Only $8 million of the $20 million raised from American Jews to provide security guards for Israel’s schoolchildren will be used for that purpose, The Jewish Week has learned.
“Something doesn’t smell good,” said Hilik Goldstein, a spokesman for the Union of Local Authorities, which is hiring the guards for Israel’s 124 municipalities and who revealed the funding cutback.
“We thought that all the $20 million would go directly to hiring security guards,” Goldstein said. “But that’s not to be. I’m not saying the $12 million has vanished, but I don’t know what will be with it.”
That disclosure comes on the heels of a report in The Jewish Week last week that schools in Israel opened Sept. 1 without any of the $20 million being used to hire security guards.
The United Jewish Communities, which raised the money beginning in April as part of its Israel Emergency Campaign, had highlighted the fears of Israeli parents in its appeal for funds.
UJC said this week that the first guards were not hired until Sept. 17 and that as of last Friday — five weeks into the school year — 120 had been hired, trained and deployed throughout the country.
The cutback comes despite a lawsuit filed by the parents of preschool children upset that their youngsters are not being protected at some 12,000 nursery and kindergartens all over Israel.
Nachman Shai, director general of UJC Israel, said Tuesday afternoon that his organization was still committed to using the $20 million to deploy “1,500 guards at 1,500 locations all over the country.”
But contacted late Tuesday, Goldstein said he had been told by The Jewish Agency, the UJC’s representative in Israel, that he was being given only $8 million of the $20 million with which to hire 856 guards.
The remaining $12 million would be used for “the educational system in Israel,” he was told.
Stressing the accountability for American donors, Goldstein said: “You can take a picture of the security guards, and the people who raised the money … can be assured that the money is going to security because you can see it with your own eyes.
“But the rest of the money? I think that if you don’t see what happens to it, you are not sure what is done with it. … $12 million is a lot of money. I hope it will be OK at the end of the road.”
UJC officials insist this is a case of dealing with a fluid situation in which the American charity relies on its Israeli partners, including government officials, to set priorities about how best to spend philanthropic dollars.
“The facts keep moving, the numbers change, the situation changes,” one official said, “but that is the reality of working with Israel, especially at a time of great crisis. You run into a bureaucracy and you try to keep on top of it. The goal is to spend the money as it is most urgently needed, and we defer to the assessments of our Israeli partners.”
Stephen Hoffman, the UJC’s president and chief executive officer, acknowledged that not all of the $20 million would be used to hire school guards. Reached for comment on Tuesday, he explained that the government of Israel, after initially proposing a $20 million security guard program, subsequently “informed us that the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Internal Security … wanted to proceed with only about $10 million worth of school guards, not $20 million. We said fine, let us know how things are going.”
Hoffman said all of the school guards should be hired and in place by the end of next week. Goldstein said he believed it would take up to another four weeks.
Hoffman denied that there are any plans for The Jewish Agency to use the leftover money for educational purposes, insisting that a UJC committee will review a list of Israel’s priorities before deciding how to spend it. The UJC has full control of the money, he said.
A two-page status report on the security guard program sent Monday to UJC leaders did not mention the funding cutback.
And in a letter Hoffman wrote to The Jewish Week in response to last week’s story, he said his office and The Jewish Agency went back “to those most directly responsible for managing the school guard program to assure ourselves and the thousands of donors of the UJC Israel Emergency Campaign that their donations are being used for the purpose they intended.”
He did not mention that more than half of the $20 million now appears to be slated to be used for other purposes. In a press release Aug. 20, the UJC heralded its decision to “commit” $20 million to “help ensure that Israeli children can start school on time in a safe and secure environment.” It said the program included “the deployment of guards at hundreds of schools and kindergartens across the country.”
In seeking to explain last week the delay in hiring school security guards, UJC and Jewish Agency officials suggested that the process was slowed by the High Holy Days in September and the time it takes to interview and train guards.
But Goldstein said the reason was because the Israeli government wanted to use $12 million of the $20 million “for the big budget of the government.”
“We told the Prime Minister’s Office that if it wanted to do that, we were going to make great damage to The Jewish Agency because it really was something we could not agree to,” he said. “The local authorities said the Jewish donors have to know that more than half of the money was not going for the purpose it was intended, and that we wanted a list of the donors so we could tell them that. … There was a great panic [in the Prime Minister’s Office] and they preferred to find a solution we would agree with.”
Asked about that, Hoffman said: “I hear that all the time — about everything that happens in Israel. The government’s budget is bleeding and all the ministers are under pressure to do things that they don’t have funds for. We are there to make things happen that otherwise would not happen.”
Hoffman stressed that authorities in Israel, not the UJC, made the decision to cut back on the $20 million security guard program. But Goldstein said Israeli parents would have a hard time accepting that decision in light of the July 30 bombing at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that killed nine.
“After that bombing, we heard from police sources in Israel that Palestinian [terrorists] intended to do some activities against children,” Goldstein said. “A lot of parents went to the local authorities and asked them to ensure the safety of their children.”
Particularly concerned were the parents of children aged 2 to 6 who attend 12,000 nursery and kindergartens in the country. Although the government provides a security guard in each elementary and junior-senior high school, it does not provide guards for those schools.
The UJC security guard program raised money to place security guards at kindergartens and at high schools for afterschool activities, which government-provided guards do not cover.
“If they decide that in the end not all of the $20 million is going to go for security, we’re against it,” Goldstein said. “We have talked to them [The Jewish Agency] and explained to them [our concerns]. … If they offered us 1,500 guards, do you think we would say no? We’d say yes. We need 12,000 guards.”
But Hoffman defended the decision to cut back on the number of guards, explaining that Israeli authorities “have a sense of what the real priorities are and what they perceive the threats to be.”
“They are trying to make the best use of the dollars [raised],” he said. “That’s our working assumption.”
Tova Weissberg, 40, of Petach Tikvah, the mother of a 4-year-old preschooler, said her child attends an unguarded school and she is scared. Weissberg said she was unaware of the UJC school guard program and was so concerned for her child’s safety that she was going to propose that the parents hire their own guard. She noted that they did that earlier in the year in response to a wave of terrorist attacks.
“We don’t know where they [terrorists] are going to hit next and we have to do the maximum to protect our children and make sure that everything is OK,” she said.
“The high schools have their own guards and there are a lot of teachers who walk around with weapons,” she added. “But in the kindergartens, there are 38 kids with two unarmed women. They are more vulnerable [to attack].”
A spokeswoman for the City of Karmiel, Leviah Fisher, said it was decided to have three guards cover 60 preschools because under police guidelines, schools with fewer than 100 children are not to get their own security guard.
But Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, a Tel Aviv lawyer who sued the Israeli government over the lack of school security at preschools, said she plans to contest that decision when her case is heard later this month. And although the UJC said it has 120 guards on duty since last Friday, Darshan-Leitner said she would like to see them.
“We’ve heard about the 800 that are coming, but we still didn’t see any sign of them,” she said. “I have clients all over the country and they will inform me once a kindergarten has a guard.”