Groves of Sanctimony — and not only in the RC church

A.W.N. Pugin (1843) — BBC

Tax hanky-panky; the “non-refundable” deposit; unenforceable waivers

Religious and quasi-religious institutions like to tell us what is ethical and what is not. But, aside from what they say, how do they in fact behave ? That can be quite a different story, a conundrum in fact. For poor Benedict XVI — I feel that I have a special relationship to him because we were both born in the same country within a few months of one another — for this poor Pope, who has inherited a mess that is mostly not of his own making, this conundrum probably disturbs his sleep.

The Pope now finds himself in the glaring light of worldwide publicity. New revelations appear constantly, seemingly from everywhere, about Catholic pastors, Catholic bishops, Catholic cardinals even, who are said have transgressed in ways strictly forbidden by Canon Law. Obviously there is more than a bit of Schadenfreude in all this publicity, a point stressed by Catholic apologists. And equally obviously, there is a real moral problem as well.

Compared to these alleged high crimes and misdemeanors in the Catholic hierarchy, certain garden-variety hypocrisies, chicaneries, and sanctimonious practices seem hardly worth mentioning. But obviously these almost-routine practices, generally not reaching the level of spectacular crime, nevertheless need the warming sunlight of public knowledge.

Tax Hanky Panky

Here are excerpts from the website of Camp Ramah of the Berkshires, a non-profit group that is directed by a rabbi and whose office is located at the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary:

Camp Improvement Fund *. An additional $500 will be added to each family’s account as an annual, voluntary, tax-deductible contribution to the Camp Improvement Fund. This is an amount essential to the development and maintenance of Camp Ramah and is included as a donation to ensure tax deductibility for your benefit. As with all similar tax-deductible contributions, these payments may qualify for your employer’s matching gift program. Please forward the appropriate form if this option is available to you.

For your benefit. Right. Under our tax laws, “no goods or services” may be provided for a “contribution” to enjoy tax deductibility. So this “voluntary” CIF fee is first listed as a “fee,” apparently part and parcel of the required payments for this camp, and is then called “voluntary.” Which is it ? Between the wink and the nod, what is the message ? The “fee” part seems to be directed to the parent, the “voluntary” to pesky IRS investigators. So what these religious guides here teach, by example, is how to speak with forked tongues.

It is of course an open secret that many non-profit groups abuse the tax laws by providing tax-deduction receipts for what in fact are goods and services that they render, but rarely is the practice so blatantly advertised, on the internet no less.

The “non-refundable deposit” and other fees for services that are not performed

• A non-refundable enrollment deposit [of $725.00] is required at the time of acceptance. Website of Friends Seminary, New York

· Children will be dismissed early from camp for attempting to harm others, leaving the cabin after curfew, attempting to run away or for disruptive behavior.
· Refunds are not issued for children who are dismissed early due to disruptive behavior.
· The Camp Director makes the final decision on early dismissals.
Website of Long Point Camp, Salvation Army

Camper Withdrawals. No tuition refunds will be made for withdrawals after the start of camp that are initiated by parents without the concurrence of camp or if a camper is sent home due to behavioral misconduct. For other withdrawals, a prorated portion of the tuition will be refunded after deducting a withdrawal fee of half the tuition. (Conservative Jewish) Camp Ramah (Berkshires) website

“Behavioral misconduct” ? Yes, obviously, that kind, the behavioral kind of misconduct needs to be punished by a religious camp. But alas, abuse of the English language is the least egregious thing here. Non-profit schools and summer camps, including those run by religious groups, often give warnings to prospective parents: generally, once fees are paid they will not be returned, or will only be partially returned, even though no services are performed by the institution for these often considerable sums of money. The groups also frequently demand sizable deposits before enrollment, often with a warning that such deposits are non-refundable, or even “not refundable under any circumstances.”

