Friends of Israel Defense Forces Raises $27 Million Under NY Media’s Radar

It isn’t every day or night that a tax-exempt non-profit American charity rakes in $27 million in the space of a few hours. When it happens in New York at such a well known landmark as the Waldorf-Astoria, arguably the city’s most famous hotel, it should be news, right?

Wrong, apparently, since not a single TV station nor any New York newspaper, all of which are known for their attention to events in the city’s Jewish community as well as their devotion to Israel, saw fit to cover the annual dinner of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) this past March 12 which raised that enormous sum.

Nor, it turns out, did they cover last year’s FIDF fundraiser at the Waldorf which took in almost as much, $26 million, nor the one in 2011, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the organization that featured the presence of six former Israel Defense Forces Chiefs of Staff and collected $23 million.

More than five weeks after latest dinner, the only paper trails that can be found to the event were in the Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz (a week later), the New York Jewish Week, and the Forward, the city’s national Jewish weekly which is known for printing articles that the mainstream press and other Jewish publications find too hot to handle. The Jewish Week’s reporter, Tim Boxer, in fact, did not mention the amount raised at the black tie, $1000 a plate affair, until the very last paragraph of the story.

“The dinner raised $27 million for FIDF which, since 1981, has been supporting educational and recreational facilities for soldiers and their families,” wrote Boxer. “Among the heavy hitters was Marc Belzberg who announced, ‘I am donating one million dollars and my first-born son to the IDF in August’.”

The FIDF is an organization that most Americans, including Jews not affiliated with the Jewish establishment, have probably never heard of and that is obviously the intent of those who run what has, in the last few years, become one of the brightest star in the pro-Israel fundraising firmament with a $60 million annual budget, all of which, it cannot be overemphasized, is tax-exempt.

“[E]stablished … by Holocaust survivors to provide for the well-being of Israeli soldiers,” according to its website, and headquartered in New York City, the FIDF is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation that operates 16 regional offices in the United States and Panama. Its mission, in brief, is visible at the top of its website: “Their job is to look after Israel. Ours is to look after them.”

True to that motto, the money this “charity” raises benefits exclusively the soldiers of a foreign country that has not fought a war longer than 33 days in 40 years and whose primary duties have been to protect Israel’s illegal settlements, demolish Palestinian homes, make the lives of ordinary Palestinians miserable, and suppress Palestinian resistance to its ongoing ethnic cleansing by whatever means necessary.

The FIDF has a different take:  “The Israeli government is responsible for training IDF soldiers and providing them with the necessary tools for their service. FIDF is committed to providing these soldiers with love, support, and care in an effort to ease the burden they carry.” FIDF also brings Israeli soldiers to the states to visit synagogues and lecture at schools and universities. “These events,” according to its website, “offer a great opportunity to meet IDF soldiers and hear the stories of these brave young men and women.”

In 2011, the last year reported, it raised just over $62 million and had $80 million in assets at the end of the year, $546,000 of which goes in salary to its national director, Retired Israeli General Jerry Gershon, plus an additional $10 thousand a month for his New York apartment, according to the Forward.

Given that every year, irrespective of the ups and downs of the US economy,  Washington awards Israel’s military establishment with more than $3.5 billion (when it’s all added up) of the taxpayers money,  the FIDF’s desire to keep its fundraising activities under wraps and invisible to the larger American public is readily understandable.  That they are able to do so with apparent impunity is but further evidence, if such is needed, of the degree to which supporters of Israel dominate our national media.

Considering that an estimated 870,000 US veterans are suffering the after effects, physically and mentally, of multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and comprise a significant segment of the nation’s homeless, the very existence of the FIDF and the nature of its primary concern—the welfare of Israeli soldiers—might be viewed as an insult not only to US servicemen and women,  but to ordinary Americans who are forced to confront the increasing costs of medicines and medical care, higher gas and food prices, and underfunded schools, not to mention the more than 300,000 who lose their jobs and forced to file for unemployment benefits every week for the past several decades.

