New NIF head Brian Lurie: 'The occupation is a cancer that is eating us'
This 'mainstream maverick' rabbi says despite vilification, his organization has more donors, money and understanding than ever.
Rabbi Brian Lurie, who recently replaced Naomi Chazan as president of the New Israel Fund, has spent most of his professional life at the heart of the American Jewish establishment. Nonetheless, he is a rebel, a nonconformist, a Jewish communal leader "on the cutting edge," as former Forward editor J.J. Goldberg puts it, especially in matters relating to the relations between Israel and the Diaspora.
As a young rabbinical student in the Reform Movement, he campaigned for the Hebrew Union College to institute a mandatory full year of studies in Jerusalem. As head of the San Francisco Jewish Federation, he was the first to bypass the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Appeal, to earmark funds directly for projects in Israel, and to open an independent office in Israel. As national CEO of the UJA (a job he secured after the organization decided that if it can't beat him, it might as well employ him ), Lurie was also the first to propose that Israel and Diaspora Jewry support efforts to bring tens of thousands of young Jews to Israel, to cement their ties to the Jewish state.
Indeed, the man who has now agreed, at age 70, to head the NIF - an organization depicted by Im Tirtzu and other radical Israeli right-wingers as a mortal enemy of Zionism - is the same man who is one of the "godfathers" of Taglit-Birthright Israel, arguably the most successful Zionist enterprise of our times. And as further proof that Zionist history can have a wicked sense of irony, this is the same Birthright - now funded mainly by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson - which many leftists and other NIF types suspect of serving as an incubator for right-wing indoctrination.
Birthright's website only notes the "inception" of the project in 2000, and one must presume that it was an immaculate inception, because no mention is made of Lurie and none of Yossi Beilin, who was the driving force in making the idea a reality. Both names have been expunged, Soviet style - perhaps for fear of offending the program's current benefactors.
Lurie had started sending delegations of Jewish teens to Israel as an assistant rabbi at San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El. Twenty years later, as executive vice president of the UJA, he formally proposed that a $30 million fund be set up jointly by the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government and Jewish federations that would jointly subsidize an Israel trip for 50,000 young Jews. Lurie presented his plan to Beilin, but the then deputy foreign minister insisted such trips must be completely free of charge for participants.
"We had a big argument. Yossi said it will never work, that it has to be completely free and that is what happened in the end," Lurie recalled in a recent interview in New York. But it was the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who actually killed the plan.
Lurie: "Sometimes I would go to Israel three times a month, often just for the day, and I would always go and see Rabin. And he would say, in that tone of his, 'Och, Lurie, you're here again.' Rabin hated AIPAC [the Israel lobby group in Washington], but loved the UJA, and he would usually do whatever we asked of him. But when I told him about my idea, he said, 'You have all the money you need, I'm not going to give you a penny.'
Goldberg, the widely respected author of the 1997 book "Jewish Power" on the American Jewish establishment, confirms Lurie's account: "It went from Lurie to Yossi Beilin to philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, and from there to Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu], who reversed Rabin's position and agreed to Israeli government funding - and the rest is history," he says.
Goldberg describes the incoming NIF chief as a "liberal and a maverick" who is nonetheless planted in the center of American Jewish life - in much the same way that the organization views itself and is viewed in turn by many American Jews. Lurie is also one of the few rabbis, he adds, to have played such a prominent role in mainstream Jewish-American communal life.
Lurie echoes Goldberg's analysis of the organization. "The NIF is anchored in Jewish values," he says."Not extreme Jewish values, but central Jewish values. I see the NIF as strengthening democracy and strengthening Judaism. I believe that the vast majority of American Jews share the values of the NIF. And a substantial number of Israelis - I don't know if they are a majority or a large minority - also share NIF values. I believe that those values, those Jewish values, are embodied in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and those are the values we are fighting for. And that this is a fight for Israel's very existence."
'A typical Israeli'
Lurie describes his three-year stint as a rabbi at San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El as "the most gratifying of my life" and frequently cites the concept of "Jewish values" - especially when promoting the rights of Israeli Arabs, a topic that is close to his heart. In 2000, at the start of the second intifada, he conceived, and after a few years succeeded in establishing (together with Steven Schwager), the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. This group now encompasses scores of U.S. Jewish organizations, from left to right, including foundations, federations and other bodies.
New Israel Fund CEO Daniel J. Sokatch sits on the Task Force's executive committee, together with well-known Jewish leaders such as the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations' Malcolm Hoenlein.
