In New York, a 'Hebron Aid Flotilla' to raise money for Israeli settlements

The Hebron Fund, a US tax-exempt charity that supports Israeli settlers, is rallying Zionists of all stripes to join a 'Hebron Aid Flotilla' on the Hudson River next month.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
Palestinian men work on a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, Oct. 20.

The Hebron Fund, a Brooklyn-based tax exempt charity that supports Israeli settlers in the West Bank city of the same name, this week announced a unique twist to its annual fund-raising event next month: a cruise on the Hudson River dubbed the "Hebron Aid Flotilla."

The name marks an unabashed decision to strike out at those who criticized Israel's fatal attack on the so-called Gaza Aid Flotilla, an attempt to break the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip in May. Israeli commandos met unexpected force on board the flotilla's flagship boat shot and killed eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American, drawing international condemnation.

"WE'RE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT NOW!" proclaims Monday's announcement for the event. "The outpouring of hate against Israel and the Jews after the flotilla incident was absolutely unprecedented. Jews around the world and other Lovers of Israel suddenly felt just like the Jews of Hebron – the Jews the media loves most to hate. We therefore decided to hold our annual fundraiser as a unique, united Zionist response to the situation."

The fundraiser is a reminder of one of the reasons why President Obama's efforts to spur Israeli-Palestinian peace talks forward is fast unraveling.

First, the Obama administration backed down from its earlier demands that Israel freeze all settlement expansion – including in East Jerusalem – as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians, who see no point in peace talks as Israel continues to expand its footprint in occupied territory that's intended to make up a future Palestinian state.

Secondly, US citizens continue to finance settlements on that land through tax-free donations. In addition, their taxpayer dollars – represented in the roughly $3 billion in US aid that Israel receives annually – arguably give Israel enough financial breathing room that it can afford to facilitate settlement expansion.

Both examples illustrate the sway of the Jewish right, in the US as well as Israel, whose constituents have been largely unwilling to accept the Palestinians' precondition of a settlement freeze. In the US, that influence could gain more traction with a likely surge in Republicans' Congressional strength after November elections.

Though the UN and most world states, including the US, have declared the settlements to be illegal, the US tax code allows charitable giving to settlers so long as the money isn't intended for weapons or other security measures. Direct US military and economic aid for Israel, though expressly not for settlements, also frees up Israeli money to be spent as it sees fit elsewhere.

Why Hebron is especially thorny

Hebron is an especially thorny problem. It has a Palestinian population of about 163,000 and roughly 500 religious Israeli settlers, as well as more than 7,000 Israelis in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, whose presence leads to a massive security presence by the Israeli Defense Forces.

The city is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the reputed burial place of Abraham, a prophet revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

In 1994, settler Baruch Goldstein entered the Muslim side of the cave and murdered 29 Muslim worshipers. Earlier this year, when Israel added the site to its national monument list – which Palestinians interpreted as an Israeli attempt to extend a claim of ownership over the city – days of clashes erupted.

Religious fervor

While the "Hebron Aid Flotilla" will strike many as insensitive, since 9 people were killed in the Gaza flotilla raid, there are deep religious convictions behind it.

The Hebron Fund is the US affiliate of the settler community in the city, and says its goals are to improve the quality of life of the settlers and to educate "the American Jewish Community regarding the rich historical Jewish past of Hebron and weaving that knowledge with present day experiences in the hope of reviving and expanding the ancient Jewish custom of pilgrimage to this holy site."

In its fund-raising appeal, the group points to the September murder of four settlers in the Hebron area, an attack that was claimed by the militant group Hamas.

"While the Arabs of Gaza, their incessant construction and their terror regime are all subsidized by many 'civilized' countries and NGO’s to the tune of billions of dollars per year, the tax-deductible status of the meager donations to Hebron’s Jews comes under repeated scrutiny – for no good reason except for racism and Anti-Semitism," the group writes.

Critics of settlement expansion give other reasons for their concerns, many making the point that it is not in Israel's interest, nor US interest, to preclude the feasibility of a two-state solution. Israel's occupation of the West Bank, including the presence of more than 300,000 settlers, could undercut the credibility of Palestinian negotiators and shift popular Palestinian support toward renewed violence.

In a speech at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., last week, Chas Freedman, a former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush, placed the issue at the center of peace efforts.

"Among the world’s 340 million Arabs and 1.6 billion Muslims, all eyes are on the resistance of Palestinians to continuing ethnic cleansing and the American subsidies and political support for Israel that facilitates their suffering," he said.

A reprise of hard-edged flotilla spoof

The headline speaker for the cruise is Caroline Glick, a deputy managing editor and columnist for the Jerusalem Post who served as a foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his premiership in the late 1990s.

Ms. Glick helped produce and sing in the video spoof, "We con the world," earlier this year, a parody of "We are the world" that poked fun at the Gaza flotilla incident and the situation of Palestinians in Gaza by presenting all of the people on the boats as terrorists or terrorist supporters.

The cruise's promotional literature promises a reprise of the song along with "Captain Stabbing" – a man dressed up like Thurston Howell who, along with Ms. Glick with a keffiyah on her head, waves a knife in the air as they croon that they're "pretending" that there's "hunger, crisis, and plague" and that they need "cheese and missiles for the kids."

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