Court Finds Freund, Shavei, Guilty of Forgery, Fraud

(April 28) In a ruling handed down on April 15 by Tel Aviv District Court judge Naftali Shilo, Michael Freund, Shavei Israel’s founder and chairman, was found guilty of having forged his ex-wife Sarah’s signature on numerous forms and documents submitted by Shavei to Israel’s Registrar of NGOs and non-profit organizations. The ruling, following a special hearing at which Freund testified, was given in response to a request by Sarah for a court declaration clearing her of any past involvement or association with Shavei. The request, her lawyers explained, was occasioned by her fear of being accused of complicity in Shavei wrongdoings were they ever to become the subject of a criminal investigation.


Judge Shilo’s decision, first revealed on April 26 by Haaretz reporter Judy Maltz in the newspaper’s English-language edition, must be viewed in the context of a trial, still in a preliminary stage, in which Sarah Freund is suing her former husband for IS50 million – a sum she claims he embezzled from a family trust before their 2016 divorce and transferred to Shavei Israel without her knowledge. Michael Freund has contested this version of events, arguing that the money was given to Shavei with Sarah’s consent. In support of his contention, his lawyers have pointed to her signature on Shavei documents as proof that she was an active member of the organization’s board of directors and regularly took part in its meetings.


The District Court’s judgment that the signatures purporting to be Sarah’s were forged by Freund himself demolishes this argument, thus making it probable that Freund will lose the suit and be forced to return the 50 million shekels. It brands him a serial counterfeiter and liar, leaves him open to criminal charges, and appears to rule out the possibility that Shavei in its present form can be granted future government contracts or continue to assume the responsibility delegated to it until now for bringing B’nei Menashe to Israel. [See today’s Degel Menashe editorial “What Now?”]


Judge Shilo’s 11-page verdict was closely reasoned. Michael Freund and his lawyers, it noted, failed to bring a single witness to testify that Sarah attended any of Shavei’s board meetings or took part in a single one of its activities. Moreover, it stated, Michael’s claim that this failure was due to many of these meetings having been conducted by telephone is contradicted by Shavei’s own bylaws, which did not non-face-to-face board meetings prior to 2020. There were also, Shilo pointed out, numerous inconsistencies in Freund’s testimony, which was often at odds with statements made in the pre-trial brief filed by his lawyers in the embezzlement suit.


Thus, for example, Shilo pointed out, Freund declared in this brief, “I wish to stress that every time that there was a need for Sarah’s signature on some document, I would bring it home with me, show it to her, and have her sign.” Yet pressed in the special hearing to explain why Sarah’s alleged signature on Shavei documents resembled his own, he answered that “there were times when Sarah asked me over the telephone to save her the trouble [of signing] and to sign documents for her.” Such discrepant versions of what happened, Shilo wrote, were “highly damaging to Michael’s credibility.”


Most damning were Shilo’s comments on the nature of the disputed signatures, made after listening to the testimony of two graphologists, one brought by Sarah and one by Michael. “Not even an untrained eye,” the judge commented, “can fail to discern the similarity between the two signatures…One must accept the opinion of Dr. Vardi [the graphologist brought by Sarah] that the plaintiff did not put her signature on any of the organization’s documents and that the person who did this was Michael.” At times Shilo appeared to be more astounded by Freund’s lack of preparation for the questions asked him by Sarah’s lawyers, and by the floundering way in which he answered them, than by the obvious falsity of the answers themselves.


In ruling in the plaintiff’s favor, Judge Shilo assessed Freund, with court costs plus IS 50,000 for Sarah’s legal expenses. Such an assessment is usually made when a judge is impressed by the low quality of a litigant’s case.