When I asked Hoenlein about his participation, he said "Brian promised me that the Task Force would not in any way serve a political agenda, and he has kept his word."
Says Lurie: "For me, the simple proof test of how you have a Jewish state is how you treat your minority. Every Jew in every Diaspora community has said, at one time or another: We want to be equal. That's our history of 2,000 years. And now that we have a state, we don't do the same thing? I know that Israel is a Jewish state and that there are certain limitations, but the situation can be far better than it is right now. The Middle East is our neighborhood. We've got to live with Arabs, and we've got to start at home."
But you know that the complaints about NIF-funded organizations such as Adalah [the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel] are not about their work for improving the conditions of Israeli Arabs, but about the fact that they support organizations such as BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions ) or participate in forums that describe Israel as an "apartheid state."
Lurie: "Excuse me? Support BDS? I even got NGO Monitor to back off of that. If you sat down with [Adalah founder and general director] Hassan Jabareen, he would tell you: 'We do not support BDS. Period.' And 98 percent of what Hassan does is work on trying to make Israeli Arabs equal. That's the energy of the organization. Now let's say the 2 percent or the 5 percent that you are now talking about is problematic for me. I'm not going to say it's a black or white situation. But I have assurances from Jabareen, not only on BDS but even on Israel being 'a state for all its citizens' - which is something you do hear from them. Even on that he said: 'I'm not going to push on it.' Although I must say that I honestly can't blame any Israeli Arab for endorsing 'a state for all its citizens.' I can't fault them. I would tell them that I believe that Israel has to be a Jewish state, but I respect them, just like I understand a Supreme Court Justice who does not sing 'Hatikva.'"
Are you planning to institute changes in criteria for funding or a review of the organizations that are already receiving funding to make sure they meet your criteria?
"BDS is already in there. There's not even a scintilla of doubt. If Adalah came out tomorrow in favor of BDS, they'd be off our list. We'd stop funding them. No question. We are now engaged in a fast-track strategic planning process about the number of agencies we fund and the way we go about our business and how to make us more holistic. We have a number of foundations that have been funding Arab projects that will soon stop their funding - not just the Ford Foundation, but Charles Bronfman, the Goldman Foundation, the Kahanoff Foundation and others. As the major funder in this area of Israeli Arab rights, we have to take a hard look at how we can do things better."
Some NIF-funded groups testified before the Goldstone Commission [which investigated Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-09]. Looking back, would you find fault with that?
"Look, I'm like the typical Israeli on this issue. I am really uncomfortable with touching the Israel Defense Forces, because I know the neighborhood that Israel lives in. I know what keeps us alive, and right now it's not NIF - it's the IDF. I have that sensitivity. I'm like most Israelis who bristle at that. But on the other hand, those organizations that testified were thanked by the IDF, because they did something that the army couldn't do as far as the investigation was concerned. So even though I am sensitive, I can't say this isn't important." But some Diaspora Jews think the most important challenge facing Israel right now is delegitimization, and that some of these groups that are NIF-funded are providing fodder for the delegitimizers.
"But if you sat down with the leadership - take B'Tselem [the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories], for example. They are Zionist. They won't say so out loud, perhaps, but they are committed to Israel, totally. They play a role of self-criticism that any democratic society needs to have. You need sensitivity. You need to be careful, but you can't cut it off either.
Not everyone agrees with you.
"I know that, and I understand and empathize with some of the criticism. As for the Im Tirtzu types - I don't want to call them right wing because in a sense they are almost not Zionist - for these ultra-nationalists, you're all in or you're all out. It's all black and white, and there is no gray. I find that kind of narrow, thoughtless nationalism to be very dangerous for Israel's survival, and I will say that to them publicly."
But most members of the Israeli Knesset probably agree with Im Tirtzu more than they agree with you.
"I know that. I sat with Benny Begin, who is a man of great principle, and I told him that we have to train a new generation of Likudniks that are democrats, - with a small 'd.' It's desperately necessary. I don't have to tell you that the vast majority of the people who live in Israel did not grow up in a democratic society. [The late Jerusalem Mayor] Teddy Kollek used to tell me - way before the olim came from the Soviet Union - 'You know, democracy is not rooted in this country at all.'"
In the same vein, some people say that the NIF is more concerned with foreign workers in Tel Aviv than you are with the poor Jews who live in the same neighborhoods.
