Hebrew charter schools and Israeli political corruption?


Has a Hebrew charter school in the United States been swept up in a web of Israeli governmental corruption?

That’s what Haaretz implies in an article published Wednesday headlined “Yesh Atid’s Piron tried to steer funds to school tied to big U.S. donor.”

The article notes that before the current Israeli government was dissolved, Education Minister Shay Piron took steps “to transfer” $258,000 “to an overseas school run by the daughter of Michael Steinhardt, a long-standing donor to Piron.”

Sounds like Piron, a Yesh Atid Knesset member, secretly slipped a quarter of a million dollars from the public coffers to a pet project of the American billionaire philanthropist (and Birthright Israel co-founder) in exchange for a donation to his centrist political party, right?

In actuality, the money was to be a public grant not to an individual school but to the Hebrew Charter School Center, or HCSC, a nonprofit that helps establish Hebrew charter schools throughout the United States, Jon Rosenberg, the group’s president and CEO, told JTA. And while Steinhardt is the largest individual donor to the group and his daughter, Sara Berman, is indeed the HCSC chair and sits on the board of one of its affiliated schools, she doesn’t “run” any school.

The center in 2014 applied for funding that was to come evenly from two Israeli ministries, Education and Diaspora Affairs — the latter headed at the time by Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home Party — to support its Modern Hebrew and Israel Studies programs. But the funding request was put on hold when Israel’s government was dissolved in December.

“It would have been a grant with reporting requirements, audits and so on,” Rosenberg said. In a letter Rosenberg and Berman submitted to Haaretz, they noted that it is not unprecedented for foreign governments to donate money to American schools:

There are other examples of non-U.S. governments providing programmatic and financial support to U.S. schools, including the Greek and French governments to name but two. These governments recognize, as we believe the Government of Israel does, that it is in the national interest to cultivate knowledge and awareness of a nation’s language, culture and history.

Both Greece and France have contributed funding to New York public schools that teach their country’s language and culture. Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Education provides support for dozens of American public schools that teach Mandarin.

Like the schools benefiting from the largesse of these three countries, the Hebrew charter schools — there are currently six in the HCSC network, plus another is slated to open this fall in a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul — are publicly funded and serve a diverse student population. In keeping with federal law, they do not teach or promote religion, but instead focus on Hebrew language and Israeli culture.

Should Piron, given his political and financial connections to Steinhardt, have recused his ministry from dealing with all matters concerning Steinhardt as the Haaretz article implies? And is it unseemly that an Israeli director of Areivim, a philanthropy that Steinhardt supports, which in turn supports HCSC, is involved in Yesh Atid? I don’t know enough about Israeli governmental conflict-of-interest regulations to weigh in on that.

But based on the information reported at this point, it doesn’t seem like there’s been a major scandal.

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