Wednesday, July 07, 2010

New York Times Hypes Error-Filled Non-Story To Coincide With Netanyahu-Obama Meeting (Updated)

The headline in yesterday's New York Times read: Tax-Exempt Funds Aid Settlements in West Bank. Obviously, it was a new and breaking story--it's 3000 words, 6 pages on their website, with pictures and maps.

One problem with the story is that it isn't--it's actually old news.

The New York Times Story Is Nothing New

According to The Telegraph, the blog of the JTA:
Indeed, it's widely known and no secret that Americans can claim tax deductions for charitable donations to 501(c)3 organizations that contribute money to Jewish causes in the West Bank, from after-school programs for kids in Jerusalem's eastern suburbs to bullet-proof vests for security patrols in far-flung Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley. Groups from the Jewish Federations of North America to American Friends of Ateret Cohanim participate in such funding, and they say so clearly on their websites, in letters to donors and in public materials. This is a legitimate feature story.

But why run it as a double-column lede with a two-page inside spread (complete with maps and, online, interactive features) on the day Obama and Bibi meet? The Times has positioned this story as if it's some big investigative scoop that requires response -- presumably by U.S. authorities -- when in reality its an old and quite well-known story. The point, it seems to me, is to create the misimpression among readers that this is big news, and to stir up trouble for the Obama-Bibi confab [emphasis added].
Just How Big Is the Problem?

Not only is the story not new, it is not even clear how big a story this actually is. Stephanie Gutmann points out in a post on The Corner:
Of course, most of these donations are going to “large, established settlements close to the boundary with Israel that would very likely be annexed in any peace deal, in exchange for land elsewhere,” and the money “goes mostly to schools, synagogues, recreation centers and the like.” Nevertheless, all of this somehow merits the blunderbuss treatment, because some of the money will probably find its way to “more legally questionable commodities: housing as well as guard dogs, bulletproof vests, rifle scopes and vehicles to secure outposts deep in occupied areas.”
In fact, as CAMERA notes, the New York Times article is forced again and again to qualify the size of the alleged problem.
o The money goes mostly to schools, synagogues, recreation centers and the like, legitimate expenditures under the tax law. But it has also paid for more legally questionable commodities: housing as well as guard dogs, bulletproof vests, rifle scopes and vehicles to secure outposts deep in occupied areas.

o ...The use of charities to promote a foreign policy goal is neither new nor unique — Americans also take tax breaks in giving to pro-Palestinian groups.

o Most contributions go to large, established settlements close to the boundary with Israel that would very likely be annexed in any peace deal, in exchange for land elsewhere.

o ...As the American government seeks to end the four-decade Jewish settlement enterprise and foster a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the American Treasury helps sustain the settlements through tax breaks on donations to support them...

[In the United States] ... the tax code encourages citizens to support nonprofit groups that may diverge from official policy, as long as their missions are educational, religious or charitable.[emphasis added]
Factual Errors In The New York Times Story

But above and beyond the size and nature of the problem--there are factual errors in the article as well, as the CAMERA article points out:
"American tax rules prohibit the use of charitable funds for political purposes at home or abroad."
This is not true. Charitable funds can legally be used for certain political purposes. The League of Women Voters, for example, routinely sponsors debates and candidate nights during the campaign season. This is not a violation of the US tax code, nor is putting out voter guides detailing the candidates’ positions on issues of concern to particular groups or the entire community. Nor are educational issue advertisements published by non-profits a violation of the tax code, as long as they don’t endorse a particular position or candidate.
Another error:
"Americans cannot claim deductions for direct donations to foreign charities; tax laws allow deductions for domestic giving on the theory that charities ultimately ease pressure on government spending for social programs."
In fact, the US has tax treaties with many countries, including Israel, that permit exactly this, assuming the money was earned in the foreign country. For example, if a US citizen owns an apartment in Israel and rents it out, the money earned can be used for charitable giving in Israel and that will reduce his adjusted US income and taxes.
And again:
"... Israeli-American relations plunged after Israel announced plans for 1,600 new apartments for Jews in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their future capital."
As reported in Ha'aretz, the announcement of plans to build the 1600 apartments had been made a year earlier. What was announced during the visit of VP Joe Biden in March was approval of the building plans by the Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee, one of many such official bodies that must approve the project before building can commence.
And again:
The Times, in charging that certain charities did not accurately describe their activities, also misled readers. For example, in recounting a statement by a spokesman for the group Ateret Cohanim, the Times wrote:
Mr. Hoenig said that Ateret Cohanim bought a couple of buildings years ago, but that mostly it helps arrange purchases by other Jewish investors. That is not mentioned, however, on its American affiliate’s tax returns. Rather, they describe its primary charitable purpose as financing “higher educational institutions in Israel,” as well as children’s camps, help for needy families and security for Jews living in East Jerusalem.

