When Joseph Allaham, former owner of the Prime Grill kosher food empire, filed his foreign lobbying activities on behalf of the Qatari government with the Justice Department on June 15, he listed sizeable donations to two pro-Israel organizations made in “furtherance” of his connection to the emir of Qatar.
One was the Zionist Organization of America, which received two payments of $50,000 each and has attracted significant media attention. That was, in part, because ZOA’s president, Morton Klein, appeared to have dramatically changed his views on Qatar, the oil-rich emirate that has been a major supporter of the terror group, Hamas, and is home to several of the group’s leaders.
The other recipient of a $100,000 charitable donation is a lesser-known organization: Our Soldiers Speak (OSS), a small, nonprofit, pro-Israel organization that arranges speaking tours for high-ranking Israel Defense Forces officers at synagogues and English-speaking college campuses across the world. The donation was made on Oct. 30, 2017, four days before the organization’s Nov. 2 gala dinner. More than 700 guests, including Allaham and his wife, attended the dinner hosted at Capitale, an event space in Soho.
Both charitable donations came from the $1.45 million Allaham documented receiving from Qatar in order to advance the state’s interests in the U.S. The donations were listed in his Foreign Agent Registration Act filing.
Klein was heavily criticized for accepting the funds, given his past criticism of the Arab Gulf state. Last September, Klein called Qatar “a monstrous and evil regime” and criticized several leaders of pro-Israel American groups for accepting free trips to Qatar to meet with its leaders, part of the emirate’s extensive effort to have prominent Jews visit, seeking their support in its dispute with Saudi Arabia.
But two months later, Klein accepted a $50,000 donation to ZOA from Allaham, who was making invitations to Jewish leaders on behalf of the embattled Gulf state. Shortly after, Ahmed al-Rumaihi, a former Qatari diplomat and the past former head of Qatar Investments, a $100 billion division of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, appeared at the ZOA gala dinner upon Allaham’s invitation. (Klein told The Jewish Week he had no knowledge of al-Rumaihi’s presence at the dinner.) Klein agreed to go to Doha, Qatar’s capital, a few weeks later and meet with the emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and other Qatari leaders.
Upon learning last month that Allaham’s donations to the ZOA came from Qatar, Klein told The Jewish Week he was “shocked” and that he sent the funds back to Allaham. Benjamin Anthony, the founder and director of Our Soldiers Speak, had a very different response. He indicated to The Jewish Week that he would not be returning Qatar’s donation.
“We are very pleased to take every penny we receive and apply it towards the mission statement of our work,” Anthony said when asked if he plans to send the money back after Allaham disclosed the donation was from Qatar.
Anthony, an IDF veteran and sergeant in the IDF reserves, said his organization was “not aware” that the money was from Qatar when the donation was accepted in October 2017. When asked if the discovery surprised him, he cited his extensive service in the IDF before saying, “It’s difficult to shock us.”
Anthony said he believed the $100,000 check — signed in Allaham’s wife’s name, according to Anthony — was intended only to support his organization’s mission: to present the realities faced by the IDF without apologies. Anthony has taken that mission beyond the college quad. According to the OSS website, he leverages his influence in Washington, D.C., where he “speaks annually on Capitol Hill” and arranges briefings between senior IDF officers and members of Congress and staffers.
According to Anthony, the $100,000 donation was accompanied by “no asks” or follow-up from Allaham. To the “best of his knowledge,” Allaham did not bring any foreign diplomats with him to the gala dinner.
Anthony stressed that nobody from his organization was “in any way” involved in trips to and from Qatar, adding to the mystery of why Qatar would give a pro-Israel group $100,000 and ask nothing in return.
A Connection To Qatar?
The keynote speaker at the OSS gala was then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who is now secretary of state. According to a report in Mother Jones magazine (co-authored by this reporter), Al-Rumaihi, the Qatari diplomat who attended the November ZOA gala dinner, indicated in an email to Jeff Kwatinetz, an entertainment executive who was expected at the OSS dinner, that he hoped to meet former Trump chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, at the event. Bannon was slated as a featured speaker, according to media reports.
