‘Left-Wing’ Election Flights May Be Illegal
05/07/99
Staff Writer
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Chai L’Yisrael, the cheaper of the two at $180 round trip from New York, is offering flights tied to the May 17 election for prime minister and parliament, the Knesset. The latter will decide the fate of the Orthodox religious parties. Kesher’s round-trip flights are for an expected June 1 runoff between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud Party and Ehud Barak of the left-leaning One Israel Party. Kesher’s fares are $449 from New York and $649 from Los Angeles. Each group says thousands have signed up for their respective trips. And with Israel’s last election for prime minister, in 1996, decided by less than 15,000 votes from almost 3 million cast, each thinks their effort could make a difference. Both groups insist they operate on a nonpartisan basis, welcoming one and all — so long as they are registered voters in Israel. But activists associated with each do not hide their tilts. “In the last election, there was a big movement of people coming to Israel from the United States [that] was very one-sided,” said Behr of Kesher. “They were only the religious party supporters. They have the right, God bless them. But I thought, I have to give other people the opportunity. People like me.” Behr said later that his group would stay together after the elections to serve as a kind of network for Israelis in America. Meanwhile, at Chai L’Yisrael, “Based on what I have seen, people who are signing up are determined to vote for Bibi Netanyahu,” Hikind said in a published report Tuesday. “At least I hope they are.” Hikind, who is also a Democratic Party district leader in Borough Park, has leased his party office to Chai L’Yisrael. Both groups are incorporated as not-for-profit, but only Kesher says its money comes from tax-deductible contributions via a tax-exempt public charity. And that, say tax experts, is a real problem. “I don’t know what would be charitable about this,” said attorney Bruce Hopkins, widely regarded as one of the nation’s leading charity law experts. “I know of no rule that says transporting individuals to the polls is charitable.” Hopkins, author of the widely used law text, “The Law of Tax- Exempt Organizations,” explained, “You can go down the list of ways to be charitable in an election. There are voter guides. There’s voter education. But the sheer physical act of transporting people to the polls? I just don’t see it.” Cohen, the former IRS commissioner, said: “Flying people to vote in a foreign country is simply not a charitable activity. It would certainly not entitle the donors [subsidizing the flights] to a deduction. It has no benevolent or social welfare purpose.” He dismissed as irrelevant Kesher’s emphasis that it is nonpartisan. “So what?” he said. “The question is, why is this charitable? I mean, it’s outrageous.” Susan Hoffman, associate director of Shefa, a self-described “progressive” Jewish fund, defended its role, by which it passes on tax-deductible donations from givers who want to back the subsidized flight operation. “It’s legitimate charitable work that falls under the umbrella of education,” she said. Through such “donor-advised grant making,” said Hoffman, “We allow the funder to have a simple way to support Middle East peace and the ability of Israelis to participate in their election.” “It’s not partisan,” she stressed. Hoffman said Shefa had obtained an oral legal opinion from outside counsel before proceeding with the arrangement to make sure it was legitimate. But she declined to disclose the name of the attorney. “He prefers not to comment or be questioned,” she explained. The Internal Revenue Service does not respond to questions about the legality of specific cases unless it has concluded a formal investigation. But IRS spokesman Bob Kobel told The Jewish Week of the Kesher arrangement, “On the face of it, it might raise some questions.” Meanwhile, in Hikind’s Borough Park Democratic clubhouse Tuesday, Zev Segal, the paunchy, bearded, 40-something staff manager for Chai L’Yisrael, listened with unflappable politeness as phone callers and visitors complained they had yet to receive promised confirmation for their May 17 trips. “You’ll be notified,” he told one caller. “The process is in Israel now. We’re waiting to hear, hopefully next week. We don’t have much time.” Chai L’Yisrael recently stopped taking any more bookings. All its chartered flights are filled now, said Segal. But the process is bottlenecked as volunteers in Israel check travelers’ Israeli ID card numbers to confirm they are currently registered to vote, he said. Nissan Fogel, Chai L’Yisrael’s official spokesman, conceded, “You have to understand, it’s a volunteer organization. Things are not going as smoothly as we’d like.” According to Segal, Chai L’Yisrael — unlike Kesher — is not tax exempt. Donors, he said, receive no tax deductions. Indeed, the IRS reports no record of a tax-exempt group under this name. Still, like Kesher, Chai L’Yisrael says it imposes no political or religious test on those seeking seats. Four prospective Chai L’Yisrael travelers contacted by The Jewish Week supported this claim. But two others challenged it. “They asked me about my religion,” said Tzdok Yeheskeli, New York correspondent for the Israeli daily paper Yediot Achronot. Yeheskeli, who called without identifying himself as a journalist, said he was later called back by a Chai L’Yisrael volunteer who asked him, “Do you go to synagogue on weekends and holy days? What synagogue are you affiliated with, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox?” Another caller, from Manhattan, who would speak only on condition he not be identified, said he had a similar experience. “I’d be very surprised if they were asked that,” said Fogel. “It’s absolutely not part of our program.” It seemed unclear just how many people Chai L’Yisrael had signed up. Hikind said the goal was 7,000 to 10,000. Segal used the figure 10,000. Based on the number now being processed, “I’m sure we’re going to fill it,” he said. But Fogel, stressing he alone spoke officially for the group, termed those figures “a bit exaggerated.” “We have enough money to send … two or three thousand,” he said.” In terms of IRS law, there appears to be no controversy regarding Chai L’Yisrael, so long as it is, indeed, not tax exempt. But Menachem Hofnung, a Hebrew University political science professor who helped write Israel’s campaign finance law, said both groups and their donors are probably violating Israeli law, which bars foreign contributions to Israeli parties and campaigns. American Jewish fund-raisers who seek to back a side in Israel’s elections have seen contributions to these subsidized flight operations as one of the few legal ways to influence Israel’s elections — so long as they are at least overtly nonpartisan. But Hofnung said flatly, “It is illegal to offer voters cheap, subsidized flights” just for the elections. Even if no questions are asked about participants’ backgrounds, he said, “These organizations’ political colors are known to everyone. … It is not legal to give voters a gift. And this is clearly a gift.” “Will people stand trial for this?” he asked rhetorically. “I doubt it. “Israel can’t impose sanctions on these U.S. groups. And unless you can prove real ties to the parties, you can’t sanction them, either.” Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.

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