US Jews said to reject Israeli cash to fight BDS, fearing ‘foreign agent’ label

Strategic Affairs Ministry reportedly offering funds for American organizations to bring ‘influencers’ to Jewish state, help oppose boycott

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Public  Security Minister Gilad Erdan speaks at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, February 19, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan speaks at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, February 19, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At least four American Jewish organizations turned down millions of dollars in grant money from an Israeli ministry over fears they would have to register in the US as foreign agents if they accepted the funds, according to a report this week.

The Tuesday report in the Forward named the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Jewish Fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi as three of the organizations that recently said they could not accept money from Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry.

The identity of a fourth organization was not disclosed.

The Strategic Affairs Ministry is headed by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, and its secretary general, Sima Vaknin-Gil, was once Israel’s chief military censor.

Sima Vaknin-Gil. (Wikimedia Commons/Hidro, CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of its briefs under Erdan is to battle the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which aims to pressure Israel over its perceived ill-treatment of the Palestinians.

According to the report, the money the groups turned down was aimed at bringing “influencers” to Israel — people who could help build support for the Jewish state upon their return to the US.

One Jewish organization that was contacted by the ministry claimed ministry officials had become “anxious and frustrated” because they had to find a way to spend their budget.

US federal law obliges bodies involved in certain activities on behalf of foreign governments to go through a time-consuming process of registration with the Justice Department within the framework of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The act is aimed at monitoring foreign influence in American politics.

Caleb P. Burns, a partner at the law firm Wiley Rein, said that organizing trips for influential individuals on the Israeli government’s tab could well fall within the requirements for registration.

A court artist drawing shows US President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, center standing and Manafort’s business associate, Rick Gates, in federal court in Washington, October 30, 2017. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)

The law was thrust into the public spotlight last fall when US President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul J. Manafort Jr. and his business partner Richard W. Gates III were charged with failing to register as foreign agents by a grand jury, acting as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The Forward said that regardless of the new sensitivities, American Jewish groups have long feared that taking direct government funds from Israel could expose them to charges of “dual loyalty.”

The ministry was now advancing a new idea, the report said — channeling the $35 million it has for combating BDS through a secretive body called Kela Shlomo — “Solomon’s Sling” — over a period of three years.

Andrew Miller, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told the Forward that the propriety of funding a US Jewish organization via a body like Kela Shlomo would depend on the extent of transparency. If the aim was to circumvent US legislation and “disguise the role of foreign governments in these activities, that does raise some problematic questions,” he said.

The Forward said that the ministry’s campaign plans included creating rapid-response rooms in the US to oppose anti-Israel activities in real time.

Erdan said in January that last year marked a sea change in Israel’s anti-BDS campaign.

The ministry had persuaded several countries to stop funding BDS organizations, the world soccer body FIFA had rejected calls to exclude Israel, and high profile stars such as Britney Spears, Justin Bieber and rock groups Radiohead and Guns N’ Roses had also resisted BDS pressure and played in Tel Aviv as scheduled.

Israel’s anti-BDS efforts were proving effective because boycott activists now “understand that they, too, have something to lose,” Erdan said at the time, according to the Israel Hayom newspaper.

American pop star Britney Spears performs in Tel Aviv on July 3, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We will not allow them to continue to delegitimize Israel,” he said.

But human rights organizations decry the ministry for its secretive — and they say illegitimate — methods

A petition filed in the High Court of Justice last month by lawyer Shachar Ben-Meir charges that the Strategic Affairs Ministry “is carrying out a global propaganda campaign on behalf of the Israeli government that violates human rights and is acting without authority to do so.”

Quoting the Hebrew-language website The Seventh Eye, the left-wing Israeli website +972 reported that Kela Shlomo was a nonprofit organization founded by former senior government officials including Yossi Kuperwasser, who previously served as director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

“Unlike a government agency, which must follow freedom of information laws and actively publish information about its donors and formal ties, Kela Shlomo owes the public nothing — it does not even have a website (a temporary website set up by the organization just months ago has been taken down),” +972 said.

Israeli officials — and particularly Erdan — have also been clamping down on groups working within Israel that they see as supporting the global campaign for BDS.

Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

Earlier this month, the Interior Ministry sought to expel Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director, and a US citizen.

The Jerusalem District Court later issued an interim injunction allowing him to remain in Israel until government attempts to deport him have been ruled on.

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