U.S. pro-Israel groups failed to disclose grants
from Israeli government
By Aiden Pink
September 04, 2020 "Information
Clearing House" - More than half of
all American states have passed laws designed to
combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
movement against Israel. No advocacy group was more
important to this push than the Israel Allies
Foundation, an American non-profit that supports a
network of pro-Israel legislators across the globe.
It was the IAF that in 2014
connected a South Carolina politician with an
Israeli legal scholar who drafted the first bill to
ban state agencies from contracting with entities
that boycott Israel.
After that law passed in South Carolina in 2015,
the IAF successfully lobbied for nearly-identical
anti-BDS bills in 25 other states, including
Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona. Now the group is
backing another bill, which has already passed in
South Carolina and Florida and been introduced in
six more states, which would change civil-rights
codes to define antisemitism to include
Public records obtained by The Forward show that
the Israeli government approved a grant of more than
$100,000 to the Israel Allies Foundation in 2019.
The IAF has not disclosed this or any previous
Israeli grants to the United States government, in
possible violation of laws requiring American
political advocacy groups to disclose
The IAF, which reported $1.4 million in revenue
in 2018 and features a testimonial on its website
from Vice President Mike Pence, did not respond to
four emails seeking comment.
It is one of 11 American groups that received
Israeli government funds, according to the
documents, which show that the Israeli Ministry of
Strategic Affairs and a quasi-governmental
organization it created have given at least $6.6
million to U.S. organizations since 2018. These
grants, along with millions more that went to groups
in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Israel itself,
were to further the country’s public diplomacy
efforts, particularly against BDS.
The Israeli government’s gifts to pro-Israel
American entities — including more than $1 million
each to Christians United for Israel and Aish
Hatorah’s Hasbara Fellowships — were publicly
unknown until the last few weeks, after a politician
not from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party
took over the ministry and dropped its longstanding
stance against releasing its public records.
According to the Israeli documents, most of the
grants to the American organizations were intended
to send those groups’ members — and selected guests
— on chartered trips to Israel, which often included
meetings with Israeli officials. Spending these
funds abroad, rather than inside the United States,
may have allowed them to avoid onerous federal
disclosure requirements designed to thwart foreign
But documents also suggest that some of those
trips included instructions for pro-Israel advocacy
back home — in statehouses and on college campuses —
which legal experts say may expose not just the
recipient groups but also anyone who went on their
trips to fines and even prosecution for violating
The documents, which include financial
spreadsheets, government memoranda and the minutes
of official meetings, were released after a Freedom
of Information Act request by the Israeli Freedom of
Information Movement and the Israeli news website
The Seventh Eye , and shared with the Forward.
Many foreign countries try to influence U.S.
policy and public opinion, and Israel is no
exception. But lobbyists paid by foreign governments
are required to register with the Department of
Justice and disclose whom they work for, whom they
meet with or write to, how much they’re being paid,
even what’s printed on their pamphlets.
The law that governs this activity is the Foreign
Agents Registration Act, or FARA. It was passed in
the 1930s to thwart pro-Nazi propaganda conducted by
Americans who were secretly supported by the Third
Reich. It exists so that the public can know “whose
benefit people are acting on behalf of,” said Amos
Jones, a Washington lawyer who specializes in FARA
Many American political advocacy groups reject
foreign-government donations, both to avoid
accusations of foreign influence and to avoid the
cumbersome FARA disclosure process.
FARA — which experts said was designed to be
intentionally broad — governs “any person who acts
as an agent, representative, employee, or servant,
or otherwise acts at the order, request, or under
the direction or control of a foreign principal.”
The law calls for up to five years in prison and
fines up to $250,000 for failure to disclose.
While the law was once rarely enforced, there
several prominent FARA cases in the past few
years. As part of their plea deals, former Trump
campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former National
Security Advisor Michael Flynn both admitted to
improper compliance with FARA.