What is disturbing about these practices is that no attempt is made to relate these considerable sums to actual damages that may have been incurred by the institutions. Restitution of damages that are caused by early withdrawal, etc., would be rational demands and would have a strong basis in law. But a refusal to return deposits when there are no actual damages, or when such damages are smaller than the sums withheld, such refusal is illegal, and no agreement that a parent may have signed to that effect is enforceable. Parents should always demand a return of any such fees; if they do, they will regularly be vindicated in the courts.

Here are two cases that illustrate how courts have dealt with the issue:

Gunderson v Park West Montessori

Pacheco v Scoblionko

Obviously the many lawyers associated with these religious groups know very well — the legal issue is beyond dispute — that these practices are illegal, and that, if brought before the courts, they will lose. So why do they persist in these unconscionable demands ?

Unenforceable waivers

I hereby give permission for this youth to attend and participate in
___________________________________. I have familiarized myself with the expected activities and understand the possible risk involved. Permission is also given for the person named above to ride in any vehicle designated by the adult in charge during this event. If a problem occurs I assume all transportation cost for my young person. I understand that the participant is expected to obey the general guidelines for behavior: that the instructions of the adult(s) in charge must be respected and obeyed and that NO alcohol, illegal drugs or sexual misconduct will be permitted at this event. I will take no civil or legal action against the adult(s) in charge of this event. Website of Episcopal Diocese, Western New York

Camps and schools, soccer teams, all kinds of “youth-serving” organizations, both religious and secular, regularly demand that parents sign waivers to release them from their legal responsibilities in negligence cases. Such waivers are proper and enforceable in the case of adults but not in the case of minors. Professors Richard B. Malamud and John Karayan cite the legal doctrine as follows: “Minors can waive nothing. In the law they are helpless, so much so that their representatives can waive nothing for them.” As their article makes clear, the courts will not honor such waivers, since parents do not have the power to grant them.

So why, knowing that the courts will not enforce them, do the lawyers of these groups — secular as well as religious — persist in demanding them from parents as a condition for their children’s participation in recreational pursuits ? Do these lawyers act in good faith ? Do they, in fact, practice the integrity that their groups preach ?

Still more groves of sanctimony:

Sidwell Friends School

Jewish philanthropy

New Israel Fund

I own a lot of copyrights, and here are the benefits that I derive ….

Logo of US Copyright Office

During my academic career I would write scholarly articles from time to time and see them published in the periodical literature devoted to such work. I was rarely paid in money, but the gratification of seeing my work in print, and of contributing to the scholarly conversation was more than enough compensation.

But there was an additional, legal gratification: absent an explicit contract to the contrary, copyright remains with the writer. So now I own quite a few copyrights, and here are the benefits that I derive from them:

In this age of computerization, not a few of my old articles are available in the data bases of a number of well-known publishers. So I can find much of my old work there any time I want to refer to it. I can find it there, but as I learned to my chagrin, it is generally not free. Since I never gave permission for my work to be sold by others, I approached a number of these publishers. Look, I said, this work is mine. You sell it without my permission. Tell you what, I said to a number of them, I will give you permission to keep using my work if, by way of compensation, you will give me free access to your data base.

In not a single case have any of these publishers — a very famous university press among them — agreed to my proposal. I generally get a letter back saying that the matter is being referred to their legal department, or whatever, and then I never hear from them again.

The one exception is the well-known conservative magazine Commentary, to which I contributed a few very minor items more than fifty years ago, back when it was not at all conservative. This is what I wrote on October 2 of last year:

Some fifty years ago I contributed some book reviews to Commentary. Whatever the custom may be now, at that time I retained the copyright to this material, since, absent an explicit contract to the contrary, the copyright automatically belongs to the author. Now it appears that you sell access to these reviews on your website, even though these rights are not yours to sell. I was asked to pay for access to my own property !

I am willing to negotiate an arrangement under which I would grant you rights to sell access to my work in return for my having free usage of your archives.

In any case, please note that, as of now, you are infringing on my intellectual property rights.

Kindest regards, and best wishes for the new year.