There are some other things about New York’s FIDF dinners that are unusual. With the exception of Monica Crowley, the right-wing Fox News commentator who is routinely brought in to preside over the post-dinner programs, it is largely an inside job. Unlike at other pro-Israel events, there was an absence at the dinner, at least in the reports in the Israeli and Jewish press, of key New York Jewish political figures known for their loyalty to Israel, such as Sen. Charles Schumer and Representatives Elliot Engel, Gary Ackerman, and Nita Lowy, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

There was one prominent attendee, however, whose substantial donations to the FIDF should raise some eyebrows were it not apparently at the service of Israel. His name is Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, another tax-exempt non-profit that raises money for Israel from American evangelicals while paying him a handsome $491,000 for his services.

The rabbi apparently has collected quite a bit from the evangelicals—the friendship often being a one way street–so when he attends an FIDF dinner he is in a generous mood. On March 12th Eckstein’s $5 million dollar pledge topped all the others as did his $8.5 million commitment at the 2011 FIDF dinner and his $9.25 million bequest in 2012.

Those kind of numbers would certainly draw the public’s critical attention, particularly when all of this money that is headed towards Israel is tax-exempt and more than that, thanks to IRS rules enacted in 2008, once it leaves America’s shores it’s not traceable.

Even though the rule was changed, essentially favoring pro-Israel non-profits, five years ago, it went unnoticed by the media until the Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis reported on it in the paper’s April 12th edition:

“Want to know how an American charity is spending your donated dollars overseas?,” he wrote.

“Tough luck.

“That’s the effect of an Internal Revenue Service rule change that is making it increasingly difficult for donors and watchdogs to track American not-for-profit dollars after they leave the United States.

“Former IRS officials,” he noted, “have criticized the little-noticed 2008 change, which lifted the requirement that charities in the United States report to the IRS and the public the identities of overseas charities to which they have sent money.

“Charities still have to tell the IRS and the public the names and amounts they donate to other American charities. When American charities send money out of the country, however, they need to say only the region of the world where they sent it and the amount they gave.”

Nathan-Kazis  cites, as an example, the  One Israel Fund, which in 2003 reported sending tens of thousands of dollars to settlements in the West Bank, and now needs only to note  that it sent grants to the “Middle East” for “Security,” among other purposes, as it did in its 2010 disclosure.

The One Israel Fund makes it quite clear on its site where its money is going:

“One Israel Fund is dedicated to supporting the welfare and safety of the men, women and children of Judea and Samaria as well as rebuilding the lives of the Jewish people impacted by the Gaza evacuation. These 300,000+ people are the vanguard of Israel’s security and sovereignty as a Jewish State.”

In other words, One Israel Fund has no qualms about openly raising funds for projects that are in direct conflict with long standing US policy and yet the government not only has not penalized it but made it easier to cover its trail. In 2010, on the last available 990, One Israel Fund reported that it had sent $2, 340,000 to meet its goals, a $600,000 increase from the previous year. It is not hard to speculate that its donations have grown considerably since then.

In its 990 form for 2011, Rabbi Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews made no mention of his donations to the Friends of Israel Defense Forces nor did he so in its annual report which was filled with pictures of children, women and the aged in Israel which the Fellowship claims to support out of the slightly more than $100 million  it raises annually.

The largest Jewish organization to take advantage of the IRS’s tax-exempt status is the United Israel Appeal, founded in 1953, which is the funding arm of the Jewish Federations of North America. It funnels its donations through the Jewish Agency of Israel, a quasi-governmental organization that predates the founding of the state and was in charge of Jewish settlement in Palestine.

In 1963 it was revealed in US Senate hearings that between 1955 and 1962, the Jewish Agency had recycled over $5 million ($40 million in today’s dollars) donated by American Jews to Israel back to the American Zionist Council, (AIPAC, before its name change) to pay for pro-Israel lobbying and propaganda in the US. This led to an unsuccessful attempt by the President Kennedy’s Justice Dept. to force the AZC to register as a foreign agent, an effort that would evaporate following his assassination. Private efforts to follow-up on Kennedy’s efforts have been blocked by subsequent administrations.