Many of the payments that Israel made to the IAF
and the other American groups were delivered through
an organization that was set up, an Israeli official
acknowledged in a Knesset hearing this summer,
to mask the money’s source. But several experts said
that the existence of such an intermediary does not
remove the disclosure requirements.
“They can have all the shell companies they want
or whatever you want to call it,” said Jones, one of
three FARA lawyers who were interviewed for this
article. “If that is a foreign organization or group
of people, then they can be a foreign principal,
thereby requiring persons acting under their
direction inside the United States to have to
The other two FARA lawyers concurred with Jones’
The ministry’s workaround: a company called
Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs was once a
backwater agency with unclear purpose. That
changed in 2015, when it was placed under the
control of the hard-charging, hawkish Gilad Erdan,
who convinced Netanyahu, a fellow member of the
Likud Party, to quintuple the ministry’s budget and
add fighting BDS to its portfolio.
Ever since, the ministry has been tasked with
waging war in the battle of public opinion against
Israel’s critics, especially on social media. It has
fought in court to keep some of its activities
classified, but it has also
published dossiers on pro-BDS activists and
hired an Israeli influencer popular on the U.S.
college-lecture circuit as a consultant.
But as the Forward
previously reported, Erdan found that when the
ministry offered money to Jewish-American groups in
2017, it was often rebuffed — out of concern about
the FARA disclosure requirements, that they’d be
accused of “dual loyalty,” or that the grants would
complicate their claims that they represent American
Jewish interests, which are often similar but not
identical to Israeli ones. Such refusals included
several prominent American Jewish groups like the
Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish
Council of Public Affairs. A spokesperson for the
Anti-Defamation League said this month that it, too,
had turned down a grant. One official whose
organization was solicited, speaking on the
condition of anonymity, said that the Israelis were
“anxious and frustrated” by the rejections.
A ministry spokesperson declined to answer
questions for this article. Instead, the official
sent a three-sentence statement saying that its
activities “are done in a legal and professional
manner, including informing the relevant authorities
on issues such as FARA, and is conducted according
to the letter of the law.”
By December 2017, the ministry largely stopped
trying to directly give money to major Jewish
advocacy organizations. Instead, it
helped create a “public-benefit company” to
fight BDS — and put a buffer between itself and the
American groups. The company was originally called
Kela Shlomo, or Solomon’s Sling, but less than a
year later, its name was changed to Concert. In
keeping with their penchant for secrecy,
officials in the ministry and the company refused to
explain the name change to journalists.
The ministry pledged to match private donations
to Concert, up to $37.5 million over four years. The
company’s sole purpose was to provide grants to
Israeli and Diaspora advocacy groups. It had an
independent board, but its steering committee was
chaired by the ministry’s director-general.
This approach meant potentially doubling the
amount of money available for the cause, by
consolidating private and public funds, and creating
an entity much nimbler than the Israeli government
to quickly respond to BDS victories or social media
Ronen Manelis, the ministry’s new director, also
said this summer that the strategy was designed in
part to make it easier for American groups to accept
the grants, because Concert’s ties to the Israeli
government, while not secret, were also not well
“The understanding was that it would be easier
for them to come to terms with a public-benefit
company than with an action that the Israeli
government is behind,” Manelis testified in July at
a Knesset oversight hearing. “In the end, you see a
bank transfer from a non-profit organization, and
not a bank transfer from the Israeli government.
That’s the idea.”
In the end, Concert granted around $10.5 million,
a little more than half of which went to American
groups. Several groups got more than $1 million
each; the smallest grant was $15,000.
A spokesperson for Concert also refused to answer
The Forward’s questions, but said in a statement
that the organization “conducts all of its
activities with its partners according to FARA
regulations and the law, and as such reports to the
relevant authorities and entities.”
The company’s internal documents identify some
organizations it funded, but others are redacted.
The language describing those beneficiaries’
activities is vague: “defensive and offensive”
campaigns, research on “corporate responsibility,”
“amplification units” that would provide “support
for organizations in a pro-Israeli network.”
But Concert’s internal communications also show
frustration that many American pro-Israel groups
still refused to take its money, seeing it as
essentially a pass-through for government funds.
