Forward Thinking

The One About Clinton, JNF, Peres and the $500K Bill

By Yermi Brenner

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Like many urban legends, the myth — and now mess — of the Jewish National Fund’s supposed agreement to pay former President Bill Clinton $500,000 in charitable funds to speak for 45 minutes to an exclusive group of Israeli dinner guests began with an incorrect press report — which then got repeated until it was “fact.”

On May 31, Yossi Sarid, a former Israeli Minister of Education, published an opinion piece on-line in Haaretz in which he informed his readers that Clinton would be the keynote speaker at a gala dinner to be held in honor of Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Peres Academic Center on June 17. The dinner, a celebration of Peres’s 90th birthday, was to be an exclusive event for a select list of invitees, Sarid wrote. And each guest would be required to donate $828 to the Peres Academic Center’s scholarship program.

Infuriated by the high cost, Sarid, who was himself an invitee, made some phone calls, and learned that Clinton’s 45-minute speech would cost a half a million dollars, to be paid to Clinton’s charitable foundation. He also heard from his sources that the Jewish National Fund, a co-sponsor of the exclusive gala event, would be paying Clinton’s fee.

Now Sarid was even more angry. Why was the JNF, an organization created to collect money from Jewish donors to build and improve the state of Israel, using its funds to enrich Clinton’s philanthropy, with its quite separate charitable agenda? Effie Shtenzler, chairman of JNF-Israel, had no clear answers for Sarid when the latter called asking about this. So Sarid published his op-ed, and the story exploded.

Over the next few days, other media outlets, including the Times of Israel and Yedioth Ahranot, crucified the JNF for supposedly betraying its mission and misleading donors.

It was only later that follow-up reporting by the Forward and others clarified what really occurred.

When the Forward contacted JNF’s New York office, which collects donations from American Jews and transfers them to JNF-Israel, the New York office explained, a bit beseechingly, that it was a separately incorporated U.S. affiliate and was not responsible for any decisions made by JNF-Israel.

But when we contacted JNF-Israel officials they, too, passed the buck, so to speak. The officials admitted that JNF-Israel had, indeed, signed on as a co-sponsor of the gala event at the Peres Academic Center. But they insisted, “The Peres Academic Center… invited [Clinton], came to financial terms with him and paid him, a long time before [JNF-Israel] were part of it.”

And that turned out to be the case. Officials with the Peres Academic Center, a small, relatively little known social science school in Rehovot, confirmed to the Forward that, yes, they were the ones who had engaged Clinton and were putting up the cash.

But the saga was far from over. When Peres learned through the press reports that what was supposed to be an evening to honor him was doubling as a fundraiser, he announced he would not attend since Israeli regulations prohibit him from participating in money raising events. The Peres Academic Center (which is named after Peres but is not related to him in any way) realized its blunder. You could not very well have an evening in honor of President Peres without President Peres. So the school retreated from the idea of the event doubling as fundraiser, and announced all invitees would now enter for free.

In other words, the school is now eating its costs for bringing in Clinton, leaving its donors, perhaps, as the ones who should be asking tough questions.

But thanks to the original erroneous press reports, that was not enough to get JNF off the hook. As the criticism went global and reached potential donors worldwide, JNF announced this afternoon that it was backing out of any participation in the gala event. It would therefore take back from the Peres Academic Center any funds that it had already provided for the event.

Bottom line: The Peres Academic Center, with JNF as a co-sponsor, tried to dance at two weddings simultaneously — honor President Peres and raise funds for its own purposes. Media found out and lambasted JNF, while basically ignoring the Peres Academic Center. JNF backed out and left the school with a reported bill of half a million dollars. And Yossi Sarid will be able to hear President Clinton’s speech for free.


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