by Marsha B. Cohen
Aryeh Lightstone, an orthodox rabbi with no diplomatic experience, is now the senior adviser to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
In 2014-15, Lightstone served as CEO of Shining City, an American organization that has provided substantial funding for the ultra-nationalist, right-wing Israeli watchdog Im Tirtzu. Im Tirtzu has been widely criticized for its ferocious use of McCarthyite tactics against Israeli cultural icons with “leftist” political views, such as accusing them of being foreign moles.
Lightstone, whose primary career has been as an acclaimed orthodox Jewish educator, is said to have close ties to the Trump family, particularly to Ivanka Trump, to Netanyahu and, not surprisingly, to the Republican Party. In 2016, Lightstone was among the hosts of a New York fundraiser in support of Ted Cruz’s bid for the presidency. His qualifications to advise Friedman on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are dubious at best, malicious at worst.
Friedman himself has been highly controversial due to his own far-right views and, among other things his financial support for one of the more militant Jewish settlements on the West Bank, Beit El. He has also called Barack Obama an “anti-Semite” and contended that members of J Street, a “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobby group, are “far worse than Kapos,” Jews who were forced to work for the Nazis in concentration camps during the Holocaust.
It is unlikely that Lightstone’s advice will do much to mellow Friedman or mitigate tacit US support for Israel’s right wing.
Shining City and Im Tirtzu
Aryeh Lightstone’s LinkedIn profile states that he served as CEO between July 2014 and February 2015 of Shining City, which he describes as “a C-4 organization dedicated to restoring American Exceptionalism.” Shining City was one of two U.S. groups that made “hefty contributions” in 2015 to Im Tirtzu, an Israeli organization that has attacked hundreds of Israeli artists, writers, and academics as “foreign agents in culture.” Haaretz notes that documents filed in the name of Shining City in the State of Virginia identify Aryeh Lightstone as the organization’s president.
Both major funders of Im Tirtzu in 2015—Shining City and Americans for Jerusalem–were registered under the provisions of U.S. Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(4)—tax-exempt nonprofit organizations that claim to promote “social welfare” and “the common good.” Unlike (c)(3) organizations, (c)(4)s can advance political goals without revealing the names of their donors.
According to a June expose of Im Tirtzu’s sources of funding by Uri Blu in Haaretz:
Shining City is a body run by wealthy individuals close to Netanyahu and the Republican Party, and it conducted a campaign in the United States against former President Barack Obama. The organization’s website was registered by Vincent Harris, Netanyahu’s American political strategist in the last election in Israel.
Shining City was founded in Virginia in late 2014 to educate the public on “relations between Israel and the USA” and America’s political relationships in the Middle East. It was registered by the law firm Holtzman Vogel Josephina Torchinsky, which specializes in developing financial mechanisms to fund conservative causes and Republican candidates. According to a Bloomberg report, the firm was involved in registering companies that donated $250 million to campaigns connected to the 2012 presidential election.
Shining City operated mostly during the 2015 Knesset election campaign, when the nuclear agreement with Iran was under discussion in the United States. At the beginning of 2015, after Netanyahu was invited to speak before Congress, the organization promoted the speech on social media and lauded Netanyahu.
Though Shining City is still registered as an active organization, it is hard to find any mention of its current activity. Its website has shut down and there have been no tweets in its Twitter account since the end of 2015. Infrequently, its Facebook page still shares things, among them statements by Netanyahu.
In 2015, which partly coincided with Lightstone’s tenure at its helm, Haaretz reported that Shining City contributed 3.7 million shekels (over $1 million), more than half of Im Tirtzu’s record fundraising that year. This was “the first time this organization has been mentioned as a donor to Im Tirtzu.”
Im Tirtzu’s other major funder in 2015, Americans for Jerusalem, contributed just under a million shekels (about $775,000), according to Haaretz, which was based on Im Tirtzu’s financial reports in Israel. Americans for Jerusalem is an offshoot of One Jerusalem, a US tax-exempt organization founded in 2000 to thwart any peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians that involves sharing any part of greater Jerusalem.
According to Eli Clifton’s examination and analysis of its tax filings, One Jerusalem’s 501(c)(3) arm has received the majority of its revenue from Republican billionaire and Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson. Its largest contribution came in the form of a 2007 grant of $1 million, which represented 84 percent of the group’s revenue in 2007 and just over 50 percent of the group’s revenue for the entire period from 2006 to 2012.
But Americans for Jerusalem’s 990 form, filed with the IRS in 2015, states that it made a grant of $2,969,000 to Shining City, with no mention of Im Tirtzu. It also shows a $10,000 grant to One Jerusalem’s Charitable and Educational Fund, although One Jerusalem’s Board of Directors unanimously voted to change its name to Americans for Jerusalem, as stated on an attachment to its 2011 IRS 990. The relationship between these organizations is both convoluted and troubling.
Double Standards on Transparency
Im Tirtzu demands “transparency” for left-wing non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding, but not for those on the right. Haaretz explains that, apart from the names of donor organizations and the amount of their donations—details required by the Israeli Registrar of Nonprofit Associations–Im Tirtzu’s financial reports provide no details about individual contributors. This is particularly ironic since “Im Tirtzu frequently attacks the funding sources of leftist and human rights organizations.”
When Blau’s expose of Im Tirtzu was published back in June, Lightstone refused to answer questions from Haaretz, saying only that he was no longer employed by Shining City. According to a tweet sent out by Friedman on August 17, however, Lightstone has officially begun working as Friedman’s senior adviser.
Friedman has tweeted a photo showing him with Lightstone and Natan Sharansky, the renowned former Soviet dissident who emigrated to Israel and became a neoconservative ideologue and right-wing politician. Sharansky was a cofounder of One Jerusalem and served as its chairman. As Connie Shultz has noted, One Jerusalem reviled the November 2007 peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and U.S. President George W. Bush as “the Munich Conference of the 21st century.” When Olmert’s negotiations with Abbas continued, One Jerusalem’s website blared, “Olmert Declares War on Israel.”
“The ultimate purpose of Im Tirtzu and its proto-fascist allies in and out of government, asserts Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev, is “to silence the opposition, to stifle dissent, to identify left-wing ideologies with the nation’s enemies, to equate their criticism with a knife in the nation’s back, in the worst of time-tested, anti-democratic traditions.”
It is not clear why Ambassador Friedman would need advice on how to advance these objectives, but it seems he’s going to get it.
Photo: David Friedman, Natan Sharansky, and Aryeh Lightstone