Friday, November 30, 2007

Haaretz Expose of Financial Corruption at Israeli Neocon Thinktank, “Shalem Center”

In a long article in Haaretz’s Shabbat Supplement today, Daphna Berman and Naama Lansky exposes financial corruption, and even sexual improprieties, at the well-funded (and hitherto well-respected) Israeli rightwing think tank, the Shalem Center, whose donors include the usual rightwing suspects (Ron Lauder, Sheldon Adelson, Zalman Bernstein, and the russian oligarch, Leonid Nevzlin) Natan Sharansky is the director of Adelson Center for Strategy. Of course, the real directors are the former Princetonians and Daniel Polisar (the current president) and Yoram Hazony (the former president.)

Hebrew readers can read the dirt here. The English link is here Because I did not have the English link, I actually summarized it below. Then Richard Silverstein had told me that Sol Salbe had tipped him off to the article, and he "scooped" me here. Serves me right for not getting Tikun Olam delivered automatically to my inbox, which I will now rectify.

For the moment, here is the gist of Lansky’s investigative reporting. Some of it is significant; some of it is just gossip and sour grapes from fired employees. You know, the usual stuff of exposes.

Several weeks ago, there was a break-in at the Shalem Center’s Jerusalem headquarters, in which nothing was taken, but computers were vandalized and cables broken. A report was filed with the police which omitted all mention of the vandalism, and when the police investigated, they found no signs of a break-in. Two weeks ago the state’s attorney filed an indictment against the Center’s chief financial officer, the accountant Shaul Golan, for fraud and embezzlement of over a hundred thousand shekels (less than $25000.)

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Apparently, two years ago Golan tried to take financial control over the Shalem Center, which he thought was being run wastefully and corruptly. An internal investigation was conducted which raised the suspicion that spyware had been installed in the computers, and that private email correspondence had been collected and leaked. Golan was arrested and released; many workers were questioned by the police, and armed guards protected the premises for several weeks thereafter.

I suppose the alleged theft of $25,000 is small potatoes when you realize that the annual operating budget of the Shalem Center is over ten million dollars. When the average annual salary of a Israel university professor is something like $40,000, Polisar and Hazony pull in over $200,000 each. According to the article, the two use the funds of the Shalem Center as personal slush funds for family outings, employing family members, using employees as gofers, personal shoppers, and babysitters.

I will skip over the personal eccentricities of Yoram Hazony reported by Lansky – his requirement that the employees use the same font for all their typing, that staples have to be at a 45 degree angle, etc; that they provide him with a particular sort of yogurt, and a certain amount of cream cheese for his bagel. Not surprisingly, there is a huge turnover of personnel. Employees of the Center are often sent out on personal errands, like bringing pizzas to his children, picking up his laundry, moving personal effects to new quarters – all of which is considered part of their regular duties. OK, here’s one funny story. An employee was once told to drop everything and to run to the pharmacy and get a prescription for Yoram as fast as she could. She ran to the pharmacy and breathless asked, “What are the directions?” The pharmacist said, “Just tell me, what sort of cat is this for? Because the directions are different for different sorts of cats.”

When it comes to the Shalem Center, apparently, money is no object. When Hazony didn’t like a design element for the journal Azure after it had been printed, he had all 5,000 copies reprinted. “Whatever it costs, just do it,” he is quoted as saying. Not bad for a center that defines itself as a non-profit organization.

Another employee tells of the decision to hold a brain-storming session not in the Center’s building but in the main ballroom of the King David Hotel, complete with the hotel’s catering, The vast majority of the participants, regulars at the Center, just walked out of the Center and went to the King David.

Of course, there is the usual nepotism associated with family businesses. Yoram’s brother, David, worked there for twelve years in an executive position, and as editor of the periodical Azure – until he was forced to leave because of an affair he conducted with one of his subordinates. (At the time he was working on a book on the Ten Commandments – or maybe, for him, the Nine) As part of the agreement, he committed himself to move out of the villa in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot (over the green line, of course) that had been purchased for him, or to buy it himself.

Yoram’s wife, Yael, is the chief editor of the publication series of the Center, which has an annual budget of a million dollars to put out 4 or 5 books yearly. Yael is listed as the editor of the Hebrew translation of the Federalist Papers. This is not to the liking of the real editor of the book, Dr. Shlomo Yotbat, an expert in US history, who spent a year editing and annotating the book, for which he was paid, only to see that he appeared listed in one of the book’s pages merely as an “academic consultant” to Hazony’s wife – who apparently wrote none of the notes. Yotbat couldn’t afford to sue, he says, but as a result of the threat to sue and the negative publicity, the Shalem Center agreed to list his contribution as “scientific editor,” and to give him – what else? – some more financial compensation to shut him up. (Reaction of the Shalem Center – “The omission of Yotbat’s name was an error rectified in later editions.”)

Golan emerges towards the end of the article as somewhat of a good guy, because he tried to save the Shalem Center from the wasteful and corrupt management of Hazony and Polisar by attempting to hire a former employee, Sarah Kramer, who had begun to institute procedures and reforms before she was fired. A year after she was fired, Kramer met with other employees to see if they could wrest the control of the Shalem Center from its founders. Hazony found out, declared the situation “a nuclear war,” and went into action, which was to seize the computers used by the employees, fired other employees (though often keeping them on payroll provided that they not show up) Any employee who had been associated with Golan was summarily dismissed. Remember, we are talking about a research institute, not a biotech company. Yoram Hazony, who is apparently at work on a 1200 page treatise on human nature, which aims to present a new model of the human brain, with a Jewish accent, that will replace models by thinkers such as Noam Chomsky (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP! -- JH), has been angling to be a rector or president of a new Jewish university that he wishes to establish. He recently confided to a friend, interviewed by Lansky, that if his new university is not established, “there will be no future for Zionism, no future for the Jewish people, and I daresay, no future for the West.”

At the end of the article, Haaretz published a response from the Shalem Center, which defended all its actions, and blamed disgruntled employees associated with Golan for all the dirt.

And now it’s Jerry’s turn to make a comment.

I have read many of these exposes in Israeli papers before, and the pattern is predictable: A Jewish organization has a charismatic but quirky guru at its head, who charms the pants off of rich Jews, who then bankroll him. He treats the organization as a private slush fund for his megalomania, and, if he is halfway intelligent, he can actually do a lot of good with the money. But there is no effective oversight; the employees are treated like dirt, and most important, the guru is usually there for life, without control and peer review.

The problem is not the ideological orientation of the Shalem Center. OK, I am obviously not in their ball park. But it is a pity that the Center has fallen the victim of its own success. I would suggest to the Shalem Center’s Board of Directors that they start looking for a replacement for Hazony, or kick him upstairs (making him “President” or “Rector,” since he likes the title).There are decent, hardworking, and intelligent neocons who work at the Shalem Center – Michael Oren comes to mind. And ribono shel olam, get a CFO who knows how to keep the rapacious intellectuals in their place.

Isn’t it about time that the quirky gurus from Princeton are replaced? For the sake of the future of Zionism, the future of the Jewish people, and the future of the West?

Shabbat Shalom.



Richard said...

I blogged briefly about this yesterday. Here's the English link to the same story:

Jerry Haber said...