Indeed, it does all those things. It houses yeshiva students and teachers in properties it helps acquire and places kindergartens and study institutes into other buildings, all of which helps its activities qualify as educational or religious for tax purposes.
But the Friends of Ateret Cohanim IRS return actually describes the group’s mission as:
Provide financial support and other assistance to the Ateret Cohanim institutions and community in Jerusalem, Israel.
This description certainly would not rule out advising what properties its supporters should privately buy, and in any event, if such activities are a small portion of what Ateret Cohanim does, then it would not qualify as sufficiently important to report to the IRS. As the Times should have noticed, the relevant form asks for details of “the exempt purpose achievements for each of the organization’s three largest program services by expenses.” Offering advice to prospective property buyers would hardly seem to qualify.
Omissions And Lack Of Balance

Finally, there is the problem of balance, exacerbated by the omissions in the article. Gutmann writes:
Certainly, the most militant settlers, the kind who deface mosques and chop down olive trees, are obstacles to peace and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But pro-Palestinian charities that channel money into ferocious anti-Israel incitement or recruit for blockade-busting flotillas staffed by men armed with knives and clubs are rather massive obstacles as well. The Times admits that “Americans also take tax breaks in giving to pro-Palestinian groups,” but it devotes only one paragraph in this huge sprawl to the other side of the equation.
CAMERA expands on the nature of the omission:
In a story on indirect contributions from Americans to Israeli non-profits, there is not one word about the New Israel Fund, by far the largest and most active American organization funneling American contributions to Israeli non-profits. The NIF raised almost $34 million dollars in 2008, and has given more than $200 million in grants since its inception 30 years ago. The New Israel Fund heavily subsidizes radical Israel-based organizations like Adallah, Breaking the Silence, Gisha, B'Tselem and Machsom Watch. These five organizations, together with many similar groups supported by the New Israel Fund, effectively work to undermine Israel's standing in the world and its ability to defend itself.

Yet among these literally hundreds of organizations funded by the NIF not one is mentioned.The only similar group the Times does mention is Peace Now, though it is termed an "Israeli civil and human rights group," which the paper allows might be "accused of having a blatant political agenda."

Also unmentioned by the paper is that many of the groups funded by the NIF are key sources for New York Times itself, such as Gisha, cited in the paper already seven times this year, most recently on July 5th. (According to a Nexis search, since 2006 the Times has cited Gisha a whopping 25 times.) [emphasis added]
All of which leads one to question not only why so many resources and space were devoted to a one-sided, flawed, and sensationalized article, but also the timing of the article itself--coinciding with Netanyahu's meeting with Obama.

Answering the latter supplies the answer to the former.

UPDATE: From HonestReporting, on the issue of the selective bias of The New York Times:

Addressing this very issue, Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitorcommented:
Many organizations use US tax-exempt status to oppose Israeli government policy, and some are among the leaders of campaigns to demonize and wage political war against Israel. ...the article should not have been restricted to reflect a narrow and tendentious political position.
NGOs with 501(c)(3) status that promote anti-Israel agendas, demonization, and "one state" policies that single out Israel include:
and a host of other radical groups.
Why has the New York Times become the politicized vehicle for an organization such as Gush Shalom? Has the NY Times willingly allowed itself to be the weapon in the opening salvo of a campaign that seeks to delegitimize not only charitable activities on behalf of Israeli settlements but even those mainstream organizations with US 501(c)(3) status such as HonestReporting that are involved in absolutely transparent and legitimate activities.
Is this why the NY Times failed to concern itself with the radical organizations mentioned by NGO Monitor that have made full use of their US tax-exempt status to attack Israel? Indeed, how much of the NY Times's supposed investigative journalism was merely fed to its reporters by representatives of NGOs pushing a politicized agenda that fits with that of the NY Times?
Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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