that while his organization shares Kohelet’s agenda with regard to the judicial system, the Israeli Movement for Governability and Democracy (Meshilut) is apolitical with regard to economics or Israel’s national character. “Unlike Kohelet, we opposed the nation-state law,” he said.

Introducing an organization called the “Forum for Civil Society,” Sara Ha’etzni Cohen, the moderator of the conference, said she knew from personal experience “that a lot of the news you see every day and a lot of the change you see in Israel is because of them.”

The Forum’s director, Adi Arbel, told the audience its goal is to infuse Israeli civil society with a conservative, Zionist agenda. “The term civil society doesn’t have to express a foreign trend brought to Israel as part of global influences. We can pour our own content into this concept, content from our Jewish identity and the rich history of our people.”

The Forum for Civil Society recently merged with the Kohelet Forum, he said, and “trains activists to work vis-a-vis government authorities by conducting workshops and providing online material in the areas of government relations, the government budget and fundraising.”

For instance, his organization has launched an initiative to find jobs for right-wing activists within Israel’s civil service, he said, as well as running a “situation room” that keeps activists apprised of day-to-day developments in the Knesset, government and courts. So far, he said, the forum has worked with over 1,000 activists from 150 organizations.

Where does the money come from?

The Times of Israel attempted to determine the sources of funding for several of the organizations represented at the Israeli Conservatism Conference, particularly those seeking to influence legislation — with only partial success.

According to documents from Israel’s registry of nonprofit organizations, the Kohelet forum received NIS 28.9 million (about $8 million) in donations in 2017, compared to NIS 9.8 million ($2.7 million) in 2016 and 7.6 million ($2.1 million) in 2015.

A few hundred thousand shekels were provided by the Tikvah Fund, which was established by the late American-Jewish philanthropist Zalman Bernstein and is devoted to promoting conservative ideas in Israeli public discourse. But the vast bulk of the think tank’s money was provided by an American 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization called the American Friends of the Kohelet Policy Forum, based in Bala Cynwyd, a tony suburb of Philadelphia.

There is no publicly available information about who has donated millions of dollars to the American Friends of the Kohelet Policy Forum. Meir Rubin, Kohelet’s executive director, explained that “we report our donors, but not the donors of FKPF, which is an independent organization.”

The Movement for Governability and Democracy was founded by Yehuda Amrani and Yair Kartman among others. Amrani and Kartman are former representatives of the Komemiut movement, a movement of settlers who seek to prevent evacuations of West Bank settlements and outposts and who place the values of Torah above all else, according to the movement’s mission statement.

The audience at the Israeli Conservatism Conference, May 16, 2019 (YouTube screenshot)

The Movement for Governability and Democracy started out as a volunteer organization but by 2015 had received NIS 450,000 ($124,000) in donations and in 2017 received NIS 800,000 ($221,000) in donations. The movement did not indicate, in any of the documents downloadable from the registry of NGOs, where it received its donations in 2016 and 2017, but in 2015, it specified that it had received NIS 97,000 ($27,000) from the Israel Independence Fund and NIS 334,000 ($92,000) from the Jerusalem Education Fund, Inc.

The Israel Independence Fund is associated with American venture capitalist Kenneth Abramowitz, a close confidant of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The Jerusalem Education Fund, Inc. is an American 501(c)(3) registered at a post office in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Archived pages of its website show a strong right-wing, pro-settlement, religious orientation but there is no indication of who runs or funds the charity. One of the authors on the website is Israel Fuchs, who is also a signatory on the founding documents of the Movement for Governability and Democracy.

Finally, the Forum for Civil Society, which was founded in 2017, claims in its financial report for the year ending in December 2017 that it raised NIS 385,000 ($107,000) by charging for workshops and another NIS 174,500 ($48,000) as a contribution from an entity called Israel Renaissan.

The Times of Israel could find no trace of Israel Renaissan online or in public records. The principal director and shareholder of the Forum for Civil Society, which is registered as a private company for the public benefit, is Netanel Siman Tov. Siman Tov is the right-hand man of Russian-Israeli businessman Vyacheslav (Yitzhak) Mirilashvili as well a minority shareholder in at least three companies, including two right-wing media outlets, that he co-owns with Mirilashvili. Mirilashvili’s father, Michael Mirilashvili, is reported to be the second wealthiest man in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The Times of Israel contacted Siman Tov, who said that his organization has nothing to do with the Forum for Civil Society, which now operates under the auspices of Kohelet, with the exception of the fact that several of his organization’s former employees now work at the Forum for Civil Society. When asked for details of “Israel Renaissan,” he said that this information is private.

