It was an advertising campaign that tugged at the heartstrings, complete with photos of adorable Israeli preschoolers.
The message: These vulnerable children need protection from terrorist attacks.
The campaign worked, attracting thousands of donors and raising nearly $320 million to date for the United Jewish Communities Emergency Israel Campaign. Of that, $20 million was allocated to provide security guards at kindergartens and other schools for which the Israeli budget could not pay.
School opened five weeks ago, but the children are still unprotected — no security guards have been hired. And now their parents are being asked to foot the bill.
UJC and The Jewish Agency, its representative in Israel, learned about the situation this week only after inquiries from The Jewish Week in response to a lawsuit filed last month in Jerusalem by the mother of a kindergarten child.
The mother’s lawyer complained that not only were no guards assigned to any nursery schools or kindergartens, but that UJC had raised money to ensure that “Israeli children can start school on time and in a safe and secure environment,” according to the charity’s press release.
“I don’t believe they have used any of the money,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, a Tel Aviv lawyer who filed suit against the government and the Ministry of Internal Security questioning why no guards have been assigned to kindergartens and nursery schools.
Darshan-Leitner filed her suit in behalf of a Jerusalem mother of four who has a child in kindergarten, as well as all parents in Israel.
In papers submitted to the High Court of Justice, Darshan-Leitner included a press release and promotional material about the UJC’s “Keeping Children Safe” program.
“The ads were graphic,” she said, adding that they specifically said guards would be posted at kindergartens.
“Photographs of Israeli preschoolers were used in the ads,” she said. “To date, however, the Israeli police have refused to station guards at the kindergartens, leaving 320,000 preschoolers unprotected.”
Asked about the suit, Nachman Shai, director general of UJC Israel, said the UJC was not a party to it and that, in fact, the UJC money had been used by The Jewish Agency to hire a security guard for each of 1,500 educational institutions, including kindergartens, elementary schools and afterschool activities at high schools. Government-provided security guards leave when classes end.
“The guards have been deployed,” he insisted. “There is no doubt that it has happened.”
But after a spokesman for Uzi Landau, minister of Internal Security, told The Jewish Week that his ministry was still working with the Education Ministry to develop criteria for determining which schools needed guards, Shai conceded that no guards had in fact been deployed.
“It’s not our fault,” he maintained. “We are not in charge of guarding schools in Israel. … I don’t know what the Jewish Agency did. I know what the UJC has been doing and we allocated $20 million for 1,500 guards all over the country. There will probably be arrangements between The Jewish Agency and local municipalities, but we are not involved in that.”
Money raised by Jewish federation for Israel is channeled through The Jewish Agency for Israel.
The Jewish Agency issued a statement Tuesday saying it was “surprised to learn, a month after the beginning of the school year, that the increased security has not yet been implemented despite the fact that all the required funds are available to the competent authorities.”
Stephen Hoffman, president and chief executive officer of UJC, said he did not learn until The Jewish Week inquiries that the guards had not been hired. And Susan Stern, co-chair of fund raising for UJA-Federation of New York, which raised money for the Israel Emergency Campaign, said she too was unaware of it.
“I’m sure they are doing the best they can,” she said. “I’d like to find out what’s going on.”
The spokesman for Landau said he hoped that by Sunday, municipalities and the Education Ministry would complete their work in determining which schools needed guards “according to operational standards developed by the police.” He said that some of the money provided by the UJC would be used to hire guards at kindergartens, and that they would get “the same priority as high school and elementary schools.”
“Everything depends on their location,” the spokesman stressed. “We are trying to do the best with the money we have. Every shekel we get will go for the hiring of guards.”
But Darshan-Leitner said an official of the municipalities told Israel Radio Tuesday that until her lawsuit, Landau had planned to use two-thirds of the $20 million raised by UJC to buy additional police cars and other equipment.
A spokesman for The Jewish Agency, Yehuda Weinraub, said the plan is for the municipalities to hire the security guards and then be reimbursed by UJC. He suggested that bureaucracy and the numerous Jewish holidays last month might have contributed to the delay in hiring the guards.
Darshan-Leitner, noting that there are 80,000 nursery school children in Israel and another 320,000 kindergarteners ages 4 and 5, asked why parents are being asked by their schools to pay for security guards when the UJC money was donated for that purpose.
A representative of the attorney general’s office told the court during a Sept. 18 proceeding that he needed more time to learn what criteria the police were using in determining where to post guards. He was given 30 days to find out.
Darshan-Leitner said she believes kindergarten and nursery children are “more helpless” than high school students and questioned why the police chose not to protect them.
Her husband, Avi, co-counsel in the case, pointed out that it took a protest by parents of kindergarten children in the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo to get the government to station a guard at their school. Gilo has been a frequent target of snipers from the neighboring Palestinian community of Beit Jala.
“How can you say that every single high school needs a security guard and that nursery schools and kindergartens don’t need one?” he asked.
The UJC’s Shai pointed out that because of the large number of schools in Israel — 1,200 kindergartens alone — it is not possible to provide guards at each of them.
“We are unable to pay for every preschool all over the country,” he said. “There are some schools that have only 20 kids. You can’t cover them all.”
But Darshan-Leitner said the UJC ads to raise money for the guards don’t spell that out.
“From the ad itself, you cannot imagine that there would be some kids who get security guards and some who do not,” she said. “We would like to secure every kindergarten and every school. If that is not possible, at least one has to consider where the kindergarten is located and not just the number of kids in the kindergarten. Uzi Landau has his own bodyguard and he’s just one person.”
As of Sept. 24, the Israel Emergency Campaign had raised nearly $319 million in pledges. Shai noted that $25 million of that money provided two weeks of summer camp for more than 200,000 Israeli youngsters this year. And he said another $30 million had been spent to provide more than 4,000 Jewish immigrants from Argentina with a one-time grant of $7,000 each.
Shai said another 1,000 Argentine Jews are expected before the end of the year and that the UJC allocation to this project would therefore increase to a total of $35 million.