JFNA’s $6M donation to ‘Brothers’ in Israel exposes fraternal disunity

JFNA’s $6M donation to ‘Brothers’ in Israel exposes fraternal disunity

Credit: Flash90

Charles Bybelezer and Amelie Botbol

The Jewish Federations of North America is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that represents 400 U.S. and Canadian Jewish communities, which collectively raise and distribute more than $2 billion a year. 

But experts told JNS that the Jewish umbrella group, which traces its origins back nearly a century, was short-sighted when it gave nearly $6 million late last year to an ostensibly rebranded iteration of a sectarian group that was on the forefront of protests against the Israeli government’s judicial reform initiative.

‘Brothers’ plus sisters

The Israel-based Brothers in Arms opted after Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre to relaunch itself as Brothers and Sisters for Israel, saying that it would set aside its harsh criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and instead mobilize its capacity to organize Israelis for the sake of Jewish unity and aid work during the war against the terrorist organization ruling Gaza.

Israel Defense Forces reservists founded the protest group—Achim L’Neshek in Hebrew—in January 2023 in opposition to the government’s plan to reform the judicial system. After leading anti-government protests for months, the group pivoted in the wake of Hamas’s terror attack in October.

“Originally, we started as Brothers in Arms,” Eitan Herzel, co-founder of Brothers and Sisters in Arms for Democracy, told JNS. “After Oct. 7, we told our donors that we would change our organization into a rescue-and-support organization, and this is what we did for the first two-to-three months.”

Brothers in Arms was officially registered on June 14, 2023. The Guidestar listing for Brothers and Sisters for Israel shows that it shares a registration number with Brothers in Arms.

Herzel created “Brothers and Sisters in Arms for the Democracy” on Jan. 3, 2024 (No. 580781946). That group appears to focus entirely on anti-government activities. Online domains and social-media accounts for Brothers in Arms seem to still operate either under the banner of or in coordination with Brothers and Sisters in Arms for Democracy.

Federations allocated $5,307,500 to Brothers and Sisters for Israel as part of JFNA’s Israel Emergency Fund between Oct. 7 and Nov. 1. It gave another $500,000 to Brothers and Sisters for Israel on Feb. 23.

According to information that JFNA released on April 12, the group has allocated more than $410 million of the more than $806 million that it raised in its Israel Emergency Fund. 

Per the JFNA site, the $6,007,582 that it has given to Brothers and Sisters for Israel is the eighth largest sum it has doled out after those disbursed to the Jewish Agency for Israel (more than $75.5 million), “nongovernmental organizations in frontline communities and partnership regions” (nearly $47 million), American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (more than $20 million), ReGrow (more than $13 million), Project Horizon ($11 million), Magen David Adom (more than $7.1 million) and Israel Trauma Coalition (more than $6.5 million).

Technically, the JFNA donates to Brothers and Sisters for Israel, but JNS confirmed that both Brothers in Arms and Brothers and Sisters for Israel are registered with the Israeli government under the same nonprofit identification, No. 580768935. It remains unclear whether funds donated to Brothers and Sisters for Israel are fungible and have been used for anti-government activities.

Confusing paper trail

Brothers in Arms officially requested to rename the group Brothers and Sisters for Israel on Dec. 19, according to documents it filed with the Israeli Justice Ministry, which JNS obtained. 

Although it shifted its activities after Oct. 7, the group would not be allowed to raise monies for this work until the Israel Tax Authority granted it permission to do so.

The group received permission to fundraise specifically for those new activities some time in November.

On Dec. 31, Brothers in Arms officially separated its activities from those of Brothers and Sisters for Israel, under the auspices of a then-unnamed group which appears to be identical to Brothers and Sisters in Arms for Democracy. The latter was charged with continuing the group’s pre-Oct. 7 activities.