Well, it did not take long to get an answer from the good people of Commentary. Here is what they wrote back, on October 5:

Dear Werner Cohn:

I apologize for any misunderstanding. We will remove your work from our website as soon as possible.

I hope you have a sweet new year.

Well, I can’t say that I was happy with this answer, but at least, I thought, they are doing the right thing: they know they are infringing on my property rights, and they agree to cease and desist, in full compliance with their own (current) private-property principles.

But there is a funny ending to this story. They have indeed removed my name from an old book review of mine, but the review itself is still there, published as “Reviewed by [blank].” No, I am not making this up. Click here.

UPDATE, about three hours later from the above:
Whoever says that Commentary has no shame is wrong, completely wrong. After I posted the above, and sent a link to Mr. John Podhoretz of Commentary magazine, lo and behold, a couple of hours later, two of my ancient book reviews have disappeared from the on-line archive of the magazine. And all that happened on shabat. Great work, John P. !

The Salary Scandal in Jewish Philanthropy

This is an old story, and bringing it up once again, by an obscure blogger like me, is not likely to cure the problem. But please … why are these gentlemen (mainly) of the “Jewish civil service” paid as they are ?

In the chart above, I’ve pulled out salaries in excess of $500,000 in the world of Jewish philanthropy (see the excellent site of the Chronicle of Philanthropy), but this is just a tip of the iceberg of excessive payments to Big Shots, Jewish and otherwise. No more than one half of one percent of the American workforce receives this much (oops, I almost said “earns this much”). Ordinary people like you and me earn far, far less. We are regularly asked to contribute to groups like UJA-Federation, in the name of helping the less fortunate. Is there any rhyme or reason, or any decency whatsoever, in using our contributions to support the lifestyles of the upper one half of one percent ? There is not.

The apologists of such salaries invariably say that it is not possible to get “good people” to work for less. The same argument was advanced on behalf of the salaries and bonuses paid to the “good people” whose incompetence gave us the current recession.

Can you get “good people” to work for non-stratospheric salaries ? The President of the United States ($400,000), the federal judges ($170,000), officials of the Salvation Army ($216,000), Jesuit priests who lead major universities (room and board), all these seem willing enough to work for reasonable incomes. Moreover, scholars who have looked for empirical evidence to support stratospheric incomes have found none: there is simply no evidence that such salaries “are needed.”

As it happens, the highest salary at the Salvation Army is $216,000. That is one fifth of the salary paid to the president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. On the other hand, the yearly income of the Salvation Army is $3,237,768,000, which happens to be fifty times as much as that of the Jewish Federation of LA. In other words, Sally Anne gets 250 times more value for her money than does the Jewish Federation of LA.

No, there is no valid argument “from necessity” for the high salaries at Jewish institutions. But in any case, whatever pragmatic reasons could be found or invented to justify such payments, the most important thing about these payments, in my view, is that they are unseemly.

Finally, I must hasten to add that certain payments to officials of elite universities are still more shocking than these abuses at Jewish groups. Please study the Chronicle of Philanthropy materials to which I have linked above.

Of What Use is the New Israel Fund ?

Ms. Naomi Chazan

President, New Israel Fund

It is almost thirty years ago that the French scholar Georges Lavau published his memorable study A quoi sert le parti communiste français ?, “Of What Use is the French Communist Party ?”, with the question mark on its cover five times as large as the rest of the title. (Click here for a French-language review). No, Lavau found, the CP does not in any way live up to its declared aims of proletarian revolution, human brotherhood, or social betterment. But nevertheless, he says, the Party has its functions — mainly one of providing a venting place for the dissatisfied in the larger society; in this way, according to Lavau, the CP promotes social stability.

The idea of piercing behind professed aims to examine the reality of a social institution did not originate with Lavau. Nor did it originate with the American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003, born Meyer Schkolnick), who introduced the terminology of “manifest” versus “latent” functions. But Merton’s terminology is useful as a handle. I am using it here to ask: what is manifest, and what is latent in the New Israel Fund ?

