Commentary Magazine


The New Israel Fund—Civil Rights or Political Warfare: An Exchange

Editor’s note: In her March 28 post “An Alternative Model for Pro-Israel Liberals,” Evelyn Gordon compared the work of philanthropist Robert Price to that of the New Israel Fund and J Street. The New Israel Fund’s Naomi Paiss has written in defense of her group. Evelyn Gordon’s response follows.

In the latest paternalistic attack on pro-Israel progressives, Evelyn Gordon attempted to save liberals from themselves. By equating the New Israel Fund and J Street with disloyalty to Israel, she resurrects a disproven canard now only used by those with an ultra-nationalist political agenda. Her depiction of the New Israel Fund (NIF) and our grantees is particularly scathing. And wrong.

The New Israel Fund has always prided itself on being a cutting-edge organization. We gave Israel’s first rape crisis centers their seed money, we were the only organization outside of Israel to support the 2011 social justice protests, and our partners have been instrumental in shaping Israel’s human-rights law and policy.  We were also the first funders of Arab civil society in Israel. 

Our support in the Arab sector has always been multi-faceted. We fund employment and empowerment opportunities for Arab youth at-risk around the country. We work to redress unequal funding to Arab schools and communities. We fight for greater Arab representation on public bodies and committees. And no one does more for Arab and Bedouin women, on issues ranging from polygamy and honor killings to drastically increasing their ability to become leaders in their communities. A glance at our website and list of just our current grantees could have spared COMMENTARY the embarrassment of running a column so contrary to fact.

And, yes, we proudly fund groups like Adalah and Mossawa who engage in critical work on behalf of the Palestinian Israeli communities they serve, using strategies of litigation and community organizing.

Gordon’s depiction of Adalah as undermining Israel and exacerbating anti-Arab discrimination is simply ludicrous. Funding Adalah means that Palestinian Israelis have a voice in the Israeli courts. In 2011, Adalah won a precedent-setting case on behalf of the Palestinian Israeli Zubeidat family, whose application to move into the town of Rakefet was rejected on the basis that they were “socially unsuitable” to live in the town. Last year, another Adalah petition resulted in the cancellation of 51 demolition orders in the unrecognized Negev Bedouin village of Alsira. Although unrecognized, Alsira has been in existence since before the founding of Israel. If carried out, the demolition would have left more than 400 homeless.  

Adalah’s work often benefits other marginalized groups, including achieving a victory a few years ago permitting Israelis—all Israelis—receiving social welfare benefits to own cars, thereby enlarging their employment opportunities.

In the U.S., groups working to promote and protect minority rights are lauded. Just look at the NAACP, La Raza, or for that matter, the ADL. Some factions in Israel, however, have been keen to vilify not only the specific work of groups working for minority rights, but the mere right of such groups to exist.

Israelis, though, are keenly aware of the issues facing minority populations. In a recently published report on racism in Israel, an astounding 95 percent of Israelis expressed concern about racism in the country. And only a little over 10 percent felt the government response was adequate. 

Minority rights for the Arab community often come hand in hand with progress for other marginalized sectors. The big-tent Coalition Against Racism is one group gaining traction in the efforts to make Israel more inclusive. A broad partnership spanning the Israeli spectrum, the group is made up of organizations representing Palestinian Israelis, Mizrachim, Ethiopians, Russians, the Reform movement, the social justice movement, and more. The coalition is an unprecedented endeavor. Rarely in Israel do such disparate groups come together to discuss and formulate joint solutions to make Israel a more just and equal society for everyone. The NIF-supported coalition, who just visited the U.S. to an enthusiastic reception by American Jewish groups, is an amazing model that represents the best of Israel.

We at the New Israel Fund believe in a broad-based and integrated approach to changing Israeli society. And that is exactly why it is so critical to support the civil society groups engaged in our work on the ground, and why our fundraising has increased every year while that of other Jewish organizations is stagnant or declining. American Jews do have a heartfelt investment in the liberal values of democracy, equality, and social justice. Their investment in NIF means they understand that the activists and organizations we support are working for a better Israel.  