It remains unclear how JFNA allocated money to Brothers and Sisters for Israel prior to Nov. 1, when that organization did not yet formally exist. Brothers in Arms also did not seem to have the legal authority in Israel to raise those funds.

“After Oct. 7, Brothers in Arms ceased its political activities and decided to use its volunteer base and logistical capabilities to work on relief efforts, including working with the IDF and police, under the name Brothers and Sisters in Israel,” a spokeswoman for JFNA told JNS.

“More recently, the organization decided to split into two separate organizations: Brothers in Arms is returning to political activity, while Brothers and Sisters for Israel—which has received Jewish Federations’s support—is continuing to run humanitarian efforts only, with no political activity,” she said. “Jewish Federations’s Israel Emergency Campaign does not provide funds for any political activity, in any organization.”

In its Guidestar registration, Brothers and Sisters in Israel is listed as an “advocacy agency, social and political change—general.”

Its stated purpose is “To promote private individuals’ contribution and volunteering for the benefit of Israeli society by way of civil and/or military service for the State of Israel, based on values ​​of mutual guarantee…between all parts of society without distinction on the basis of religion, race, sex or political affiliation.”

Brothers and Sisters for Israel and Brothers and Sisters in Arms for Democracy are registered under the same address in Haifa, despite having different registration numbers.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli thinks Federations erred while trying its best to help Israelis in need.

“At the beginning of the war, the organization did create serious initiatives that were effective. But in the past weeks, they’ve gone back into the streets,” Chikli told JNS, referring to Brothers in Arms.

“One of its leaders threw a torch at a policeman in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem,” he said. “This organization has shown once again that its members are extremely radical and violent people.”

“It exposes the nature of the organization, but I’m not blaming JFNA. I assume that it simply didn’t know and had good intentions,” he said. “In the future, though, I think it’s essential that JFNA demand to see where the money went and how it was used, so that at least we can actually know that it wasn’t serving political causes and instead did help citizens of Israel’s north and south.”

Herzel told JNS that for some 10 weeks after Oct. 7, the newly branded yet unregistered Brothers and Sisters for Israel “did not bill anything political.”

“Everything we did had to do with rescue and support, helping strengthen the education system, daycare and kindergartens, providing hot meals to soldiers and evacuees,” he said. 

“We also supported agriculture. This is what we used their money for,” he said of the Federations’ funds. “However, after a few months, we wanted to go back to our original mission, which is to protect Israel, keep Israel Jewish and democratic forever.”

The group decided to “open another organization,” Brothers and Sisters in Arms for Democracy, “in order not to confuse ourselves or our donors with both missions,” Herzel told JNS. “Our volunteers are the same and some of our people are the same, but there is different management and different bank accounts.”

Herzel insisted that there was no conflict of interest and said that it was “legitimate” for external donors to back both ventures, despite their overlapping infrastructures.

“In many cases, our funders support both missions and have the same ideas and interests as us,” he said. “Still, we had donors who did not want to deal with politics so, to be fair to them, we decided to open another organization.”

The organizations are “very transparent,” Herzel said, noting that the Israeli government is “watching us very closely.”

“They will audit us, so we keep our books under very tight control,” he said.

Herzel declined to say how much JFNA has given to Brothers and Sisters for Israel to date. “We would not use the donations for political purposes and demonstrations or anything like that,” he said. “We want to give ourselves the flexibility to protest and come out against this government.”

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, said JFNA had made a “reckless” error.

“It is clearly a reckless and irresponsible mistake for the Federations to take Jewish people’s money and fund an organization that was harming the unity of the Jewish people,” he told JNS.

Federations took a “disgraceful position,” he added. “It can never be trusted again.”

“JFNA was either negligent in its decision-making process or has similar sentiments to this hostile group,” he said. “JFNA has always shown itself as a left-of-center organization. I would not be surprised if it were helping this group due to its own political perspective.”

He went on to state, “It behooves JFNA to make it clear to its donors that it will be more rigorous than it has been in this case with respect to the groups it funds.”

