A Palestinian boy in Hebron, in the Israel-occupied West Bank.
A few weeks before Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his controversial address to Congress, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli Prime Minister was considering a campaign trip to Hebron, a right-wing settler community in the Israel-occupied West Bank. The proposed March 10 trip to Hebron, which would have been the first by an Israeli PM in more than a decade, raised eyebrows among Israel's political class and inflamed tensions with Palestinian groups. Last week, Netanyahu called it off, citing security threats.
"The Hebron Fund has supported, either directly or indirectly, a wide array of acts that are definitely not charitable," says Avaaz lawyer John Tye.
Here in the United States, meanwhile, few politicians have questioned why American taxpayers continue to subsidize the Hebron settlers, accused by international observers of human rights violations that include thefts, battery, and murder. In 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, an estimated 45 percent of the settler community's funding came from the Brooklyn-based Hebron Fund, whose status as a tax-exempt nonprofit allows Americans to write off donations to the group.
"The Hebron Fund has supported, either directly or indirectly, a wide array of acts that are definitely not charitable," says John Tye, the legal director for the global activist group Avaaz, which last week petitioned the IRS to revoke the Hebron Fund's nonprofit status. "They are basically using a small group of Jewish settlers in the West Bank to push Palestinians out of their homes. These settlers are arming themselves, they are engaged in military and paramilitary acts, some of them have connections to terrorism, and they are committing a wide range of crimes against Palestinians."
The Hebron Fund declined to make anyone available for comment for this story, or to respond to my written questions.
Hebron, a community of some 200,000 Palestinians located about 30 miles south of Jerusalem, is home to several ancient Jewish holy sites. The modern Jewish occupation began in 1967, after the Six Day War. The Hebron Fund was founded in 1979 to support the settlers, who now number around 850.
After years of conflicts between Palestinians and settlers, the historic center of Hebron has come to be known as "The Ghost Town." It is largely abandoned, with the doors of Arab shops welded shut by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) during the second intifada. Palestinians are forbidden from entering much of the area. In other parts of downtown Hebron, Jewish settlers live in buildings above Palestinian shops. The shopkeepers have stretched nets and metal grates over the streets to catch the garbage that settlers routinely throw from their windows:
Grates erected to catch garbage thrown by settlers living above ISM Palestine
The behavior of Jewish settlers in Hebron has been repeatedly denounced by human rights groups. In 2001, Human Rights Watch called Hebron "the site of serious and sustained human rights abuses," including "a consistent failure [by IDF] to protect Palestinians from attacks by Israeli settlers." In 2011, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem wrote that settlers "have been involved in gunfire, attempts to run people over, poisoning of a water well, breaking into homes, spilling of hot liquid on the face of a Palestinian, and the killing of a young Palestinian girl."
In recent months, vandals in the Hebron area have destroyed Palestinian olive groves, an Israeli human rights group reports.
In 2013, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed "deep concern" at the abusive treatment and harassment directed at a Palestinian activist in Hebron by settler groups and the IDF. Breaking the Silence, another Israeli human rights group comprised of IDF veterans, offers guided tours of Hebron—but only rarely, the group writes on its website, due to "the Hebron settlers' violence towards our tours and the limited ability of the Hebron police to protect our tours from this violence."
Just in the past two months, according to B'Tselem, vandals in the Hebron area have destroyed Palestinian olive groves in four locations.
Racist graffiti in Hebron: "Gas the Arabs." JDL is the Jewish Defense League. Jill Granberg
At times, the Hebron Fund has specifically sought to raise money for controversial settler activities. In 2007, according to Salon, it held a fundraiser on a cruise ship in New York's Hudson River to support a settler who'd taken property from a Palestinian family. A year and a half later, the Israeli government ruled that the house had been illegally seized from the family and ordered the settlers out. Once evicted, the settlers set fire to Palestinian houses, olive trees, and cars—25 people were wounded, including a man shot at close range.
In 1974, the Supreme Court said the IRS could revoke the nonprofit status of Bob Jones University for its refusal to admit black students.
The United States tax code does not provide detailed information about what can disqualify groups from nonprofit status, though precedent suggests that it includes illegal and discriminatory behavior. In 1974, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that the IRS was justified in revoking the nonprofit status of Bob Jones University over its refusal to admit black students.
The Hebron Fund has not released detailed financial information, making it impossible to determine whether it directly bankrolls prohibited activities. Yet Tye of Avaaz argues that the settlements' finances are sufficiently fluid and dependent upon the Hebron Fund to make it inherently complicit in any abuses. "I can't tell you precisely where every dollar has gone," he says. "But when there is a doubt, the legal burden is on the Hebron Fund to produce documents that show how its money is spent."
This isn't the first time a group has asked the IRS to revoke the Hebron Fund's nonprofit status. In 2009, a similar complaint was submitted by the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The IRS never responded.