The manifest content of NIF is its self description, for instance this passage from its website:

The New Israel Fund (NIF) is the leading organization committed to democratic change within Israel. Since 1979, NIF has fought for social justice and equality for all Israelis. We believe that Israel can live up to its founders’ vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, without regard to religion, race or gender.

Widely credited with building Israel’s progressive civil society from scratch, we have provided more than $200 million to more than 800 cutting-edge organizations since our inception. What’s more, through our action arm, SHATIL, we mentor, train and lead Israeli civil society in an ongoing struggle to empower the underprivileged.

Democratic social change. Social justice. Equality. Sound familiar ? And ah yes, “progressive civil society” — we’ve looked at that one in the previous posting. As for the “cutting-edge” organizations that NIF has financed, these are better known for their accusations of Israeli “war crimes” and, in effect, their work to demolish Israel (see my postings of 2/11/10 and 4/8/10). Are any of these eight hundred groups, over and above the demonstrated anti-Israel agitation of at least some of them, involved in any discernible efforts for “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, without regard to religion, race or gender” ? I would not rule that out, but I am skeptical. The politics of NIF-supported groups are clear, their humanitarian impact, if any, is not clear to me.

In the meantime, there are many groups in Israel that do indeed work “to empower the underprivileged” and who do so without the political baggage of NIF. Two of these come to mind immediately: the Tel Aviv Foundation and the Jerusalem Foundation. Both are well established and have long records of work among the poor, both Arabs and Jews, work that they have done without fanfare and without public grandstanding. I would urge the reader to consult the websites of each. Moreover, the UJA-Federation of New York supports numerous groups in Israel devoted to the needy there, some of which are specifically organized for Arabs and other minorities.

About a year ago my wife Rita and I visited the Bialik – Rogozin School in Yaffo, which is supported by the Tel Aviv – Yaffo municipality. We found young children of many backgrounds studying in this very modern, well equipped Israeli institution. I was particularly struck by the many black faces from Africa — six and seven-year olds — all speaking Hebrew like sabras. They were children of African refugees, some of whom were in the country as undocumented immigrants. “This is the only place on earth where refugees from Darfur and other African countries are treated like human beings,” a woman there remarked. While I was at the school and witnessed the colorful array of faces, I kept thinking of Jimmy Carter, who had just written his strange assessment of Israel as practicing “apartheid.” I kept asking myself, is Carter just ignorant or is he malicious ?

So, well, no, we do not need the NIF to “empower the underprivileged” in Israel.

The NIF may or may not be helpful to underprivileged people in Israel, but it is well documented that it is definitely helpful to another group — the extremely privileged. According to the group’s 2008 IRS Form 990, it paid top salaries to at least two of its US-based officials: $228,331 to Larry Garber, then its CEO, and another $235,408 to Aaron Back, listed as “independent contractor.” These payments are not much when compared to incomes of bank executives or even to those of executives at certain other Jewish groups. But these NIF salaries are more than twice as high as those of full professors of major universities. It places the recipients in the upper two percent of American households, assuming that they are sole wage earners. These are 2008 figures, the last that the group has provided to the IRS. Mr. Daniel Sokatch, the current CEO of NIF, has not responded to my request for the current salary structure at his organization.

So we know that NIF money goes to support Arab campaigns against Israel; it goes to pay for upper-middle class lifestyles of its officials. What else does it buy ? Nothing that can be definitely documented, but I would not dismiss feelings of satisfaction to donors whose political proclivities coincide with those of the NIF leadership. Whatever else may be said about the NIF, it is obviously far more political than eleemosynary. For prospective donors whose motivations are charitable, NIF is a good group from which to stay away.

