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To Take Or Not To Take

To Take Or Not To Take

A wealthy Jewish businessman makes aliyah and donates to a Jewish cause, but questions arise about the businessman’s background and he threatens to withdraw his donation. Then the businessman reconsiders.

Often this would take place behind closed doors, away from the public view.

When the businessman in question is billionaire Russian financier Arcadi Gaydamak, however, when the donation is $50 million, when the recipient Jewish organization is the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, it’s all been recorded in recent weeks in the Israeli press.

"Is there really a problem with his money?" headlines ask.

The country’s press has reported that Gaydamak was set to donate the $50 million to the Jewish Agency, known in Israel as the Sochnut. After stories indicated he had a shady past, Gaydamak said he was withdrawing his pledge and would stop investing in Israel. Now he says his offer to the Jewish Agency stands.

The stories about Gaydamak (who reportedly was forced to leave France in the late 1990s, where he had been living since 1972, after an international arrest warrant was issued on the suspicion of tax evasion and bribery) have raised a series of ethical and moral issues.

Should the Jewish Agency, or any Jewish organization, accept a donation when the giver’s background is in question or when the money may be tainted? What is the responsibility of the organization to confront the donor or investigate the charges before accepting the gift? Do the ends (noble acts performed by the organization) justify the means (possibly ignoble acts performed by the donor)?

"It’s a very complicated issue," said Dr. Heshy Friedman, director of the business program at Brooklyn College and an expert on Jewish business ethics. He says if a "blanket rule" were instituted that donations cannot be accepted from "anyone who has earned money you’re unsure of, we won’t be able to take charity from anyone."

"In general, one should try to avoid chilul Hashem [publicly desecrating the name of God]," a possible consequence of association with an individual accused of serious crimes, said Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, distinguished university professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and former editor of Sh’ma magazine.

On the other hand, he said, "You don’t want to malign someone in the eyes of the community" by refusing a gift "unless you’re certain" of the charges against the person.

Rabbi Borowitz said the general rule is to be wary of accepting money over which there is a cloud of suspicion. If there is a strong reason to believe that someone obtained money "in a way that is Jewishly inappropriate, you don’t, except in times of emergency, take the money."

In recent decades this issue has caused debate in the Jewish community over the often-generous donations of such high-profile figures as Ivan Boesky, Marc Rich and Jack Abramoff. Gaydamak has reopened the debate.

"The question of whether organizations devoted to the advancement of Jewish moral values should accept the contributions of those who do not promote these values is an old dilemma," Rabbi Yoel Domb wrote in a Business Ethics Dvar Torah on the Web site of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. "Should we assume that the donor wishes to assuage some of his guilt by giving to worthy causes and assist him on the path of repentance, or do we view this as moral ambivalence and refrain from accepting ‘tainted’ contributions?"

Several authorities contacted by The Jewish Week agreed, without commenting on the specifics of the Gaydamak case, that halacha, or Jewish law, and mussar, or Jewish ethics, are clear on one point: donations cannot be accepted if the money itself was obtained through theft.

"If it is for sure stolen, you give it back," Friedman said.

In other cases, if the donor’s reputation is sullied but the money was not stolen, if other crimes are alleged, then Jewish sources are less clear about the responsibility of the Jewish organizations to whom the money is offered, the authorities said.

According to some media reports, Gaydamak, 53, who divides his time between Moscow and Israel, made his fortune trading in arms and diamonds in Angola, and was involved in money laundering.

"You can’t make a [blanket] halachic statement in a case like this," when an individual stands accused but not convicted, when his alleged crimes might be less than outright theft, Friedman said.

He said a Jewish organization must ask several question about the prospective donor and donation: "Is it really stolen money? Is he really guilty? Why is he doing it? Who’s the victim?"

"The question is, why is the person giving to charity?" Friedman said. If the motive is personal honor, an organization should hesitate to accept a donation lest it seem to condone the donor’s possibly disreputable actions. "It falls in the category of flattering the wicked."

Rabbi Asher Meir, research director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, wrote on the Web site that "giving honor to a notoriously dishonest person is definitely a problem. Insincere flattery of wicked people is considered a very serious transgression in Jewish tradition.

"Whether or not to accept the donation is really a different question," he wrote. "Every person is obliged to give charity: even crooks! Furthermore, if the person regrets his dishonesty and has taken steps to rectify his bad deeds, then of course he will want to give charity, which is an important component of repentance."

In return for his donation, which will support outreach activities in Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine, Gaydamak, who has also bought a professional Israeli soccer team, is to be given membership in the Jewish Agency’s steering bodies and the right to influence agency policy.

"Mr. Gaydamak has been invited to participate in deliberations of the Jewish Agency institutions in which donors, community representatives, religious streams and different Zionist organizations from around the world take place," the Jewish Agency said in a statement.

According to JTA, both Gaydamak and the Jewish Agency denied a recent report in Maariv that Israeli police advised the agency not to accept Gaydamak’s donation.

Haaretz reported earlier this month that "an official source in the agency has said in the past that there is no reason not to accept Gaydamak’s donation when he’s also giving to other groups in Israel. However, other Jewish Agency sources told Haaretz that they see his gift as "a very big problem."

The Jewish Week did not receive a response from the Jewish Agency to a request to speak to a representative about this topic.

Is a donation by a known sinner a "way of doing penance?" Friedman asked. If that is the donor’s intention, and if the identity of the people who were the victims of the donor’s crime cannot be determined (i.e., the money cannot be returned to the victims) then the money can be accepted and used for a good cause, Friedman said.

"It could be argued that the way to do penance is to give [the money] back to the community, he said. "Ideally it should be done anonymously."

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