Swiss Keren Hayesod alarmed by Israel’s direction, terrorist death penalty bill

Zurich branch of international fundraising body decries ‘immediate threat’ to fabric of Israeli society; organization insiders fear criticism from other branches to follow

Keren Hayesod building in Jerusalem, August 3, 2007. (Wikipedia/by Neta - own work)
Keren Hayesod building in Jerusalem, August 3, 2007. (Wikipedia/by Neta - own work)

Keren Hayesod Switzerland sent a letter to its Jerusalem headquarters on Sunday expressing its intense concern over the direction in which Israel was headed under the current coalition government.

The organization, also known as the United Israel Appeal, was founded in 1920 and today maintains branches in 45 countries, serving as the fundraising arm of the State of Israel and financing projects in the areas of education, welfare, immigration, absorption and more.

In the internal letter, addressed to the organization’s leadership in Jerusalem and published by the Walla news outlet, Keren Hayesod Switzerland said it “cannot stand aside silently any longer,” indicating its concern over legislation being advanced by the coalition to overhaul the judicial system while particularly singling out a bill currently before the Knesset that seeks to institute the death penalty for terrorists convicted of killing Israelis.

The proposed legislation, a central campaign promise of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, stipulates that courts will be able to impose the death penalty on those who have committed a nationalistically motivated murder of a citizen of Israel. However, it would not apply to an Israeli who killed a Palestinian.

“This was a red line for us. This is not the Israel we want to support,” Keren Hayesod Switzerland’s letter read.

But it also indicated it was more generally worried over the coalition’s legislative agenda, with signatories saying they were committed to supporting Israel “as long as the basic principles of humanity are respected and as long as Israel continues to be committed to the principles of a liberal and democratic system.”

Responding the actions of the Swiss branch, two senior World Keren Hayesod executives penned a joint statement that acknowledged an internal debate on how to respond to the political crisis in Israel.

The letter by Steven Lowy and Sam Grundwerg, world board of trustees chairman and world chairman, respectively, reaffirmed Keren Hayesod’s support for Israel but stopped short of criticizing the Swiss branch for appearing to limit it.

“This statement addresses the deep concerns from Keren Hayesod campaigns around the world regarding the current disturbing events taking place in Israel,” read the document published March 15. “Israel is still a young country fighting to exist in a hostile region. It is our only Jewish state and in vital need of the work and support of Keren Hayesod. We will continue to advocate for the values of our beloved organization.”

They also stated that they favored a compromise offer unveiled on March 15 by President Isaac Herzog, which the leaders of coalition parties said is unacceptable to them, mainly because under it, coalition politicians would not get to decide on the selection of judges as the coalition seeks to ensure in its overhaul.

Unnamed senior Keren Hayesod officials were quoted by Walla as saying they harbored serious concerns that the Swiss branch’s statement may be the first of many, potentially leading to a fall in donations to the fundraising institution and Israel.

Critics of the legal makeover decry the move as stripping judicial independence and eroding democracy, leaving almost all power in the hands of the elected political majority. Supporters say it is needed to rein in an overly activist judiciary, and insist it will strengthen democracy.

The Swiss branch, based in Zurich, called on Keren Hayesod’s leadership in Jerusalem to make sure its voice was heard “loud and clear,” warning it “not turn a blind eye to a real and immediate threat to the basic fabric of Israeli society.”

“We ask you to stand up to the people in charge and transmit this message,” the letter concluded.

In 2021, Keren Hayesod reported raising $140.2 million, 81 percent of which was spent on “strengthening Israeli society.” A further 10% was spent on connecting Jewish communities to Israel, and the remaining 9% on immigration and absorption in the Jewish state.

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