That refusal made sense to several lawyers
interviewed who help clients comply with FARA. “That
entity would count as a foreign principal,” said
Jones, using the language of the disclosure law.
None of the American organizations known to have
taken money from Concert, or from the ministry
directly, have filed FARA paperwork with the
Department of Justice. At first glance, most are
able to avoid this disclosure because the payments
were designated for activities outside the United
States — but in some cases, the details raise
There is also one unusual situation, in which a
well-known pro-Israel group, StandWithUs, was
apparently granted Concert funds unknowingly — and
now plans to reject the money rather than
potentially be exposed to a FARA investigation.
That situation began in June 2019, when Robert
Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, won
the $1 million Genesis Prize, which honors
individuals for their “accomplishments and
commitment to Jewish values.” Kraft, who at the time
was fighting charges of soliciting prostitution,
said that he would donate the money to
organizations fighting antisemitism and BDS.
The Genesis Prize Foundation solicited
applications and, in June 2020, announced
26 groups to receive part of the prize,
including StandWithUs, which is based in California.
The Seventh Eye, the Israeli journalism outlet,
that Concert had added $1.6 million to Genesis’ $1
million to expand the pie.
Told of Concert’s involvement, Roz Rothstein,
chief executive of StandWithUs, said earlier this
month that the group might have to turn down its
grant, which it had not yet received.
“We thought the funds were coming from Robert
Kraft, so we will need to look into it,” Rothstein
said in a statement. “We have not accepted any funds
from the Israeli government so there is no reason
for us to register” under FARA.
One of the most prominent beneficiaries of
Concert funds — and of the foreign-travel disclosure
loophole — was Christians United for Israel, the
largest pro-Israel group in America, which was
awarded nearly $1.3 million in February 2019 for 10
week-long pilgrimages to the Holy Land, each
containing 30 of what Concert documents call
“influential Christian clerics from the U.S.”
Concert’s board also approved hundreds of thousands
in subsidies for trips run by smaller groups, such
as the America-Israel Friendship League.
CUFI did not respond to a request for comment.
AIFL executive director Wayne Firestone said that
Concert had given them approximately $33,000 for one
of its trips — around a third of the amount the
Israeli company approved. Firestone also said that
he didn’t know Concert was a subsidiary of the
ministry, that no amount of the grant was spent
inside the United States, and that his group didn’t
believe it needed to register under FARA.
FARA experts said those groups needn’t have
disclosed the grants if they were indeed solely for
travel. But minutes of Concert’s board meetings
suggest that some groups’ activities in Israel were
closely tied to the politicking on American soil
that is the heart of FARA.
For example, in discussing the Israel Allies
Foundation in January 2019, Concert’s board noted
with approval that the group “has many achievements
in promoting pro-Israel policy and legislation,”
specifically citing the anti-BDS state laws. The
board then approved a grant of $118,000 for the
foundation to hold a conference in Israel “with the
organization’s top lobbyists to enable the
concentration of efforts and the construction of a
common strategy among all members.” Attendees would
also meet with Israeli leaders, from whom they would
be “expanding and deepening the relevant knowledge,
creating and strengthening ties.”
FARA experts consulted by the Forward said that
if such knowledge-expanding involved Israeli leaders
telling IAF staff or American lawmakers what
strategy Israel preferred, it could leave the group
and perhaps the individuals liable for FARA
registration. The fact that a request was made
outside the United States would not matter if it was
related to activities back home, they explained,
especially since the Israeli government had helped
pay for the trip.
In December 2019, the IAF indeed
held a conference in Jerusalem, convening 24
lawmakers from 21 countries, including one American:
state Rep. Alan Clemmons, the original sponsor of
the IAF’s anti-BDS law in South Carolina.
met with several Israeli leaders, including
Netanyahu; the opposition leader, Yair Lapid; and a
member of Knesset named Orit Farkash-Hacohen, who
five months later became Minister of Strategic
Affairs. They also met with Eugene Kontorovich, the
Israeli lawyer who wrote the anti-BDS law that
Clemmons and the IAF had helped get passed back in
Clemmons, who was first elected in 2002, is also
on the board of the American Legislative Exchange
Council, a group that creates and disseminates
“model legislation” to a network of conservative
politicians around the country. After the success of
his anti-BDS campaign, Clemmons was focused on
getting colleagues in other states to pass bills
equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, as he had
already done in his state.