Though Tye believes there's already sufficient public evidence to revoke the fund's nonprofit status, he at least wants the IRS to conduct a thorough investigation. A spokesman for the IRS declined to comment on the case, citing a federal law that bars the agency from discussing specific taxpayers.
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"Hello and welcome," the voice said. "Thank you for joining us on this special evening to learn more about the clean cannabis movement."
I was in a white van, bouncing up a steep hill to a party at an undisclosed location in Berkeley, California. The voice came from an iPhone held up by one of my hosts, a young woman wearing a cocktail dress and a headband of white flowers. "If you do not wish to participate in the cannabis," the voice continued, as meditative music played in the background, "do not have anything the flower girls are carrying."
Duly warned, I was deposited at the front steps of Panoramic Sky, a three-story house designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright that rents on Airbnb, I later learned, for $2,800 a night. I was wearing a suit I'd bought earlier that day from Neiman Marcus, worried that I didn't own any clothes nice enough for the occasion. "Dress Code: Formal Attire (Great Gatsby meets California)," the invitation had said. A subsequent update noted that lots of "very important people" would be there.
RAMP founder Ann Lee, left, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who recently came out in favor of letting states legalize pot
Early last year, John Baucum, the political director of a group called Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), cornered Sen. Ted Cruz at a GOP event in Houston. Cruz, a former Texas prosecutor who talks the talk on states' rights, had criticized the Obama administration for declining to prosecute Colorado pot growers. Baucum wanted to point out the disconnect: "It sounded like you were making an argument against federalism," he recalls telling Cruz.
"I don't believe that when God made marijuana he made a mistake that the government needs to fix."
Perhaps his comment got Cruz thinking, because last week, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC, Cruz reversed course on pot: "Look, I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called 'the laboratories of democracy,'" he told Sean Hannity during the Republican go-to event, where RAMP had a table set up. "If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that's their prerogative."
On the heels of CPAC, state representative David Simpson, a Republican from East Texas whom RAMP had lobbied heavily, introduced a new bill that would abolish dozens of state marijuana statutes, essentially legalizing pot in the Lone Star State. "I don't believe that when God made marijuana he made a mistake that the government needs to fix," Simpson wrote in the Texas Tribune. "The time has come for a thoughtful discussion of the prudence of the prohibition approach to drug abuse."
Melinda Haag, US Attorney for Northern California.
Several California congressional representatives issued a statement Friday accusing the Department of Justice of "not acting within the spirit or letter of the law" in its pursuit of a three-year-old legal case aimed at shutting down Harborside Health Center, one of the country's largest and most respected pot dispensaries.
"As Members of Congress we have watched the public acceptance of medical marijuana develop and grow while the Federal policy on it stagnates," wrote Reps. Sam Farr, Dana Rohrabacher, and Barbara Lee.
In 2012, US Attorney Melinda Haag initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against Harborside, which does $25 million a year in sales, on the grounds that it had grown too big. The move came as shock to many in California's medical marijuana industry; Harborside was widely viewed as one of the state's most ethical and legally compliant dispensaries. A few months later, the City of Oakland sued to block Haag's case, arguing that shutting down Harborside would create a public health crisis.
"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo.
The following year, the Justice Department issued a memo laying out a more permissive federal policy on pot, and federal prosecutors dropped similar civil forfeiture proceedings against several dispensaries in Los Angeles. But in Northern California, Haag pressed on with her case against Harborside and the Berkeley Patients Group, another large, well-respected dispensary.
Motivated in part by Haag's prosecutions, Reps. Farr and Rohrabacher won a provision in December's federal appropriations bill that blocks the DOJ from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws. The move was expected to be the nail in the coffin for Haag's pot cases. But on February 3, she appeared before 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to push the case forward, arguing that the City of Oakland shouldn't be allowed to challenge the proceedings.
"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal in the Harborside case," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo. Haag's office could not immediately be reached for comment.
The DOJ's ongoing pursuit of the case has led to much debate about Haag's motivations. Some observers wonder if she's simply a dyed-in-the-wool drug warrior. Others speculate that the DOJ sees the case as a way to continue to discourage the expansion of marijuana businesses in California, where pot laws are notoriously loose and decentralized.
"It can be dismaying to me as a businessperson to have these persistent attacks keep coming at Harborside and see most of the rest of the industry not similarly targeted," DeAngelo says. "But I did not get into this industry to make lots of money, I got into this to make cannabis legal. And I think we are gong to win."
Despite the legalization of medical marijuana in 30 states, the federal government still lists cannabis under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which means that it has "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." But today, the nation's new top doctor appeared to challenge that designation.
"We have some preliminary data showing that for some medical conditions and symptoms that marijuana can be helpful," Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told CBS This Morning. "So I think we have to use that data to drive policymaking, and I'm very interested to see where that data takes us."
Here's the full interview (Murthy's comments on medical marijuana start at 3:48):