According to Guide Star, a website that monitors non-profits, the United Israel Appeal took in just under $197 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, the last year it reported its financials. Curiously, according to Guide Star, the United Israel Appeal at this point in time “is not required to file an annual return with the IRS” and no audited financial statements are available.

What a difference 57 years makes. In 1956, when Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion was reluctant to obey President Eisenhower’s order to withdraw Israeli troops from the Sinai which they occupied after joining Britain and France in an attack on Egypt, in the “Suez War,”  Ike threatened to end the United Israel Appeal’s tax exemption status and that brought Ben-Gurion to heel.

One can imagine what Eisenhower would think today of an organization of Americans established to help Israeli soldiers, not American troops, and receiving an exemption from paying US taxes at the same time.

The New York and East Coast media have not been alone in protecting the FIDF from possible public wrath. In Beverly Hills, the local chapter has raised sums that while not approaching the amounts raised by its New York counterparts, has not done badly. Its fundraising events, as well, have also been blacked out by the mainstream media, despite the presence of such well known Hollywood stars as Barbra Streisand and Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander, an ardent supporter of Israel who acts as master of cermonies.

Last December 17th, at the Century-Plaza Hotel in Beverly Hills, its annual dinner pulled in a record $14 million in pledges which some viewed as the Jewish establishment’s defiant response to entertainer Stevie Wonder who had agreed to be the night’s headliner, but pulled out as a result of a petition by from pro-Palestinian activists and a personal plea by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.

There should have been two stories there for the LA media. First, that Stevie Wonder had withdrawn from the event, bowing to public pressure and second, that the FIDF dinner, hosted as it is every year by Israeli-American communications billionaire, Haim Saban and his wife, Cheryl, had raised a record sum for the local chapter. It was not to be. Only the local Jewish Journal reported on the event and Wonder’s cancellation.

Back in New York, in what was headlined, “A LETTER FROM THE WALDORF-ASTORIA  the Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis poked fun at the heavy handed security at March’s FIDF dinner.

“For defenders of Israel, danger is everywhere, — even in New York City, even on Park Avenue,” he wrote, “even once they’ve passed a metal detector on the second story of the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

“Such was the conceit of the organizers of the Friends of the IDF gala, who posted two additional layers of security between the cocktail room and the ballroom at their March 12 event.”

Nathan-Kazis  noted that guests had been warned not to take photos and that MC Monica Crowley had told them, “Do not even think about uploading anything, anywhere, at any time,” as a live satellite feed from what was said to be a secure Israeli intelligence facility in Jerusalem appeared on screens throughout the ballroom on which  “a bald, bespectacled soldier described how his unit eavesdrops on Palestinian phone calls, though this practice was hardly a state secret.”

The FIDF had flown a number of Israel soldiers to New York for the event and, as  Nathan-Kazis tells it,

“In the ballroom, Crowley, in her role as MC, talked with a young drone operator identified as Major Yair, who stood in a spotlight on an upper balcony. ‘Flying these kind of remote vehicles sounds really fun,’ Crowley told Major Yair, referring to the rocket-equipped unmanned warplanes.

“’Yeah, it is,’” Yair affirmed.

“Yair grew up in a town near Israel’s southern border. His own home was hit with a rocket launched from Gaza while he was away serving in the IDF, he told the rapt audience. Yair spoke about how he identifies targets while piloting his drone, showing side-by-side infrared images of a man in a stretcher and a man preparing to launch a rocket. The blobs in the middle of the images looked similar, but Yair showed how he could carefully distinguish between them.

“’If someone dropped a rocket on my family I wouldn’t spend so much time deciding which one was which,’” Crowley said. The crowd applauded.”

Jeff Blankfort is a radio host and journalist who lives in Northern California. He can be reached at