Fighting for Israel’s Soul

The president of the New Israel Fund, Naomi Chazan, who has been vilified by the right, refuses to surrender, saying the current battle is for the very soul of Israel.

Esti Ahronovitz
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Esti Ahronovitz

Channel 99, the Knesset Channel, can provide the cruelest of spectacles. On Monday evening last week, Prof. Naomi Chazan was glued to the channel, watching a live broadcast from the Knesset that showed the failure of her lobbying efforts. By a vote of 47-38, the Knesset passed the Boycott Law, which will permit potential damage suits against anyone who boycotts the settlements in the territories. The law is intended to seal off a key channel of civil protest against the settlement enterprise. Chazan, 64, president of the New Israel Fund, had not dared to declare publicly that the NIF’s efforts would be enough to get the bill defeated, but she had hoped this would be the outcome.

“I was very apprehensive that the bill would pass,” she says, two days later. “We worked together with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel against this law. We view it as one of the most antidemocratic, if not the most antidemocratic, to be enacted in Israel.” During the week before the vote, Prof. Chazan met with opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima), who had promised to impose factional discipline in the vote, so that all Kadima MKs would vote against the bill. She was also in close contact with the New Israel Fund’s lobbyists in the Knesset and made worried calls to MKs.”

Naomi Chazan. Lists 25 undemocratic bills that have been submitted in the Knesset.Credit: Reli AvrahamiAvrahami

How could a law like this have been passed?

“It is part of a process which began half a decade, or a decade, ago, when all manner of questions began to be asked about the status of the judicial system, and the High Court of Justice in particular. At first I thought it was a process of democratic moderation, a democratic diet. It took me time to grasp that it was a far more systematic process and aimed at de-democratization. And I see democracy as the soul of Israel.”

Did the process escalate after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip at the beginning of 2009?

“It was greatly accelerated after Operation Cast Lead. But in practice, it is related to our inability to terminate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the uncertainty which that situation breeds. The result is our increasing isolation internationally. The international community does not understand how, in the 21st century, it is possible to hold territories and populations against their will. It leads to additional phenomena: A tremendous fear has developed here, and it is convenient for all kinds of people to cultivate that fear fear that the whole world is against us, that we are alone, that we are not understood by outsiders.

And when you are afraid, you look for those who are to blame for the fear and you target populations, people or opinions. And when this scapegoating receives tacit backing from some of those in power, it is rapidly translated into policy. And in the case of the 18th Knesset, that means legislative initiatives.”

Chazan has first-hand experience of the phenomenon after she herself was targeted in February 2010. The Im Tirtzu group, which styles itself “an extra-parliamentary movement that works to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel” on its website, launched an aggressive campaign, alleging that the New Israel Fund was financing Israeli organizations from whom Richard Goldstone drew most of the material for his highly critical report on Operation Cast Lead for the United Nations.

According to a report which Im Tirtzu members published in the newspaper Ma’ariv, 92 percent of the Israeli sources that depicted the activity of the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza operation negatively, receive financial support from the NIF. These include Adalah the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; Breaking the Silence Israeli Soldiers Talk about the Occupied Territories; B’Tselem The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories; the Association for Civil Rights in Israel; the Public Committee against Torture in Israel; and others. In the wake of these findings, Im Tirtzu waged a savage campaign which included a poster depicting Naomi Chazan with a horn protruding from her forehead (a play on the Hebrew word for “fund”) and the caption “Naomi Goldstone-Chazan.” In the ensuing public furor, Chazan was branded an enemy of the people. Scheduled interviews with her were canceled, the Jerusalem Post dropped a column she had written for the paper for 14 years, and demonstrations were held in front of her home. MK Fania Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beiteinu) proposed the establishment of a committee to examine the funding of Israeli organizations by foreign foundations, an initiative that was renewed last week by Kirshenbaum’s patron, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu). At the same time, many public figures, joined by other MKs, published statements of support for Chazan and for the freedom of expression she represents.

