Jewish communal world baffled after Ben Gvir targets mainstream US aid group JDC

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JTA – National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir is targeting an American Jewish group that has provided aid to Jewish communities in crisis for more than a century despite its nonpartisan stance.

Ben Gvir said Wednesday that he was closing a program dedicated to reducing violence in Israel’s Arab towns. The reason: The program is operated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a so-called “clerical organization.”

“JDC is a non-political organization and has been since our founding in 1914,” Michael Geller, a spokesman for JDC, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Ben Gvir’s characterization upset many in the world Jewish community who know the JDC as a non-partisan group with an extensive track record of providing humanitarian aid to Jews in distress.

For them, Ben Gvir’s criticism of the group is the latest sign that the breakdown of political norms in Israel goes beyond the judicial reforms promoted by the government, which have sparked massive public protests and dire warnings from security officials, business leaders, academics, law. experts and the political opposition.

“To call the JDC a left-wing organization is a big joke. It’s not political in any way,” said Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-CEO of the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit that works toward an “equal and shared society” for Jewish and Arab Israelis.

Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said he expected changes from the right-wing government, which was inaugurated in December. But Ben Gvir’s announcement surprised him.

“I could expect to revisit cooperation with organizations branded as civil rights or human rights or Israeli-Palestinian organizations,” he said. “But the JDC – it’s very strange.”

Founded in 1914 by the American Jewish banker Jacob Schiff to help Jews living in British Mandatory Palestine, the JDC has distributed billions of dollars in aid to 70 countries – including, in the past year, to 43,000 Ukrainian Jews. He played a central role in helping Holocaust survivors after the Second World War, and in the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

JDC staff preparing for online sedation in Odesa, Ukraine, April 7, 2022. (JDC)

Among its major sources of support are Jewish federations, the non-partisan umbrella charities found in nearly every major North American Jewish community.

“JDC is a political organization that has worked with every government since the establishment of the State of Israel, providing vital services to the elderly, at-risk youth, the disabled and underserved populations across all sectors, with includes Haredim and Arabs. Israeli,” the Jewish Federation of North America said in a statement.

“JDC’s activities are a living and breathing example of the Jewish values ​​of tikkun olam and tzedakah that guide the work of Jewish Federations every day,” the statement said, using the Hebrew phrases that reflect the Jewish need to repair the world and charity to give.

In Israel, the group funds and operates efforts to help communities in need – including immigrants, the elderly, the disabled and those living in poverty. Those efforts often involve working with the government, which gave JDC Israel its most prestigious award for its work in 2007. This year, according to a spokesman, the group is spending $129 million on Israeli initiatives. .

The JDC’s government-funded programs include the anti-violence effort Ben Gvir is focusing on. It was made possible last year by almost $1 billion in funding to prevent crime in Arab communities by the previous unity government led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. The allocation came after lobbying by Arab and civil society organisations, including the Abraham Initiatives, which are now monitoring how the money is being used as well as its impact.

Illustrations: Israeli Arabs protest against violence, organized crime and killings in their communities, in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, October 22, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Arab communities in Israel have seen a surge in violence in recent years, driven primarily, but not exclusively, by organized crime. Arab Israelis say police have failed to tackle powerful criminal organizations and for years largely ignored the violence, including family disputes, mafia turf wars, and attacks on women.

Israel’s Arab citizens make up 84% of crime victims despite making up only 20% of the population, according to government data released last year that showed a sharp rise in the number of Arab Israelis who experienced violent crime.

This week, commenting on the shooting death of an Arab Israeli woman, Arab Israeli opposition lawmaker Ahmad Tibi accused Ben Gvir of being “preoccupied with other matters,” such as clashes with the attorney general and police officers in Tel Aviv. “Perhaps the time has come for senior officers to show responsibility for criminal and military organizations running roughshod,” said Tibi.

Other initiatives aim to tackle violence in ways that go beyond policing. The program that Ben Gvir said he is shutting down is one of them. Called Stop the Bleeding, it involves multiple government ministries as well as local community groups and educational efforts and is operating in seven cities with large Arab populations, including the Bedouin town of Lod, a city with organized crime networks. Significant Arabs who are also in large numbers. Jewish population.

Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said the program was already starting to bear fruit and had helped slow a multi-year rise in homicides. The cancellation of the program, he said, reflects the current government’s general approach to tackling problems.

“It’s not about collaboration. It’s not about hearing the concerns and pain and hopes and needs of the Arab community,” he said. “It’s about doing everything unilaterally, and really without much care for the lives of those people. I think that’s what we’re looking at.”

A JDC employee, right, gives an aid package to a Jewish woman in Kharkiv, Ukraine during the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Courtesy of the JDC)

The JDC is not the first mainstream group to be targeted by far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, whose signature legislative effort aims to undermine the power and independence of the judiciary. The legislation has sparked a major protest movement and dire warnings about the country’s future from a wide range of public figures – including elder statesmen, foreign governments and religious leaders.

Avi Maoz, the leader of the anti-LGBTQ Noam Party who briefly held a leadership role in the Ministry of Education, compiled a list of American and British groups he believes are trying to impose their liberal values ​​on school children.

“We must protect our people and our state from the infiltration of foreign bodies coming from foreign countries, foreign companies, foreign foundations,” Maoz once said. Maoz has since resigned from that role, saying he did not think he was being empowered enough to fulfill his goals by the Netanyahu government.

But Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said he remains concerned about civil society programs, especially those that fall under the purview of far-right ministers including Ben-Gvir or those funded by American Jewry .

Those who pay attention to local governance expect further tensions over initiatives that do not match Ben Gvir’s view of tough policing. Ben Gvir wants officers to have the right to shoot stone throwers, has called for the death penalty for terrorists and is increasingly fighting police officers as he demands that they would take a tougher stance against protesters. Numerous former police commissioners have called for his dismissal.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai attend the inauguration of a new police station in southern Israel, March 14, 2023. (Flash90)

“Ben-Gvir has his own political agenda and he has his own ax to grind, and at the moment, I think he has no desire to develop services for the Saudi population, in matters of security or delinquency or youth education ,” said Amos Avgar, who worked for the JDC in Israel, Russia and the US for 30 years until 2010, including as chief program officer.

Avgar emphasized that the JDC has always avoided political activity. “If there is one thing the JDC is not, it is not political,” he said. “He always hit [away] from anything that smelled of politics and never dealt with any project according to a political agenda.”

It is unclear how quickly Ben Gvir’s announcement, made during a government meeting and first reported by public broadcaster Kan, will eventually be changed. Geller, the JDC spokesperson, said the organization learned of the criticism only from the media, not from Ben Gvir’s office. Later, amid an outcry, Ben Gvir’s office said the funding decision was after a review of contracts revealed missing documentation from the JDC, a charge the JDC denied.

Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said he did not have much hope for the future of the program.

“I think the first one [characterization] unfortunately he will be the right one — that he intends to stop it, which is very unfortunate because it is among the most serious programs willing to deal with this disaster,” he said. “And it shows again that the current Minister is not that interested in saving the lives of Arab citizens.”

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