"We are concerned about them as human beings, that they should be treated fairly. But there's also a Jewish concern. We've always been strangers, and the question is how we treat strangers in our own land. It's not an easy situation, but some of the statements made by political leaders in Israel are, if not racist, then very negative. And if you substitute the word 'Jew' for 'the outsider' or 'the foreigner' - we would have called it anti-Semitism. The NIF has a track record of fighting poverty and caring for poor Israelis, so it's not an either/or situation. We understand how one groups pits itself against the other in this situation, so you have to try and lower that and try to get some light in this area that has great darkness."
And how are you going to contend with the fact that for many Israelis, the NIF has become some sort of symbol which is larger than the NIF itself? Sort of evil incarnate, Jews gone wrong?
"It's sort of one at a time. I often meet with Misha [former Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe] Arens, who is an old friend. And he wants to talk to me about the Bedouin because he really cares about the Bedouin. So I say, 'Well, I'd like to bring [NIF director] Rachel Liel and [NIF CEO] Daniel Sokatch along with me.' But he says 'I don't want to meet them.' So I said, 'Okay, but why not?' And he said: 'Because they are NIF.'
"But when we met I asked him: 'Who do you think is one of your great allies in trying to upgrade the situation of the Bedouin in the Negev? It's the NIF. How can you not meet with them?' So then he agreed to meet Liel for lunch, and they had a good meeting. He doesn't have to agree with everything that we do, I understand that. But we have to begin one by one, talking to people to make them understand that the way we were portrayed in the public is not the way we are. We are rooted in Jewish values. We support Israeli democracy. We believe that democracy is Israel's great strength in the Middle East - and that the recession in democracy that exists in Israel today is a threat to its very existence."
'NIF poster boy'?
Brian Lurie, obviously, brings a new tone to the NIF's public image. His frequent references to Jewish values, his acquaintance with some of the mainstays of Israel's old establishment, his background in U.S. Jewish organizational life and his empathy for, if not agreement with, some of the criticism that has been leveled at the NIF might earn him credit with many Israelis and American Jews. But at the same time, for some on the left - both Jewish and non-Jewish - Lurie's approach might elicit discomfort and criticism. Some have already claimed that he was brought in to replace Chazan in order to put a more acceptably centrist face on the NIF. But when I suggest that perhaps he is the "NIF poster boy," Lurie reacts with anger.
"I've heard that said, but I'm too old to be used. I don't want to sound like Peter Beinart [the liberal American journalist and author of the controversial book "The Crisis of Zionism"], who starts every statement by declaring his love for Israel, but I've lived in Israel for several years. I've been involved in the life of Israel as much as any Diaspora Jew could be involved. I realize, of course, that my three sons and daughter did not go to the Israeli army, so I'm mindful that there is a degree of difference. But I still consider myself a citizen-at-large of Israel. I don't need this job. This is not something I sought. I felt I needed to do it because of my concern for Israel. I'm the 'poster boy' only because I know we're in a serious state right now - the State of Israel and the state of the Jewish people. I thought to myself that I had no alternative - ein breirah."
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Lurie studied at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, during which he spent time in Israel as a volunteer gym teacher in Jerusalem. He was there when the Six-Day War broke out, an experience he has described as "the most powerful in my life." In 1969, he was appointed assistant rabbi in San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El. In 1972 he accepted a job at the New York Jewish Federation, and in 1974 became the youngest-ever head of a major Federation, in San Francisco. It was a post he filled until 1991, when he was appointed executive director of the UJA, where he served for five years. He lives in San Francisco, is married to Caroline Fromm Lurie, a psychotherapist and the daughter of the late California wine magnate Alfred Fromm, and has four children: three daughters and a son.
Until he was approached two years ago to become its new leader, Lurie has never been formally affiliated with the NIF. He notes, though, that the NIF's original founders, Jonathan Cohen and his wife Ellie Friedman - an heiress to the Levi Strauss conglomerate - came to consult with him in San Francisco in 1979. "I told them that the idea of a governing board that is half-American and half-Israeli is wonderful and that it will challenge the Jewish establishment with new concepts, and that it will force them to change, because we need change." The first meeting of the NIF took place in the offices of the San Francisco Federation that year, and Lurie was invited.
Since then, in 33 years of activity, NIF has raised over $300 million to fund scores of organizations and nonprofits in Israel that deal with social welfare, single mothers, Israeli Arabs, Ethiopian women, religious pluralism and a host of other causes. Throughout its existence, the NIF has been criticized from time to time for funding "anti-Zionist" groups, but nothing comes even close to the virulent campaign unleashed against the NIF in 2010 by Im Tirtzu, which infamously featured a poster of Naomi Chazan with a horn attached to her forehead. The daughter of former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Avraham Harman, Chazan was a well-respected political scientist, author and deputy speaker of the Knesset prior to her time at the NIF.