NGOs and anonymous donations

Uri Zaki, founder of the left-wing Front for the Protection of Democracy, told The Times of Israel that while Israel’s government has passed a series of laws in recent years requiring NGOs to reveal funding from foreign governments, these primarily apply to left-wing NGOs that receive funding from Western governments. Their right-wing equivalents receive funding largely from individuals and corporations, and so are not required to be similarly transparent.

Zaki — who is also a senior official in the left-wing Meretz party and a former US director of the left-wing NGO B’Tselem — said his Front for the Protection of Democracy is funded by private donors from Israel and the US, and the New Israel Fund.

The Neo-Right in Israel has systematically been trying to conceal the sources of their funds

Zaki has dubbed the many right-wing organizations founded in the last decade the “Neo-Right,” and argues that many of them are coordinated insofar as they share many of the same messages and goals, including the urgent passing of the override clause, as well as some of the same sources of funding.

Uri Zaki (Ben Zehavi/Times of Israel)

“The Neo-Right in Israel has systematically been trying to conceal the sources of their funds,” he charged. “We’re talking about tens of millions of shekels of dark money over the past decade that have very effectively been influencing the Israeli political scene and we don’t know who’s behind it.”

Zaki suggested that the Neo-Right might choose to be secretive about its donors because it has something to hide. “I can only speculate but it may be because the sources of some of their funding may not be considered kosher by the Israeli public. For instance, in the United States we know about Russians close to Putin putting money into the political system. I can’t exclude that possibility.”

Another possibility, said Zaki, is that some of the funding may be connected to close associates of the prime minister. “Perhaps these organizations don’t want to portray themselves as tools in the hands of Mr. Netanyahu.”

In response to Zaki’s remarks, Simcha Rothman, the legal adviser to the Israeli Movement for Governability and Democracy (Meshilut), said that his organization always publishes the names of donors who contribute more than NIS 20,000 ($5,500) in a year and has never asked to keep this information private. He said that some donors donate through 501(c)(3)s in order to get a tax deduction and sometimes these donors prefer not to publicize their names.

Speaking in general terms, and not specifically about his organization, Rothman added, “There are legitimate reasons for a donor not to reveal their name. For instance, a donor might not want to be bombarded with requests for donations from other charities or might be afraid their business would suffer if their political donations were public knowledge.”

Rothman noted that the Movement for Governability is not in any way affiliated with the settler movement.

“Yehuda Amrani, who founded Meshilut, used to work for Komemiut in a low-level position. When he founded Meshilut, he needed, according to Israeli law, seven people to start the organization and naturally he asked Rabbi Yair Kartman from Kommemiut to do so. But none of the Kommemiut rabbis have anything to do with Meshilut. It is run by Amrani and myself.”

“It is a great compliment for Meshilut that Uri Zaki is troubled with our funding,” he added. “Meshilut’s yearly budget is a small fraction of the budget of the foreign funded organizations Zaki used to work for. We are in constant search for partners that will help us extend our activities.”

We identify our donors fully as required by Israeli law

Meir Rubin of the Kohelet Policy Forum responded to Zaki’s claim of a lack of transparency in conservative organizations by saying “we identify our donors fully as required by Israeli law. Ask Zaki how the public should tell which one of the New Israel Fund’s hundreds of donors supported each organization, especially B’tselem, who only mention the New Israel Fund (just like we mention American Friends of the Kohelet Policy Forum), but not the actual people [making donations].”

Rubin rejected any suggestion that the Kohelet Policy Forum had taken money from anyone with a questionable reputation.

As for Kohelet’s relationship with Netanel Siman Tov and the Fund for Civil Society, Rubin said, “Netanel brought donations to the Fund for Civil Society, which we also supported. After a while the fund decided to change its core activities, so we took in the activities and employees that we liked, and they are now an integral part of Kohelet Policy Forum. Neither Netanel nor the Fund ever donated or solicited a donation to Kohelet Policy Forum, directly or indirectly.“

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