Read the important Im Tirtzu report on the NIF

Read the NGO Monitor report on the NIF

Read the NGO Monitor’s Ethical Guidelines for the NIF

UPDATE, May 14, 2010: NGO Monitor ad re. NIF

UPDATE, Sept. 22, 2010: NIF makes contradictory claims; continues to send about $10 million a year to anti-Israel groups

"Civil Society" — the Shell Game of the New Israel Fund

Ms. Naomi Chazan

President, New Israel Fund

I first ran across “civil society” in this context when I looked into the agitational work of a Mr. Jeff Halper, an American immigrant to Israel who devotes himself to abolishing the Jewish state. He claims to have the support of “international civil society” because people from various countries, including the American Friends Service Committee, support his cause.

Now there is a public controversy surrounding the New Israel Fund, a far less radical group than Mr. Halper’s, but one that devotes itself to similar objectives — less stridently, much less directly, and probably less deliberately. As I have shown in a previous posting, NIF has financed a number of groups that work for the dismantlement of Israel. With all that, NIF claims, repeatedly and insistently, that it represents and supports “civil society” in Israel. That, in its self-description, is its raison d’être.

That sounds grand. But what, exactly, is “civil society ? As it turns out, NIF has a number of answers, each different from the next.

First, here is Daniel Sokatch, NIF’s current executive director:


At a time when the organizations that safeguard Israeli civil society are under assault by those for whom openness, equality and pluralism are anathema, the NIF family of organizations has come together like never before to push back, and to stand up for justice. (Sokatch)

And here is NIF’s form 990 submission to the IRS:


NIF works with civil society organizations to accomplish social and economic justice.

And here is Adalah, one of NIF’s most strident anti-Israel beneficiaries, a group that accuses Israel of “crimes against humanity”:


In 8/09, Adalah and Al-Haq held a symposium in Ramallah where research team members presented the findings of the study and discussed potential next steps with around 150 representatives of civil society, political parties, and international organizations who attended the event. (2009 Ann.Rpt.)

The many meanings of “civil society”

So we see that sometimes NIF uses the term as equivalent to democracy itself (example A) while at other times (examples B and C), the term refers to one or another of non-governmental organizations; there is a basic equivocation about this “civil society” in NIF usage.

But even when employed in the more narrow sense — i.e. non-governmental organization — there is yet a further ambiguity. If NIF and the groups it finances can be said to be “civil society,” what about all the other voluntary groups of Israel ? Dare one mention, say, settler organizations on the West Bank ? No, NIF never mentions groups it does not like as being “civil society;” it seems that only the left-wing and Arab groups that it favors qualify.

In brief, the use of the term “civil society” by NIF is a shell game. When convenient, it means no more than voluntary or non-governmental groups. At other times it means the NIF-financed groups. At still other times, the term means democracy itself. By shifting back and forth, without keeping the spectator informed where the pea is hidden, NIF can deflect any criticism of itself or of one of its beneficiaries (B and C “civil society”) as an attack on democracy itself (A “civil society”) Such deflection is usually accompanied by a characteristic ultra-left barrage of vilification: McCarthyist ! Fascist ! Reactionary !

The use of “civil society” to characterize the left-wing groups that NIF favors also emboldens NIF to suggest that somehow the society as a whole is behind its cause. Since it’s very simple to multiply friendly organizations, if necessary through overlapping memberships, one can seek to create an impression of substantial public support. But this procedure is obviously misleading. No matter how many organizations one claims as supportive, the total numbers of sympathizers can be minuscule. And that, as it happens, is the case here: all the groups trotted out by NIF, all of them together, represent but a very tiny slice of Israeli public opinion. How do I know this ? Well, Israel is a democratic country, and the voice of the people is heard in elections.

Ms. Chazan, NIF President, is a former member of the Knesset as member of the Meretz political party and Meretz, in a sense, remains the political arm of NFI. At one time Meretz commanded a respectable number of votes, but in the last (2009) election it felt constrained to run together with another small party to improve its chances. This combination, New Movement-Meretz, obtained … guess how much of the vote ? It received all of 2.95% ! So by any meaningful accounting for “civil society” in Israel, 97.05% of it will have nothing to do with Ms. Chazan and her NFI.

Read the important Im Tirtzu report on the NIF

Read the NGO Monitor report on the NIF