In the two months after the IAF conference in
introduced such bills in eight statehouses. In
five of them, the bill’s primary sponsor is, like
Clemmons, involved with ALEC.
Clemmons abruptly resigned in June, a month after
winning his party primary, saying he wanted to spend
more time with his family. In July, he was
appointed to the board of the state’s Revenue &
Fiscal Affairs Office. He did not respond to a
request for comment.
Documents also show that Concert in May 2019 gave
more than $1 million to support Hasbara Fellowships,
the program run by the Orthodox group Aish Hatorah
that takes college students to Israel and trains
them to advocate for the Jewish state on campus.
followed a similar grant, of $882,000 from the
Strategic Affairs Ministry to Aish in 2016.
“The ministry is satisfied with the activities of
the organization that creates the necessary
infrastructure for pro-Israel activities on U.S.
campuses and with the training of students for this
activity,” Concert said in a May 2019 memo, making
clear the connection between Hasbara’s Israel tours
and their participants’ campus activism, as well as
the ties back to the Israeli government.
Aish Hatorah and Hasbara Fellowships did not
respond to requests for comment.
A review of Hasbara’s
does not show any indication that it is backed by
the Israeli government (unlike, say, Birthright
Israel, which is
about the subsidies it receives). Nor has Hasbara,
or its parent group, Aish Hatorah, filed FARA
If the trips were solely to educate students
about Israeli history, culture, and even politics,
Hasbara Fellowships would not need to register under
FARA. But if those trips contained instructions for
how participants should conduct pro-Israel campus
activities, lawyers interviewed for this article
said, they could be investigated as unregistered
agents of a foreign principal.
The reason so much about Concert’s activities are
coming to light is that the Ministry of Strategic
Affairs’ leadership changed once Israel finalized
its new coalition government in May. Erdan of the
right-wing Likud, who had run the ministry since
2015, was given the much higher-profile role of
representative to the United Nations, with a promise
to be the next ambassador to the United States. He
was replaced by Farkash-Hacohen, of the centrist
Blue and White alliance.
Erdan had argued that the ministry should be
exempt from the country’s public-records laws, and
spent years fighting activists and journalists
seeking information on its activities. Soon after
Farkash-Hacohen took office, she dropped the
ministry’s objections, allowing years of Erdan-era
documents to be released.
Among the things they show is that Concert never
quite lived up to its promise.
Finding private donors proved difficult, in part
because of FARA concerns, so Concert only ever got
$5.2 million in matching grants from the ministry,
about 15% of the originally allocated $37.5 million.
Concert’s performance was “unsatisfactory,”
Manelis, the ministry’s new director-general, told
the Knesset oversight hearing this summer. Concert’s
activities are thus expected to be revamped, Haaretz
Still, the combined public and private funds gave
Concert a total of around $10.5 million - at least
$6 million of which was given to American groups.
Whatever the group’s future, the ministry maintains
the portfolio of fighting BDS and the
delegitimization of Israel around the world.
“The ministry will continue to work with the
pro-Israel network in tackling some of the biggest
issues facing the Jewish People and the Jewish State
through legal means and partnerships wherever
possible,” it said in a statement.
But if more funding of American groups is brought
to light – whether via Concert or the ministry
itself – questions will likely continue about their
legality under American law.
“The U.S. and Israel are two different
countries,” said Jones, the FARA attorney, adding
that the fact that they’re allies is “not supposed
to” change the enforcement of the law.
Molly Boigon contributed reporting.
Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the
Forward. Contact him at
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views expressed in this article are solely those
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opinions of Information Clearing House.