Rabbi Brian Lurie
Rabbi Brian Lurie Photo by Dan Keinan
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The new president of the New Israel Fund, Rabbi Brian Lurie, describes the occupation of the territories as a "cancer that is eating us" and the "recession" of Israeli democracy as "a threat to the country's very existence."

In his first wide-ranging interview since replacing outgoing NIF president Naomi Chazan at the beginning of July, Lurie also blasts Im Tirtzu, the radical right-wing group that has conducted a harsh public campaign against the NIF, as "almost not Zionist," and that he "finds that kind of narrow, thoughtless nationalism to be very dangerous for Israel's survival."

Lurie told Haaretz he intends to leverage the publicity - or notoriety - bestowed on the NIF as a result of the Im Tirtzu campaign to carve out a new leadership role for the fund in Israeli society. He said the NIF should move much of its activity from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, where many of its values are shared by the population. He added that the NIF will try to enlist Israel's cultural and business elites in its campaign against poverty and discrimination and for democracy and pluralism.

Lurie, a Reform rabbi who headed the San Francisco Jewish Federation for more than 17 years, was CEO of the now-defunct United Jewish Appeal and is considered by some to be the inventor of the Taglit-Birthright program to bring young Diaspora Jews for visits to Israel.

He told Haaretz that the NIF represents core Jewish values and strives to strengthen both Israeli democracy and its Judaism. In this vein, he described the achievement of equal rights for Arabs, an area in which he has been involved for many years, as the "proof test" of Israel as a Jewish state. "Every Jew in every Diaspora 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?" Lurie said.

Lurie denied allegations that the NIF funds groups that support the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS, saying emphatically that any such group would be automatically removed from NIF funding lists. At the same time, he said that, he although he does not agree with them, he finds no fault with Israeli Arabs who support the concept of "a state for all its citizens."

Lurie added that, like many Israelis, he feels "uncomfortable" with the testimony given by some NIF-funded groups to the Goldstone Commission, which investigated Israel Defense Forces activity during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-2009. "In the neighborhood that Israel lives in. I know what keeps us alive, and right now it's not the NIF - it's the IDF," he said. Nonetheless, Lurie added that the testimony was "important," citing the IDF's own expression of gratitude to groups like B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories for their assistance with IDF investigations.

More in Friday's Haaretz Magazine