NO organisation has done more than the New Israel Fund (NIF), for over 30 years, to promote justice and inclusiveness in Israeli society. Understandably, given the wars Israel has had to fight since 1948, areas that NIF addresses – civil and human rights, social and economic justice, religious pluralism and the environment – received little attention in Israeli civil society prior to 1979, when NIF was established. Organisations seed-funded by NIF have put such issues squarely on the Israeli domestic agenda.
NIF works only in Israel, funds only Israeli non-governmental organisations (NGOs) recognised by the Israeli Government, and works to realise the vision in Israel’s Declaration of Independence of ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”. Dr Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor, in his opinion piece (AJN 13/05), acknowledged that the vast bulk of NIF funding goes to organisations that make positive and important contributions to advance social programs and the rights of minorities in Israel.
He is wrong, however, about the most difficult area that NIF works in. Civil rights issues are always controversial in a vigorous democracy like Israel, but many causes that were controversial when NIF first raised them are now mainstream. Twenty years ago, working for a woman’s right to be a pilot in the Israeli Air Force was controversial. So was NIF’s initial support for Israel’s first gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups, single parents, the disabled, the Negev Bedouin, and environmental legislation. Now, such causes are hardly contentious, and Israeli Government spokesmen regularly cite achievements of NIF organisations when defending Israel against delegitimisation.
It is ludicrous to suggest that NIF, with its proven history of service, is part of the campaign to delegitimise Israel. NIF emphatically supports Israel as the Jewish homeland, the nation-state where the Jewish people have sovereign self-determination. It opposes the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as inflammatory and counterproductive, and is concerned that some BDS proponents are part of the campaign to deny Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish State. Indeed, many grassroots people who fought BDS in Marrickville share NIF’s values. Differences of opinion about NIF’s work should therefore be seen for what they are, differences among lovers of Zion. That is nothing new. We have always been a people of many voices and NIF is one way – not the only way – that lovers of Israel can demonstrate their commitment to her, idealistically, realistically and productively.
NIF’s funding guidelines were clarified in the course of last year, not in response to NGO Monitor, as Dr Steinberg claims, but as part of a general review following the appointment of a new executive team. The guidelines are applied as grants and come up for renewal. Groups that do not comply with NIF’s policy on BDS, for example, have been removed from its list of grantee, client and donor-advised organisations. NIF does not debate such decisions with self-appointed inquisitors like NGO Monitor but, to illustrate, let me reply here about the Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP) and Adalah, which Dr Steinberg referred to as “the most egregious” of the small number out of the 800 organisations NIF has supported that NGO Monitor takes issue with.
CWP last received a grant through NIF two or three years ago, and was removed from the approved
donor-advised organisations list at the beginning of this year. CWP apparently did not update its websites after the fact, so Dr Steinberg may not have known all that when he wrote his AJN article. But he was subsequently informed personally by NIF, yet continues to publish reports smearing NIF by association with CWP. I ask fair-minded people to think what that shows about NGO Monitor’s bias.
NGO Monitor is entitled to be what it is, a mouthpiece for a particular political viewpoint, more concerned with threats to Israel’s image than with building the kind of Israel her founders envisioned. And the New Israel Fund is entitled to be what it is: a pro-Israel organisation with a real record of accomplishment, more than 33 years, in building a better Israel.
THERE are good reasons why NIF funds Israeli-Arab organisations – such as Adalah, which does groundbreaking work in achieving rights for Arab-Israelis that Israel’s government agrees they lack and deserve. As Avishay Braverman, Israel’s Minister of Minorities from 2009-2011 said: “Equality and partnership is not only written in our Declaration of Independence, it is not only moral, but it is also essential for the State of Israel, for its sustainable growth.
“If we do not do what is right and wise, we will be pushing the young Israeli-Arabs into adversaries. Therefore, partnership and equality for Israeli-Arabs is not only good for the Arabs, it is also good for the Jews.”
Arab-Israelis cannot reasonably be expected to share the Jewish perspective on the Zionist narrative. If a grantee’s main activity strengthens Israeli society by promoting civil and human rights, pluralism and democracy, NIF will not cut it off on account of statements inconsistent with the Zionist narrative and vision. Similarly, NIF does not stop funding its Orthodox grantees, who think differently than NIF about the rights of gays and women. Free-flowing debate about such issues is not anti-Israel, it is Israeli democracy in action, something to hold up proudly to the world.
The new NIF branch in Australia provides an avenue to engage with Israel and with Israelis who are working every day for social justice and a better Israel. We offer a way for those with progressive, democratic values to continue building an Israel that reflects those values, and to help realise the vision of Israel’s founders.
Robin Margo is chairman of New Israel Fund Australia and former president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.