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Canadian Jewish Group Tussles with Government over Legal Status

October 25, 2002
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A Canadian group that raises money for emergency health relief in Israel is fighting to preserve its status as a registered charity.

The Montreal-based Canadian Magen David Adom, which has operated since 1976, launched a court action after the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency threatened in 2001 to revoke the group’s charitable status.

A federal court last month rejected the CCRA’s main argument for revoking the group’s charitable status, but accepted a second argument related to how the charity supervises funds handed over to Israel.

“The court ruled that we were correct in our proposal to revoke the charitable status, but did not agree with all of our reasons for doing so,” CCRA spokeswoman Colette Gentes-Hawn said.

Arthur Drache, a lawyer for Magen David Adom, said the CCRA imposed new requirements “out of a clear blue sky” and that it had not given the group sufficient time to comply before another letter arrived declaring that the group’s charitable status would be revoked.

The charity will not lose its status immediately because it intends to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. The court is expected to decide in mid-November whether to allow the appeal.

An independent Internet petition already has gathered thousands of signatures, said the group’s national executive director, Shirley Moscovitch.

Despite the setback to the charity, Jewish observers have welcomed the court’s dismissal of a key argument the CCRA has used to disqualify many Jewish charities over the past 10 years.

Despite the lack of a clear policy from the country’s Foreign Ministry, the customs agency has contended that Jewish charities operating beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders, including the Old City and other annexed sections of Jerusalem, violate Canadian government policy and should be deregistered.

According to Drache, the CCRA had objected to the possibility that a Magen David Adom ambulance might cross the Green Line, as the pre-1967 border is known, when responding to an emergency call in a Jerusalem suburb.

“They had said it was against Canadian policy for Canadians to help in the building of any Israeli infrastructure beyond the Green Line, and they interpreted that to mean delivering any charitable service,” he said.

The CCRA has used this argument against “a couple of hundred charities,” some of which already have been deregistered or threatened with deregistration, he said.

Among the many Jewish organizations that have been denied charitable status are a school near the old Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem and an organization that puts handwritten prayers into cracks in the Western Wall, Drache said.

At the same time, Christian and Muslim charitable organizations have been allowed to work both sides of the line, Drache said.

In dismissing the CCRA’s Green Line rule, the court ruled that there was “no logic in the proposition that the provision of emergency medical assistance can be a charitable activity in downtown Tel Aviv but not in the” West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“In my view, there is in the charities directorate an anti-Israel bias,” Drache said. “I don’t think it’s official government policy, but some of the documents they put forward to the court suggest that among some people there, there is a strong anti-Israel bias.”

The CCRA declined to address the allegations of bias.

Jack Silverstone, executive vice president and general counsel for the Canadian Jewish Congress, acknowledged a sarcastic tone to some of the CCRA’s statements about Israel, but said he did not perceive overt bias.

“I can’t speculate on what’s driving their sarcasm,” he said.

But Frank Dimant, executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada, said there was a clear bias in the fact that the government would not register Magen David Adom while recognizing the social wing of Hezbollah — as distinct from its military wing — as a legitimate charity.

Theoretically, he said, “Canadians can get a tax receipt for supporting an educational system that teaches hate and encourages suicide bombing, but you can’t have a Canadian-funded, tax-receipted ambulance coming to help the victims of that terror.”

Drache told the court that the Canada-Israel free trade agreement of 1995 covers the flow of goods on both sides of the Green Line, indicating no prohibition of activity in areas beyond the Green Line.

The CCRA began insisting last year that the Canadian Magen David Adom needed an “agency arrangement” to maintain closer supervision of how its funds are used in Israel. Among the group’s intended grounds for appeal is the argument that it was not given sufficient time to put a new arrangement into place.

The Canadian Jewish Congress is awaiting the outcome of the appeals process before beginning any lobbying activities on the Magen David Adom issue, but B’nai Brith already has contacted several government ministers.

“We’ve made our position amply clear,” Dimant said.

In an unrelated incident, customs agents recently seized a box of newsletters, entitled “In Moral Defense of Israel,” as they were entering the country. The agents claimed the material “may constitute obscenity or hate propaganda.”

After an uproar in the media, the material, which was published by the Ayn Rand Institute of California, was quietly released.

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