With annual revenues of $15,112,321 and assets of $10,936,961 in 2002, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces group assists members of the North American public in providing financial support for certain designated programs of the Association for Welfare of Soldiers in Israel.
At its $1,000-a-plate 2005 New York Gala Dinner on March 15, for instance, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces New York chapter “will once again honor the soldiers” in “the largest single fundraising event” for the U.S.-based IDF support group, according to its website at www.israelsoldiers.org. The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces website also notes that “we plan to once again send our message of support to the soldiers of the IDF, and let them know that we appreciate all that they do.”
The chairman of the 2005 dinner, a member of the national board of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces named Benny Shabtai, is a former bodyguard at the Israeli embassy in Paris and former member of the Israeli army. After immigrating to the United States, Shabtai became the exclusive distributor of Raymond Weil watches from Switzerland. In its March 12, 2004 issue, Forbes magazine made the following reference to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Dinner Chairman Shabtai:
“Benny Shabtai, the Israeli businessman who is president of Raymond Weil USA, is selling his Upper East Side townhouse for $23 million, according to The New York Observer… Shabtai bought it in 2000 for $8.2 million… Shabtai, who was born in Tel Aviv, keeps a fairly low profile, but he is rumored to have dabbled in or funded a wide variety of businesses. According to one report, he controls Aryt Industries, an Israeli holding company of various high-tech industrial and defense businesses… A few years ago, he entertained Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Michael Jackson at a reception at his home in New York…”
Part of the $15 million that chapters of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces raise in the U.S. each year goes to fund “capital campaign projects,” such as a planned $1 million project in Jerusalem to build “The Cultural Well-being and Sports Center” in the Israeli Army’s Border Control Base. Among the completed “capital campaign projects” funded in the past was a $250,000 project “located near the Lebanese border and serving combat soldiers in the Northern Command” to refurbish the Israeli soldiers’ homes in Kyriat Shmoneh.
According to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces website, “last summer, Israel’s Defense Minister, Lieutenant General L. Shaul Mofaz, spent 15 days on a whirlwind coast-to-coast tour with Friends of the IDF,” “tirelessly campaigned to raise money and awareness of the plight of IDF Soldiers” and raised over $4,000,000 at the annual dinner of the group’s Cleveland chapter.
The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces also conducts 9-Day “Mission To Israel” guided tours for U.S. citizens that feature “visits to strategic IDF command posts.” Day 4 of its “Mission To Israel” tour, for instance, includes a “briefing at Central Command Headquarters,” a visit to “IDF units around Ramallah” and a “tour at the Ammunition Hill.” On Day 5, the “Mission To Israel” tour, entitled “Visit the Northern Command,” consists of a visit to Chaunt Hashomer “to meet soldiers,” a visit to “Division #36 at the Golan Heights,” a “lookout from an IDF post onto the Golan Heights,” a “briefing on daily life close to the Lebanese border” and a “night tour to the `Secret Tunnel.’” Day 6 of the Friends of the IDF tour includes a visit at Ramat David Air Force Base and a visit to “the Navy base in Haifa;” and Day 7 includes a visit to the “Engineering training school including display of land mine exercises,” according to the FIDC website.
Besides Raymond Weil USA President Shabtai, the national board of the Friends of the IDF also includes NYU School of Law Board of Trustees Chairman and Centre Partners Management Managing Director Lester Pollack—a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ pro-Israeli Establishment pressure group. In addition, FIDF board member Pollack also sits on the corporate board of Bank Leumi USA. The $3 billion portfolio of Pollack’s Centre Partners Management firm includes investments in stock of the Firearms Training Systems Inc., a leading provider of small arms training systems to the military, and in stock of Maverick Media, a U.S. media firm that owns radio stations.
Unlike the U.S. citizens who are involved in the Manhattan-based Friends of the Israel Defense Forces group, most U.S. anti-war activists have been morally opposed to the actions in recent years of the IDF in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. In his 2003 Verso book, Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against The Palestinians, Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor of Sociology Baruch Kimmerling described some of these morally objectionable actions:
“Waves of tank and infantry units, supported by Apache helicopters, rolled into the PNA-controlled West Bank and later Gaza Strip territories, cities, refugee camps, and even villages [on March 29, 2002]… They captured and imprisoned thousands of suspects in detention camps… This operation not only destroyed political organizations and their facilities, but civilian institutions like universities, schools, clinics, churches, and mosques…
“…On December 17, 2000, Israel initiated a policy of extra-judicial executions (called targeted killings)… The operations… killed… innocent individuals… Some members of the Israeli public openly labeled such actions war crimes…”
After some Israeli draftees began refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, most U.S. anti-war activists began to express political support for the Refuser Solidarity Network, whose website is www.refusersolidarity.net.
According to the www.guidestar.org website, the Manhattan office of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces has been located on the 5th floor of 298 Fifth Avenue in recent years.
Bob Feldman is an anti-war Movement writer and activist who contributed “Inspecting Nuclear Israel” and “The Occupation of Haiti: Recalling 1915-1934” to Counterpunch magazine. He is an occasional contributor to EI.