Naomi Paiss is the Vice President for Public Affairs at the New Israel Fund

Evelyn Gordon replies:

Naomi Paiss argues that NIF supports a wide spectrum of activity in Israel, citing the fund’s list of current grantees to prove this point. This list indeed includes many unexceptionable organizations–groups that, even if I disagree with them, genuinely strive to improve Israel according to their own lights. And if funding them were all NIF did, neither I nor most other Israelis would have any problem with its operations.

But these innocuous grantees don’t change the fact that NIF also funds many organizations actively engaged in political warfare against Israel. Thus every donation to NIF that isn’t earmarked for a specific organization ends up funding anti-Israel political warfare.

To take just one example, numerous NIF-funded organizations contributed to the infamous Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of “war crimes” during its 2009 war in Gaza and recommended indicting it in the International Criminal Court. Many of these groups remain NIF grantees to this day, including Adalah, Breaking the Silence, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Bimkom, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, and Physicians for Human Rights. The Goldstone Report’s anti-Israel slurs have been so discredited that even its lead author has repudiated it. The commission’s mandate was thus to arrive at a predetermined verdict—or in other words, to conduct political warfare against Israel rather than honestly to investigate the facts. Consequently, the organizations that submitted anti-Israel allegations to it knowingly contributed to this warfare. Yet the NIF apparently has no problem with its grantees engaging in such activity.

Nor was the Goldstone Report an aberration: Many NIF grantees routinely spend more time and effort libeling Israel overseas than trying to reform it at home. Take, for instance, Breaking the Silence, whose stated mission is “to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories” by disseminating “testimony” from former soldiers about alleged crimes committed by the Israel Defense Forces. But most Israelis know BTS’s claims of widespread abuse are false. Moreover, BTS refuses to divulge details that would enable the IDF to investigate its allegations and (if warranted) prosecute the perpetrators–something that would actually benefit the country by helping to squelch any abuses that do occur. For both reasons, the organization has found little traction at home.

So instead, BTS began taking its “testimony” on tour to college campuses throughout the U.S.–places that are already hotbeds of anti-Israel activity, and where there’s no ready supply of IDF veterans to refute its allegations. Smearing the IDF to American college students does nothing to change the army’s behavior, but it does erode Israel’s support overseas. In short, it’s simply anti-Israel political warfare.

This brings us to Ms. Paiss’s second main argument: that even the grantees I consider problematic also do much laudable work, and therefore deserve support. Here, my response is the same as it was with respect to supporting NIF itself: If these organizations confined themselves to, say, bringing anti-discrimination lawsuits, I’d have no problem with NIF supporting them. But Adalah, ACRI, Bimkom, BTS, PCATI, and many other NIF grantees also spend a lot of time and money on anti-Israel political warfare. Thus by funding these organizations, NIF is funding that warfare–and that’s true even if the grant is earmarked for other purposes, since money is fungible.

Adalah, whose activities Ms. Paiss defends at great length, is an excellent example: In addition to its submissions to Goldstone, it has urged other countries to refer Israel to the ICC, to “re-evaluate their relationship with Israel” and to end “normal relations” with it. It co-authored a report that accuses Israel of being “a colonial enterprise which implements a system of apartheid.” It drafted and still promotes a “democratic constitution” that would eradicate the Jewish state by mandating a “right of return” for millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, end Israel’s role as a safe haven for Jews worldwide by abolishing the Law of Return, grant Arab parties a de facto veto over all legislation, and more. All this, incidentally, would seem to violate two of the NIF’s own funding guidelines: Adalah “Works to deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel” via projects like its “democratic constitution,” and “Employ[s] racist or derogatory language” by hurling slanders like “apartheid” at Israel. And the same goes for many other NIF grantees (NGO Monitor has an excellent summary here; clicking on its links provides additional detail). 

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