The NIF, which had hitherto been operating in Israel away from the limelight and was largely unknown to most Israelis, was suddenly engulfed by notoriety, painted as a sort of fifth columnist which, under the guise of fighting poverty and promoting social needs, was actually hell-bent on undermining the Jewish and Zionist foundations of Israel.
But Lurie is undeterred by the NIF's notoriety. On the contrary, he plans to leverage it to the organization's advantage. "Two and a half years ago, not many people had heard of the NIF, and now because of Im Tirtzu the NIF has become famous, or infamous, one way or the other. The challenge now is leadership. Once you are put in this position, you can either duck and go back to 'I don't want to be involved,' or you can say, 'All right: We have to lead.' I believe the moment now is one of leadership."
Lurie does not divulge all of his plans for the NIF, but one element that stands out is that he seeks to expand its operations among what he calls "Tel-Avivniks." Lurie wants to enlist the Tel Aviv cultural and economic elites in the NIF campaign against poverty and discrimination, and on behalf of pluralism and democracy. "I don't think it's a good thing that both the NIF and its operating arm, Shatil, are in Jerusalem, while the group that is probably closest to us in values is in Tel Aviv. I think we have to have serious operations in Tel Aviv. We have to get close to the business community, and the cultural community, and the leadership of the country. And I'm sure they will understand us very clearly as a result of this kind of interaction."
Lurie's model is the New York philanthropy group Robin Hood Foundation, in which his son Daniel worked before returning to San Francisco to set up a similar organization called Tipping Point. Both organizations, lauded by philanthropy professionals and endorsed by public figures and celebrities, have raised tens of millions of dollars and run their organizations in an efficient, business-like manner - in what Fortune magazine describes as "venture philanthropy." Lurie hopes to emulate a key element of their success by recruiting top financial consultants, high-tech companies and legal firms to help in managing the NIF and its associated agencies.
"Part of what makes Robin Hood and Tipping Point so hot is that they don't just fund-raise," he says. "They recruit the best corporate talent to help with the agencies that are fighting poverty. I believe that if we have at least a major branch of Shatil in Tel Aviv, the business community will say: 'My God, look at the good work they're doing.' And we will tell them that we need their professional help and savvy to make these organizations stronger. Relationships can be built, and I think that's also a way of answering the question: Do you have allies? Do you have an army out there of Israelis who really understand the same values? And I believe the answer is yes. I know the power of one, and this is many. And the only way that many can lose is when they give up."
You said in a public speech that you want to go back to the halcyon days of the Rabin era. But those days are over, you know, and there's no going back.
"That's not true. Things ebb and flow. You can say the Russians are all right-wingers. That's not true. They are becoming much more like any other Israeli as they integrate into society. There's an opportunity to educate and change and to mature. So I think that a galvanized minority can achieve enormous change in Israeli society."
Lurie says that despite the criticism, or perhaps because of it, the NIF in America has "more donors, more money, more understanding and more concern." He and Sokatch have agreed, he says, that the NIF will apply for the first time for membership in the Conference of Presidents umbrella group of Jewish organizations in the United States, which, along with AIPAC, is the epitome of the American Jewish establishment. Conference CEO Hoenlein, who has known Lurie for many years, says that if the NIF meets the criteria of the umbrella group, its application will be put to a vote and is likely to be accepted.
Finally I remind Lurie of his saying "I don't want to sound like Beinart." I ask him, "What's wrong with Beinart?"
"Nothing. He's terrific. And there are some things he says that I agree with. The NIF position is for two states and is totally against the occupation, and so am I. To me, the occupation is like a cancer. It's eating us. Forget about them [the Palestinians]: It's about what it's doing to us."
And is this causing young liberal American Jews to distance themselves from Israel?
"Here's where I don't agree with Beinart: Birthright has made a difference, and he doesn't factor that in enough. There are surveys showing that young American Jews are closer to Israel than a generation up, and I believe that. That's why I wanted that to begin with, because relationships change things. You get people involved, it changes things. Interestingly enough, the problem is in my generation, where there are people who were so committed to Israel but are bewildered now; they don't know what to do. They love Israel but this isn't the Israel they fell in love with. But in life, the person you fall in love with is not the person you're married to; she changes too. And you gotta go with the change."
As we wrap up the interview, after this domestic analogy, and after I tell him that many Israelis seem to have given up, Lurie looks at me and asks a question - and it's not clear whether it is rhetorical or not: "Am I crazy"?
"We'll see," I reply.