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After call of boycott, tables turned on Im Tirtzu

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Ronen Shoval, the chairman and co-founder of Im Tirtzu. (Courtesy Ronen Shoval)

Ronen Shoval, the chairman and co-founder of Im Tirtzu. (Courtesy Ronen Shoval)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Im Tirtzu, the Israeli organization that has launched several attacks on left-wing Israeli groups over the past year, may have gone a step too far when it threatened to mount a divestment movement against Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

At least, that’s what its funders appear to think.

The threat, issued because the university has professors on staff whom Im Tirtzu deems “anti-Zionist,” will apparently prompt the group’s largest donor last year, controversial evangelical Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel, to withdraw his support for next year. No formal announcement has been made yet, but a member of the panel that advises Hagee on CUFI’s Israel projects has said that CUFI will drop its support of Im Tirtzu.

"In light of recent events and in my discussions with Pastor Hagee, he will not continue that funding as we both believe that Im Tirtzu has morphed into a quasi-political organization and neither Pastor Hagee nor the Houston Jewish Federation will fund such groups," the panel member, Houston Jewish Federation president Lee Wunsch, wrote in response to a query by blogger Richard Silverstein.

"Im Tirtzu misrepresented its focus when they told us their mission was strictly Zionist education," CUFI spokesman Ari Morgenstern told JTA.

The threat against Ben-Gurion University was the latest in a string of verbal attacks on Israeli or Jewish groups deemed out of line with Im Tirtzu’s ideological views. In February, Im Tirtzu accused the New Israel Fund of funding organizations that provided a majority of the Israeli-sourced information used in the Goldstone Report, the report of a U.N. fact-finding mission that found Israel guilty of war crimes for its actions in Gaza during the 2009 war against Hamas.

That accusation — challenged by NIF and others — brought considerable heat on the NIF from the pro-Israel community and even from some of the organization’s own donors. Now, the tables are turned, with Im Tirtzu the subject of scrutiny and donor ire after the organization’s call for the boycott of an Israeli institution.

A source close to Im Tirtzu told JTA that the organization’s leadership is not overly concerned with the recent withdrawals of support, noting that the group saw a fund-raising boom in 2010 from Israeli donors.

Now, Im Tirtzu, which has outposts on several Israeli college campuses, may be taking another hit. A source at the Jewish Agency for Israel said it might no longer allow Im Tirtzu to use the Jewish Federations of North America as the tax-deductible address for donations by U.S. donors to Im Tirtzu.

Im Tirtzu is one of about 400 Israeli charities that do not have 501c3 status in the United States and instead use the United Israel Appeal — a subsidiary of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency — as a pass-through for tax-deductible gifts. The Jewish Agency handles the applications from Israeli charities that want to qualify for the service and conducts due diligence to make sure donors’ money is spent appropriately. Annual applications to re-qualify for the service for next year are due Sept. 1.

A Jewish Agency source said the agency was misled by Im Tirtzu, which had represented itself as a campus educational group in its quest to qualify for the service.

“This will go to serious lawyers,” the Jewish Agency source said. “One of the questions is: Is this politics and does this fit what they promised CUFI and the UIA and American and Israeli law? If the answer to any of those questions is no, then Im Tirtzu has a problem, and if Im Tirtzu violated the agreement, then there will be ramifications.”

CUFI also said it was misled by Im Tirtzu, which turned out to be a quasi-political group.

"We had no prior knowledge of Im Tirtzu’s prior political actions, and we never seek to involve ourselves in Israel’s internal political debate,” Morgenstern said. Morgenstern stopped short of confirming that CUFI would cut off Im Tirtzu, indicating that CUFI’s decision would become clear when all of the organization’s grants are announced in October.

CUFI, which gives nearly $10 million per year to Israeli causes, gave Im Tirtzu $100,000 in 2009. According to some reports, Hagee’s money made up three quarters of Im Tirtzu’s budget that year. Hagee also gave $100,000 to Ben-Gurion University in 2009.

The source close to Im Tirtzu said the organization has backups if its relationships with the UIA and the federation system fall through. It also uses other U.S. tax-exempt organizations, such as the PEF Israel Endowment Fund, as a pass-through, and hopes to have its own American Friends of Im Tirtzu set up within the next several months.

The organization also is planning to open outposts on 14 more Israeli educational campuses over the next year, the source said.

For his part, Im Tirtzu co-founder Ronen Shoval is not saying much by way of public statements on the controversy. “We thank CUFI for their generous support in the beginning of our way,” he told JTA.

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