Armchair warriors for Zion?

How private American money is being used to continue the building of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land even though the U.S. government wants to stop it.

Published October 16, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

until now, the Sisyphean struggle for peace in the Middle East has involved two clearly identifiable sets of players: the diplomats who write treaties and set up photo-ops and signing ceremonies on the White House lawn; and the warring communities who use terrorist bombs and government bulldozers to render the treaties meaningless.

Recently, there has emerged a third set: armchair Jewish nationalists who, assisted by generous tax breaks and the Internet, are rolling the rock back downhill from the safety and comfort of their American homes.

Prominent among them are people like Dr. Irving Moscowitz, a millionaire physician and bingo king from Miami, who, along with other like-minded American Jewish right-wingers, has given tens of millions of dollars over the past decade to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Their money also finances virulently anti-Arab religious seminaries, some of which are affiliated with Jewish terror groups banned in Israel and the United States, and helps to buy up land in Arab East Jerusalem, thereby scuttling any chance of a compromise agreement over the disputed city.

Such armchair warriors rarely leave their American desks. Arthur Finkelstein, the gay Republican political consultant -- better known in the U.S. as an organizer of Sen. Jesse Helms' viciously anti-gay electoral campaigns -- uses a secure phone to Jerusalem to counsel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on matters such as how to spin the disastrously misconceived assassination attempt against a Hamas leader in Jordan. Others merely point their browser to certain places on the Internet:

"A new apartment building in memory of Nachum Hoss from Hebron and Yehuda Partush from Kiryat Arba, who were murdered last year outside of Hebron. Includes 6 apartments and a public area. Total cost for building: $1,500,000, Cost per apartment: $200,0000," says one notice on the Web site of the Hebron Fund, a New York foundation that raises money for the ultra-nationalist Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron. The settlers' presence in the overwhelmingly Palestinian city has caused constant friction and unrest, the latest example of which occurred a few months ago when a settler put up posters in the town depicting the prophet Mohammed as a pig.

The Web site of the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, a New York foundation that focuses on moving Jews into the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, tells its visitors: "Only through the support of folks like yourselves can we continue our important work of reclaiming the Old City on behalf of the Jewish people."

The Jerusalem Project has funded the purchase of the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter, as well as some 50 nearby Arab homes, which now house extremist Jewish religious students and teachers. Located close to the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, the yeshiva's stated mission is to prepare for the day when the mosque is replaced by a reconstructed Jewish temple atop the biblical Temple Mount. "This is our campus," says Dr. Joseph Frager, a New York physician who is head of the foundation. "It's the oldest and certainly the holiest campus in the history of the world."

It has also been used as a battlement from which the campus's rabbis and students have hurled human feces at protesting Palestinians and Israelis. They have also thrown shit at Jewish men and women who have committed the unpardonable sin of praying together at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.

In an interview, Frager refused to disclose how much the Jerusalem Reclamation Project has raised since its inception 10 years ago. Last year, he said, 1,500 American supporters paid $250 each to attend a dinner at the New York Hilton jointly sponsored by the Jewish Reclamation Project and the One Israel Fund, which raises money for West bank settlements, grossing $375,000 on one night alone.

"This is not a basketball game," says Frager, referring to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's call for a "time-out" in Jewish settlement construction. "For her to call for a time-out creates a moral equivalency between building and terrorism." As for Jerusalem, says Frager, "There is nothing to talk about. It belongs to the Jews. Period. End of story."

No one has been able to track exactly how much American money goes to such organizations. The Associated Press recently scrutinized the tax records of a dozen U.S. organizations that support Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories and East Jerusalem and found that the groups received more than $11 million in tax-deductible contributions in 1995, the latest year for which full tax records are available.

Incomplete tax records for the past four years showed these U.S. groups received at least $23 million in tax-deductible contributions, according to the AP. In other words, while Washington policy makers insist a halt to settlement construction is crucial to the peace process, the U.S. government provides tax breaks to those who are actually funding the settlements.

By far, the biggest individual donor to these organizations is the 70-year-old Moscowitz, who made a fortune buying and selling hospitals and old-age homes in California and from a bingo parlor in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawaiian Gardens. Moscowitz sees himself as part of a divine mission to protect Israel's survival, which he believes depends on Jewish control of Jerusalem. "After 2,000 years of sacrifice for the dream of returning to Jerusalem, we cannot allow it to be taken away," he told the Los Angeles Times last year.

To that end, he has purchased an estimated $20 million in land and property in Arab East Jerusalem, including the Ateret Cohamim Yeshiva complex, another yeshiva on Mount Scopus, a large house on the Mount of Olives, the Shepherd Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, St. John's Hospice and a building in the Christian Quarter of the Old City close to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Moscowitz also donated the money for the controversial restoration of an ancient tunnel leading from the Temple Mount to Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter and pressured the Netanyahu government to open it in Sept. 1996. The opening provoked gun battles that left 70 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers dead.

Controversy also surrounds Moscowitz's most recent purchase -- several houses and three and a half acres of land in Ras al-Amud, a Palestinian neighborhood on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, and a small plot of land in Abu Dis, a Palestinian town straddling Jerusalem's eastern border. Just one day after Secretary of State Albright ended her visit to the Middle East last month, a group of Jewish families moved into the Ras al-Amud houses and planted the flag of a new Israeli settlement. Under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu opposed the move, but Moscowitz challenged the Israeli leader in court, staying any government expulsions. Under a compromise, the three Jewish families subsequently moved out, to be replaced by 10 yeshiva students who now guard and maintain the property.

According to Yossi Kaufman of Ateret Cohamim, Moscowitz plans to start building several dozen apartment units for Jews at the site within three months. He also plans to build more housing for Jews on his land in Abu Dis. Under Israel's previous Labor government, there had been considerable progress in talks with the Palestinians to turn Abu Dis into the future Palestinian capital. A Jewish presence there would clearly thwart that option.

Other foundations support Jewish seminaries that espouse the political beliefs of Kach, the ultra-nationalistic party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, which has been linked to numerous terror attacks against Arabs and left-wing Israelis and is officially listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. "Most yeshivas (in the West Bank) have their own fund-raising foundations in the United States," Steven Orlov, president of the One Israel Fund told Salon.

Such involvement infuriates more moderate Israelis. "People like this Moscowitz are some of the most dangerous people in Israel today, and they don't even live here," says Israeli writer Meir Shalev. "They make these settlements possible with their money, and then when there's violence, they're fat and safe in Miami. They should stay there and spend their money at home. We don't need it."

Orlov of the One Israel Fund insists that all of the $2 milltion to $3 million his organization raises annually goes for humanitarian purposes, such as hospitals, schools, ambulances and emergency medical equipment. By way of example, he recounts an incident in the West Bank involving an accident in the middle of Bethlehem. A United Nations ambulance with Arabic writing on the side arrived to assist the injured Jewish driver. "We couldn't have that," Orlov said. "We couldn't allow a Jew to go into what amounted to an Arab ambulance." Orlov got on his cell phone, and within a few minutes another ambulance arrived on the scene. "And you know what was written on the side?" Orlov said. "'Donated by the One Israel Fund.'"

"If we donate an ambulance in Judea and Samaria (the biblical names for the West Bank) to make people's lives safer, why is that political? Are we supposed to let their lives become so miserable that they have no choice but to abandon their homes? I don't see how that is political. It just escapes me."

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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