Ed.: UPDATES: With Commentary by the Department of State. With AP photos. EDITS: to expand audience, includes New Jersey state lines.
JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli group that raises funds for Jewish extremists convicted of some of the country’s most notorious hate crimes is collecting tax-exempt donations from Americans, according to findings by The Associated Press and Israeli investigative platform Shomrim.
Records in the case suggest that Israel’s extreme right is re-establishing itself in the United States.
The amount of money raised by a US non-profit organization is not known. But the AP and Shomrim have documented the New Jersey money trail to jailed Israeli radicals, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin and people convicted of deadly attacks on Palestinians.
This overseas fundraising arrangement has made it easier for the Israeli group Shlom Asiraich to raise money from Americans who can make their contributions through the US nonprofit with a credit card and claim a tax deduction.
Many Israeli causes, from hospitals to universities to charities, raise money through US-based guns. But if the strategy is adopted by a group that helps Jewish radicals, it raises legal and moral questions.
It also comes against the backdrop of a new, far-right government in Israel led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where ultra-nationalists and extremist lawmakers have gained unprecedented power.
According to Shlom Asiraich’s promotional brochures, beneficiaries include Yigal Amir, who assassinated Rabin in 1995; Amiram Ben-Uliel, convicted of murdering a Palestinian baby and his parents in an arson attack in 2015; and Yosef Chaim Ben David, convicted of kidnapping and killing a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in Jerusalem in 2014. The group also supports an extremist ultra-Orthodox man who fatally stabbed a 16-year-old Israeli girl at the Jerusalem gay parade in 2015.
Shlom Asiraich, or “The Well-Being of Your Prisoners,” has been raising money in Israel since at least 2018 and was officially registered as a non-profit organization in 2020 by a group made up mostly of Israelis from hard-line West Bank settlements. At least five of the group’s seven founders have themselves been interrogated by Israeli authorities for crimes related to their anti-Palestinian activities. Some were arrested and charged.
Recipients of their generosity have praised the group for getting through tough times.
“You have no idea how much you are helping us,” wrote the family of Ben-Uliel, who is serving three life sentences, in a handwritten letter posted to the group’s Facebook page.
Because it is a relatively new organization, Shlom Asiraich’s official filing with the Israel Register of Nonprofit Organizations contains little data and does not indicate how much money it has raised. But in its promotional flyers recently aired by Israeli Channel 13 news, the organization said it had raised 150,000 shekels (about $43,000).
Israeli nonprofit organizations have long sought funding abroad, with the US being a key source. Jewish American organizations alone donated $2 billion to Israel each year between 2018 and 2020, according to figures released by Noga Zivan, a consultant for nonprofits in Israel.
Israeli right-wing groups have a long history of raising funds in the US, but Dvir Kariv, a former official in Israel’s Shin Bet branch of state security, which deals with Jewish violence, said it’s unusual for extremist Jews like those running Shlom Asiraich be to it.
He said the group appeared to take inspiration from other far-right Israeli groups, particularly Kach, an anti-Arab racist group that was once banned as a terrorist organization in the US but which Kariv said was adept there decades ago, to collect money.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, a senior cabinet minister in Israel’s new far-right government, is a disciple of Kach’s founder, Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was once banned from Israeli politics.
It’s not clear when Shlom Asiraich began working with the New Jersey-based World of Tzedaka, a nonprofit organization that says it “works to enable any person or organization to raise money for their specific cause.”
Donors in the US can visit Shlom Asiraich’s website and click on a link that will take them to a donation page hosted by World of Tzedaka. You can also donate directly from the World of Tzedaka website.
According to an instructional video on the World of Tzedaka website, fundraisers must provide a rabbi as a reference and obtain approval from a Lakewood religious committee. World of Tzedaka charges $28 per month and a 3% processing fee for transferring funds to an Israeli bank account, the website says.
World of Tzedaka supports other charitable endeavors, most of which focus on helping Jewish families in need, according to its website.
Ellen Aprill, a tax and charities expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said convicted criminals and their families may be considered needy and classified as an allowable charitable cause.
While assisting someone convicted of acts of terrorism could be seen as promoting criminal activity, it would need to be proven, she said.
Marcus Owens, an attorney who headed the IRS’s nonprofit division in the 1990s, took a harder stance.
“The US Department of Justice considers helping the families of terrorists a form of material support for terrorism,” he said.
To become an IRS-recognized tax-exempt group, an organization must operate solely for charitable, religious, or educational purposes.
Repeated attempts to reach representatives of Shlom Asiraich were unsuccessful. A person who answered the group’s phone number hung up on an AP reporter. Moshe Orbach, whose address in the hard-line West Bank settlement of Yitzhar is listed as the group’s headquarters, declined to be interviewed through a lawyer.
A World of Tzedaka representative hung up when asked for comment.
The IRS declined to answer questions about the group, saying, “Federal law prohibits the IRS from commenting.”
The State Department referred questions to the Justice Department on Tuesday. “We condemn extremist violence in all its forms,” it said.
According to documents obtained by AP, Shlom Asiraich was registered with Israeli authorities as a non-profit organization by Chanamel Dorfman, a lawyer and senior adviser to Ben-Gvir, Israel’s new Minister of National Security.
Dorfman is also listed as the group’s “lawyer/legal counsel” on Guidestar, the official website for the nonprofit registry.
In a text message, Dorfman denied ever having been legal counsel for the group and did not respond to further questions. Dorfman recently told the conservative daily Israel Hayom that he was only acting as a lawyer and that “if I had known this organization was doing this, I would not have registered it”.
In October, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, Shlom Asiraich tweeted a photo of snacks it was providing to Jewish suspects under house arrest and families of Israelis convicted or accused of crimes against Palestinians. A note accompanying the wine and other merchandise from the nonprofit called the men “beloved heroes.”
“Stay strong and stay true to the people of Israel and the Holy Torah and don’t stop being happy!” read the note.
This article was published in cooperation with Shomrim, the Center for Media and Democracy in Israel. AP correspondent Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the year of Rabin’s assassination was 1995, not 2005.