Michal Beinisch, a co-founder of Brothers and Sisters for Israel, also told JNS that the group splintered from Brothers in Arms in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7. She, too, did not say for what the JFNA donation was used.

“We receive lots of donations from federations and organizations—very large amounts,” Beinisch told JNS. “We allocate it to what we’ve committed to, which is supporting soldiers and evacuees with all kinds of programs,” she said.

“We invested a lot in all these, not in any rally or protest activity,” she added.

Beinisch and Herzel are both registered as co-founders of Brothers and Sisters in Arms for Democracy.

‘A wise course’

This month, Israeli anti-government groups, including Brothers in Arms, kicked off a “Week of Disruption” aimed at bringing down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and forcing an election within four months.

The protests have included blocking highways throughout the country, with fires set to the Coastal Highway (Route 2) north of Tel Aviv.

A large rally was held at the Knesset in Jerusalem, after which activists broke through police barriers and converged on Netanyahu’s official residence on Balfour Street.

Ahead of one protest earlier this year, activists carrying flags of Brothers in Arms descended upon haredi neighborhoods to demand a universal military draft, clashing with residents. Last Yom Kippur, members of the group and other anti-judicial reformers stormed public prayers in central and northern Israel.

Concurrently, Israeli President Isaac Herzog has come under fire for awarding Brothers and Sisters for Israel with the prestigious Presidential Award for Volunteerism for its civilian initiatives during the war against Hamas.

The Tekuma movement, an Israel-based NGO founded by activist Berale Crombie and former Likud Party MK Avichai Boaron, slammed the president’s decision, accusing him of “dividing the people” by honoring an organization that has urged Israel Defense Forces reservists to refuse to serve.

“The same organization that tore apart, divided, harmed the military’s competence, violated the law and encouraged ‘non-volunteering’ will receive a badge of honor from the president of the State of Israel,” tweeted Crombie. “Tell me, have we gone crazy?!”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents 50 U.S. Jewish groups, told JNS that Federations did not aim to make a political statement by funding an anti-Netanyahu group.

“When you put it in the full context of the hundreds of millions of dollars that JFNA allocates to other organizations, it is a small amount,” he said. “While I’m not familiar with the selection process, I’m aware that the money given to these organizations is used to take care of Israel’s south and north.”

“It goes to people who have lost so much,” he added. “It is used to rebuild.”

It is “very possible” that Brothers and Sisters for Israel sought support from Federations for a specific project that JFNA decided to back. “I am not involved,” Hoenlein said. “I think American Jews, as a rule, are not involved in the domestic politics of Israel, and we see it as a wise course.”

“I think that people have put aside political differences since Oct. 7 and have been working together,” he added. “I hope that this will be sustained. It’s imperative that we keep that unity.”

“I don’t believe the Federations was seeking to make political statements,” he added. “Not having been involved, I can’t say what was the motivation, but I’m sure it was to provide for a project and wasn’t meant as a political undertaking.”

Ronen Koehler, a reserve captain in the Israeli Navy and a founding member of Brothers in Arms, told JNS that activities are interwoven among the “Brothers” organizations.

“It’s not about a single entity doing one thing; we are a movement,” he said. “We are here to demonstrate a new type of leadership, fix Israel and provide a better country for its citizens.”

The separate “Brothers” entities “are a legal element for some funders, who cannot legally donate to organizations dealing with political matters,” he said. “We made it easy on the administrative side. We made sure that money donated for kindergartens is from an accounting perspective not mixed with money to produce signs in favor of drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews to the army.”

His impression, having met with “hundreds” of U.S. and world Jewish leaders, is that “Jewish Federations in the world want to see Israel a liberal, humanistic country,” Koehler told JNS.

“The fact that Israel does not behave in a way that is acceptable in the western world disturbs them, while we represent modern Jewish values,” he said.

Source: JNS