The presence of al-Rumaihi at the ZOA gala dinner, with Bannon a featured speaker, might explain what the Qatari government stood to gain from a connection with ZOA. Allaham would not comment on whether Pompeo’s appearance at the OSS dinner presented a similar opportunity to his Qatari sponsors. Allaham’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Though Anthony asserted OSS would use “every penny” received towards the organization’s mission, a major OSS officer and donor seems to be critical of accepting funds from Qatar.
René-Pierre Azria, vice president of OSS and the organization’s first significant donor, said in a telephone interview that he had not been made aware of the $100,000 donation or its foreign origins. Azria — a prominent businessman and philanthropist who is a member of the board of governors and the executive committee of AJC, one of the largest global Jewish advocacy groups, and chairs its Paris office, among other Jewish organizational roles — expressed disapproval of organizations that accept money from Qatar.
He criticized his alma mater, HEC, a French international business school where he serves as an “honorary member” donor and regular guest lecturer, for accepting money from the Qatar Foundation, a $50 million philanthropic organization owned exclusively by members of the Qatari royal family, according to the Foundation’s Dec. 2017 credit report. HEC is listed as an “entity,” on the Qatar Foundation’s website, along with several dozen other academic and cultural institutions with branches in Qatar.
(In March, Alan Dershowitz, the high-profile attorney and Israel advocate, gave a lecture at Northwestern University’s branch in Qatar. His trip was sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, he told The Jewish Week.)
Similar to Northwestern University, HEC Paris operates a branch in Doha and receives funding from the Qatar Foundation. (Northwestern University is also listed as a Qatar Foundation entity on the foundation’s website.)
Neither the Qatar Foundation nor HEC returned requests for comment regarding the specifics of their financial relationship.
Azria said he is aware of the financial relationship, and has repeatedly asked the school not to renew its financial ties to the foundation. Accepting money from the state is a “bad idea,” he told The Jewish Week. “Qatar is too controversial,” he said. “If HEC wants money, they should take it from another institution.”
Azria declined to comment further on Anthony’s indication that the organization would be keeping the $100,000 donation.
Our Soldiers Speak, which, while small, is rapidly expanding, was founded in 2008 around the time of the first Gaza conflict. According to Azria, he was impressed with Anthony’s message after going to hear him speak at Azria’s synagogue in Midtown Manhattan.
“Immediately afterwards, I went up to him and offered to donate,” Azria said. Since then, the organization has sent speakers to hundreds of university campuses across the United States and is currently expanding its international reach, according to Azria. He said the organization distinguishes itself from other pro-Israel advocacy groups on campus by “just exposing the facts.” Its speakers do not shy away from “engaging” in debates with Israel’s critics, he said.
The board, which had only six members, including Anthony and Azria, as of 2016, recently expanded its ranks, Anthony said. He declined to share the new board list because it has not yet been finalized, he said.
Rozita Pnini — the person who answers the organization’s phone line — is the new president of the board and a full-time, unpaid volunteer for the organization, said Anthony.
None of the other four publicly-named board members — including co-directors Scott H. Lang and Pamela Rose — could be reached for comment.
In 2015-’16, the organization’s revenue reached $536,000, according to its tax filings. Expenses exceeded $580,000, leaving the organization in the red. Revenue increased in the 2016-’17 calendar year to $664,000, more than 80 percent of which was spent of on program services, including travel for speakers, and administrative expenses. Though press releases from the organization seem to indicate that the organization has several employees, Anthony is the only employee listed on the organization’s website or tax filings.
OSS is linked to a yet-to-be-finalized organization called The Miryam Institute, owned by OSS. As advertised, the institute seems to be a joint project of Anthony and Amir Avri, a reservist brigadier general in the IDF. The goal appears to be to advocate for the “new State Solution,” calling for a Palestinian state in Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, and for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Our Soldiers Speak continues to expand educational initiatives. This week, the group sent out a call for applicants to participate in a “highly subsidized” tour of Israel where participants would meet with “senior Israeli policy makers” and experts in security, the judiciary and more. The visit, scheduled for August, targets graduate and doctoral candidates pursuing “degrees in law, international relations, media and public policy,” according to the email.
“Our organization has one clear agenda,” said Anthony. “We promote pro-Israel truths. Any funds that have been received are channeled exclusively to that.”
Editorial intern Avigayil Halpern contributed to this report.