NGO Registrar Warns Shavei Israel, Shavei Lawyers Respond
(February 9) An exchange of letters between Israel’s Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations and the lawyers of Shavei Israel reveals the seriousness of the Registrar’s warning to Shavei that its Certificate of Proper Management is in danger of being revoked. Written months ago, the two letters recently came into our Newsletter’s possession.
The first of the letters was sent on the stationary of the Ministry of Justice’s Israeli Corporations Authority, of which the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations (rasham ha-amutot in Hebrew) is a division. Signed on the Registrar’s behalf by advocate Bat Sheva Weizman, the letter was dated August 15, 2022 and written in the context of Tel Aviv District Court judge Naftali Shilo’s April 15 decision that found Shavei Israel guilty of forging the signature of Sarah Green, the former wife of Shavei chairman Michael Freund, on numerous documents. (Green’s signature was forged, Shilo’s verdict implied, to help Freund and Shavei defend themselves against Green’s charge that her ex-husband embezzled 50 million shekels of family money for Shavei’s use.) Advocate Weizman wrote in paragraphs 5-7 of her letter:
“5. The Registrar holds that the factual findings in the Tel Aviv District Court’s verdict, and their implications in regard to the proper conduct of the organization [Shavei Israel] and its operative bodies, are severe, in light of which the Registrar is considering the revocation of the organization’s Proper Management Certificate issued for the years 2022-23.
“6. Before the Registrar decides to revoke the Proper Management Certificate given to the organization for 2022-23, it is extending to it the opportunity to respond to this letter and to present the Registrar with its arguments against the certificate’s revocation. The organization must do so within 14 days and no later than 29.8. 22.
“7. Be it understood that if the organization fails to respond to our letter by 29.8.22 in fulfillment of our request, the Certificate of Proper Management given it will be revoked without further notice.”
A Certificate of Proper Management (nihul takin), while not needed for the existence a government-recognized amuta or non-profit organization in Israel, is required for it to be eligible for government contracts and to have tax-deductible status for the purpose of contributions. Since Shavei Israel’s response to the Registrar’s letter, made by the prominent Tel Aviv law firm of M. Firon & Co., was sent only on October 6, over a month after the Registrar’s August 29 deadline, it is not clear why its Proper Management Certificate was no revoked immediately.
Perhaps a request for a postponement was accepted. In view of the length of the law firm’s response, such a request would have been reasonable. Consisting of 17 pages and 102 numbered paragraphs, the response, written by M. Firon partner Na’ama Zer Kavod, sought to make the case that Shavei Israel should be allowed to retain its Proper Management Certificate regardless of the outcome of its appeal to the High Court of Justice, filed last June, of Judge Shilo’s decision. (As reported in last week’s Newsletter, the appeal was rejected by the High Court on January 22 of this year.)
Long-winded and repetitive, these 102 paragraphs boiled down to the following main points:
1. Judge Shilo’s verdict was mistaken and Michael Freund and Shavei Israel did not forge Sarah Green’s signature.
2. Even if Freund and Shavei did forge the signature, they did so without criminal intent. The offense would have seemed negligible had not Green, who was determined “to ruin Mr. Freund financially, destroy the humanitarian project he had built at such pains….and make his life miserable,” chosen to make an issue of it.
3. Even if criminal intent could be proved, the offense took place long ago. ”The matter,” wrote Advocate Zer Kavod, “must be put in perspective -- that is to say, [it] occurred… at a time when they [the Freunds] were still married…. and has no bearing on the [current] conduct of the organization, let alone on improper behavior on its part that would justify so severe and irreversible a sanction as revoking its Proper Management Certificate.”
4. Even if a criminal offense that was committed years ago is sufficient reason for revoking an ordinary organization’s Certificate of Proper Management, Shavei Israel is not an ordinary organization. Shavei has done, wrote Zer Kavod, a “magnificent job” in bringing some 5,000 B’nei Menashe from India to Israel over the past 20 years. Without “its intensive activity, the B’nei Menashe community would never have come to Israel,” and although “the government of Israel has issued a call for every possible body to offer its services in the absorption of the B’nei Menashe [in Israel], no organization has been found that could do what it [Shavei] could.” If not for Shavei Israel, Zer Kavod argued, there would no B’nei Menashe community living in Israel today, and even if there were one, its members would be living lives of misery, unassisted and uncared-for. A negative decision on the Registrar’s part would thus be not only a “death blow” to Shavei itself, since it would “cripple its ability to work with the government of Israel and raise funds,” it would also do “irreversible harm” to the B’nei Menashe community and spell the end of its Aliyah.
In short, claimed Zer Kavod, Shavei Israel and Michael Freund did nothing wrong, and if they did do something wrong it was trivial, and if it was not trivial it deserves to be forgotten, and if it does not deserve to be forgotten it deserves to be forgiven, since Shavei is a wonderful organization that the B’nei Menashe cannot do without.
One is reminded of the man who, accused by a neighbor of having cracked the borrowed pot he returned, replied: “In the first place, I never borrowed your pot. Secondly, I returned it in perfect condition. Thirdly, it was already too cracked to be used when you lent it to me. And lastly, I’d like to have it back because my family needs it to cook with.”
It is Advocate Zer Kavod’s last point that is most laughable. One after another, its claims are patently false. To begin with, the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah started in the early 1990s, under the auspices of Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, a decade before Shavei Israel appeared on the scene; nor has Shavei brought 5,000 B’nei Menashe to Israel (whose actual B’nei Menashe population is more like 4,500), close to a thousand having come in Avichail’s time and many hundreds more having been born here. The true number brought by Shavei is closer to 3,000. Averaged over the 20-year period in which the organization has had sole responsibility for the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah, this comes to a 150 immigrants per year – hardly a record to be proud of.
Moreover, as every B’nei Menashe and every reader of our Newsletter knows, Shavei Israel, far from having done a “magnificent job” in bringing these 3,000 B’nei Menashe, has done a reprehensible one. It has used the monopoly given it over the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah to control and intimidate the B’nei Menashe community and dictate its way of life. It has played favorites, bringing its protégés to Israel and putting its opponents on Aliyah blacklists. It has done almost nothing to help the B’nei Menashe in Israel advance economically or integrate into Israeli life. It has ignored and sought to suppress protests and petitions against its policies by large segments of the B’nei Menashe community. And it has, in its effort to retain its exclusive control of the B’nei Menashe community, tried to block the efforts of others to help it, both in Israel and in India. It is simply not true, as Advocate Zer Kavod asserts, that “the government of Israel has issued a call for every possible body to offer its services” in aiding the B’nei Menashe – and a major reason that it has not done so is that Shavei Israel has not wanted it to.
Will the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations be made aware of these and other damning facts before rendering its decision on Shavei Israel’s status? One can only hope that it will be, and that it will not misled by the false light in which Shavei’s lawyers have cast it. Arguing that it is a trivial offense to commit forgery in order to cover up the embezzlement of funds is not worthy of a serious law firm; adding to this the contention that this offense was in a good cause is turning a blind eyes to Shavei’s true nature..
On the 6th of November, 2022, state attorney Ya’akov Hillman, writing to the High Court in regard to Shavei Israel’s appeal, stated: “The Registrar’s Office has decided that after the honorable Court’s decision, and in accordance with it, it will review the question of revoking the organization’s Certificate of Proper Management. Concomitantly, it will weigh the need for invoking additional measures of enforcement, including a request for the organization’s dissolution.”
The Registrar is now called upon to act.