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For Canadian taxpayers, why is Israel still a charity case?

In 2018 alone, registered Canadian charities raised over a quarter billion dollars for Israel-focused projects

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastHuman Rights

Thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched through London and other British cities to protest against Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, May 22, 2021. Photo by Alisdare Hickson/Flickr.

Over the past two weeks, Canada has seen its most significant ever outpouring of support for Palestinian rights. More than 150,000 letters have been sent to elected Canadian officials calling on Ottawa to criticize Israel’s human rights violations or to sanction key Israeli industries until Palestinians are granted full and equal civil rights.

Tens of thousands have also taken to the streets to denounce Israel’s violence. In one of the largest mobilizations, upwards of 1,000 vehicles were part of a multi-hour caravan in Montréal on May 15 to honour the Nakba, while more than 5,000 rallied or marched in the city on the same day. In Toronto, around 5,000 rallied on two consecutive weekends in Nathan Phillips Square outside City Hall.

Many thousands also participated in car caravans, rallies and marches in Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, Halifax, Saskatoon, Guelph, Victoria, Charlottetown, Lethbridge, Winnipeg, Oakville, Kitchener, Red Deer, Kamloops, Vernon, Kelowna, Saint John, Calgary, Québec City and elsewhere. In most cases they were among the largest pro-Palestinian demonstrations ever held in those communities.

The outpouring of pro-Palestinian sympathy is uplifting. But if we want to turn the tide against Israeli apartheid, we need to focus on ending Canada’s ongoing complicity in Palestinian dispossession.

Though little-discussed, the most important support Canada has offered Israel in recent decades is tax deductible charitable donations. In 2018 alone, registered Canadian charities raised over a quarter billion dollars in tax-deductible donations for Israel-focused projects.

Since the federal government introduced deductions for charities in 1967, billions of dollars in subsidized donations have gone to Israel. In 1991 the Ottawa Citizen estimated that more than $100 million a year was raised for Israel and possibly as much as $200 million.

Assuming $100 million has been sent to Israel annually since 1967, and with approximately 30 percent of the $5.4 billion total subsidized by the taxpayer, that’s around $1.7 billion in Canadian public support.

But there’s little discussion of the public funds that have gone to Israel through charitable donations. With the exception of the campaign to revoke the charitable status of the Jewish National Fund of Canada, which won a partial victory recently, there’s been almost no activism targeting Canadian charitable support for Israel—despite some of these donations violating Canadian charity law.

The Canadian government restricts registered charities from supporting other countries’ militaries. CRA guidelines note, “increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of Canada’s armed forces is charitable, but supporting the armed forces of another country is not.”

But numerous registered charities still support the Israeli military. The Jewish National Fund of Canada has openly financed numerous projects supporting the Israel Defense Forces, while Canadian Magen David Adom for Israel and Beit Halochem Canada (Aid to Disabled Veterans of Israel) have directly or indirectly supported the IDF.

In 2018, the Toronto-based HESEG Foundation, which was established “to recognize and honor the contribution of Lone Soldiers to Israel,” spent more than $9 million in Israel.

Without any direct pressure from the Palestine solidarity movement, Beth Oloth Charitable Organization lost its charitable status two years ago for “increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the Israeli armed forces.” With $61 million raised in 2017, it was also cited for funding projects in the occupied West Bank.

A number of registered charities also support settlement projects directly or indirectly. The Jewish National Fund of Canada built Canada Park on the remnants of three Palestinian villages in the West Bank that Israel occupied after the June 1967 war. For its part, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities has said it “provides financial” support to “the Jews currently living in Biblical Israel—the communities of Judea and Samaria” (occupied West Bank).

Many legal experts believe organizations that support or enable the military occupation of Palestinian land should also be excluded from receiving taxpayer subsidies.

According to a 2003 CRA directive, the organization is supposed to promote racial equality. Yet the Jewish National Fund, which raised $7.7 million for Israeli projects in 2018, practices a form of legalistic discrimination outlawed by the Canadian Supreme Court seven decades ago. A serious investigation of registered Canadian charities operating in Israel would likely uncover support for other apartheid-upholding organizations in Israel.

In fact, the entire thrust of Israel-focused charity funding is designed to expand the footprint of Jewish housing development into new areas, isolating Arab neighbourhoods and making it impossible to create a Palestinian state with contiguous borders.

Often framed as poverty alleviation, few of the aforementioned Canadian donations actually reach the poorest individuals living under Israel’s control. In essence, none of this taxpayer-subsidized money supports Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank, or Arab Israelis who make up the poorest 50 percent in the country.

While not against current CRA regulations, there is a strong argument to be made against Canadian taxpayers subsidizing donations to hospitals, universities, and other institutions in Israel proper.

Is it right for all Canadians to pay a share of some individuals’ donations to a country with a GDP equal to Canada’s? How many Canadian charities funnel money to Sweden or Japan? Is the Israeli government subsidizing Canadian orchestras, museums, guide dog centres, nature conservancies, universities, and hospitals?

Indeed, among the registered charities that raised over a quarter billion dollars for Israel-focused projects in 2018 are Canadian Friends of the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, the Canadian Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Canadian Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Canadian Association For Labor Israel, and the Canadian Friends of Israel Museum.

Irrespective of CRA regulations, activists who promote the aims of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement should push to outlaw donations to Israel until it complies with international law.

It is important for the Palestine solidarity movement to challenge subsidized charitable donations to Israel. The demand isn’t only about pressing the CRA to apply its own rules, but it’s also a way for the federal government to save taxpayers’ money while holding an apartheid state accountable for its crimes.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.

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