Anti-hunger group in New York under fire for ties to Israeli settlement builder

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Boycott Leviev Protesters gathered outside of Lev Leviev’s diamond store in Manhattan to sing and demonstrate against the mogul’s involvement in building settlements. (Photo: Bud Korotzer)

A New York City anti-hunger non-profit has come under fire from Palestine solidarity activists for taking money linked to a settlement builder. The organization, City Harvest, is being targeted by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel for taking money from fundraisers put on by Israeli settlement mogul Lev Leviev, who has long been a target of New York boycott campaigns.

City Harvest has provided limited feedback to the New York activists, who are calling on the anti-hunger group to refuse to take money from Leviev and are questioning whether Leviev-raised funds were taken by the organization in 2012. City Harvest is a major anti-hunger organization that collects excess food around the city, which is then delivered to community food programs.

The anti-hunger group refused to speak with Mondoweiss. “We politely decline your request for an interview,” wrote Cara Taback, the associate director of communications for City Harvest, in an e-mail. A follow-up email asking whether the group accepted donations from Leviev last year went unanswered. (Update: After this story was published, Taback emailed back in response to my question about taking money from Leviev in 2012 with this: “The 2012 Annual Report will be posted to the City Harvest website shortly, and can also be obtained by writing [to City Harvest].”

640 letters have been sent to the group protesting their links with Leviev. 

“We greatly value all the excellent work that City Harvest does to address hunger in our city. Still, we don’t believe that feeding hungry New Yorkers needs be achieved at the expense of Palestinian communities that are losing their farmland to Leviev’s settlements,” said Adalah-NY’s Ryvka Barnard, in a press statement sent out by the group. “It’s a hard decision to turn back money, but sticking with ethical standards is right, and will also gain City Harvest respect and support.”

Other organizations with links to Leviev have been successfully pressured in the past. For instance, UNICEF “severed ties” with Leviev in 2008 over his settlement links.

The first salvo of Adalah-NY’s campaign came on November 7, 2012, in a letter sent to Jilly Stephens, the executive director of City Harvest. “Knowing City Harvest’s mission, we feel certain that you will be concerned to learn that, according to a press report, City Harvest is now benefiting from support from Lev Leviev, who is directly involved in increasing food insecurity and poverty of Palestinian families by developing Israeli settlements on expropriated Palestinian farmland,” the letter reads in part.

After a second letter sent garnered no response, Adalah-NY took their campaign public.

In a January 10 press release, Adalah-NY activists detailed the links City Harvest has with Leviev:

An October 2012 article and a celebrity photo blog reported on an October fundraiser for City Harvest held at Leviev’s Madison Avenue diamond store. In July Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the Vice Chairman of City Harvest’s board of directors, Heather Mnuchin, was opening her Hamptons home “for a viewing of the diamond collection of Leviev LVD, a City Harvest supporter.” In February 2010, Women’s Wear Daily reported on a “luncheon for City Harvest” at Leviev’s Madison Avenue store. City Harvest’s 2010 Annual Report lists Leviev as donating $25,000 – $49,999. Board Vice Chair Mnuchin, an organizer of all three publicized City Harvest events with Leviev, and Nina Rennert Davidson, noted as an organizer of two of the Leviev events, are listed as major donors in the organization’s 2011 annual report.

Leviev is deeply enmeshed in Israel’s illegal settlement project. Leviev is the chairman for the board of Africa-Israel, which builds in multiple settlements through its subsidiary, Danya Cebus, according to Who Profits, a project of the Israeli group Coalition of Women for Peace. According to the coalition, Danya Cebus “has built Green Park project in Matityahu East in the West Bank settlement of Modi’in Illit. It has built a housing project for Ya’asour in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Edomim. It has built projects for the developer Heftziba in the Har Homa, Ma’ale Edomim and Adam settlements next to Jerusalem, and it was hired to complete some housing projects there after the developer Heftziba had gone out of business.” Leviev is also a supporter of the Israeli group Elad, whose aim is to “Judaize” East Jerusalem by expelling Palestinians and creating new Jewish settlements there.

City Harvest is well aware of Adalah-NY’s campaign. According to the activist group, “City Harvest even used the automated email system on Adalah-NY’s website on December 14th to send its senior management two of the form emails about Leviev, labelling them as sent from ‘test test.’” And it is likely that Heather Mnuchin, vice chairman of City Harvest’s board of directors, knew of Leviev’s links to Israel’s West Bank colonization project well before this current campaign. Pictures from the 2007 opening gala of Leviev’s New York store, which was protested loudly by Adalah and others and garnered coverage in the New York Post, show that Mnuchin attended.

Meanwhile, Leviev continues to fuel illegal settlement building on Palestinian land. New information provided by Adalah-NY to Mondoweiss indicates that a new outpost built on the Palestinian village of Jayyous’ land was approved by Leviev. On October 31, the Israeli group Peace Now reported that a new outpost called “Tzofin North” was established. The outposts “are highly supported by the authorities. They include mobile homes, infrastructure, electricity, water and roads (and even air conditioning),” according to Peace Now.

This outpost is an extension of the settlement of Tzofin, which was built on the land of Jayyous. Leviev is one of the owners of the company Leader, which constructed the Tzofin settlement. “The outpost’s creation would require approval from the Israeli party claiming ownership to the land, in this case Leviev’s company Leader,” Dror Etkes, an Israeli settlement expert, told Adalah in a statement that was passed onto Mondoweiss.

The residents of Jayyous are none too pleased about the new outpost. “We are afraid that this new settlement outpost with Israeli families now living in five mobile homes is part of the continued effort to take more of our village’s farmland to expand the Zufim settlement. And just two days ago the settlers set down two more mobile homes not far from the first five. Seizing more of our community’s farmland for Israeli settlements increases poverty in our village and violates our rights,” Shareef Omar, head of Jayyous’ Land Defence Committee and an owner of farmland near the new settlement outpost, said in a statement to Adalah-NY which was also passed onto Mondoweiss.

Activists from Adalah-NY say they plan to continue to highlight to City Harvest’s links with Leviev in the future. “Adalah-NY and allies are examining options on how to best encourage City Harvest to respect human rights and international law by disavowing all support from Leviev’s companies,” reads an e-mailed statement from the group. “A number of organizations, investment funds and even governments have chosen to sever ties with Leviev’s companies, and we expect City Harvest to adhere to the same ethical standards.”

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University's Near East Studies and Journalism programs. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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