Now, in her Jerusalem office, Chazan says that it was exactly then, after she had recovered from the initial shock, that she realized this was the opening shot in a struggle for the character of Israeli society. “I understood that something very bad was happening to us if I or the NIF had suddenly become a scapegoat. I understood that it was nothing personal against Naomi Chazan; it wasn’t aimed at me or the NIF. It’s bigger than that: it’s against Israeli democracy. And it was only then that I understood that more people are needed for this struggle, because it is a struggle for our very soul. I understood that we were in a war.”

What did you do with that insight?

“The NIF spoke out, I personally spoke out, ACRI and human rights organizations have been warning for the past year that something very problematic is happening here. It’s the same with the public atmosphere, which does not permit a substantive discourse to be held on issues in dispute. And it is beginning to assume legislative expression, in the form of antidemocratic or racist laws. We have bolstered our Knesset lobby with activists and experts. We have spoken to all MKs and all cabinet ministers. We met with Tzipi Livni precisely in regard to these issues. She told us she would oppose the moves, and she did impose factional discipline, but some of the Kadima MKs absented themselves.”

Maybe just issuing warnings is not enough?

“On the day after the Boycott Law was passed, I asked myself why I hadn’t shouted even louder. For the past year and a half, since the first assault on the NIF, I have stood on every platform, attended every seminar, conference and demonstration, to say that we are witnessing a systematic, deliberate antidemocratic process. I have a list of 25 bills detrimental to democracy that have been submitted in the Knesset.

“I have arguments with people who tell me they are only ‘declarative bills.’ I reply that this is not so, these bills are not only on paper, they are going to be passed into law. And, lo and behold, before the spring break the Nakba Law and the Admissions Committee laws passed. The Boycott Law is in some ways the most problematic in terms of basic rights in a democratic society. It touches on fundamental freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of association and certainly also freedom to protest. The law rules out any possibility of protest. From the point of view of democracy, this is a wrong that almost beggars description. Every person who, for reasons of conscience, does not buy products made in the settlements becomes a criminal. What have we come to? At the constitutional level, we are simply starting to unravel the last of the rules of the game. It’s not a flashing yellow light anymore it’s very red.”

The same principle

The offices of the NIF are located in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. A wall at the entrance features a collection of white T-shirts emblazoned with slogans. Beyond retirement age herself, Chazan works with mostly young activists. While we speak, the door is often opened by visitors popping in “just to say hello.” “They are among the leaders at Sheikh Jarrah,” Chazan says of a young couple who arrived with their year-old infant girl, referring to the ongoing protest against Jewish settlement in an Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood.

The NIF was established in 1979 and has its headquarters in Washington D.C.; it funds Israeli organizations that promote human rights, religious pluralism, the advancement of women, and environmental quality. Two months ago, Chazan returned from a visit to Australia, where a new branch of the NIF was established, joining those in the United States, Canada, Britain, Switzerland and Israel. To date, about NIS 200 million has been distributed to 800 organizations. The NIF’s operational arm in Israel is Shatil, whose offices are adjacent to those of the NIF. In addition to Jerusalem, Shatil has branches in Be’er Sheva, Haifa, Rosh Pina and Baka al-Garbiyeh. Its 100 or so professionals provide services of support and consultation to the various NIF-backed organizations in the spheres of development, lobbying, communications, and financial management.

This month, the NIF executive decided to allocate NIS 13 million to 74 organizations in the coming six months, including 14 first-time beneficiaries. Among the new organizations are the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (promoting the rights of Jews of Ethiopian descent); Itach Women Lawyers for Social Justice (seeking to advance the rights of women from disadvantaged populations); and Hatzer Nashit, an initiative of two social workers to assist girls in distress in Jaffa and the center of the country. Today, the NIF and Shatil are the major supporters and encouragers of civil involvement in social action and in governmental processes, based on the aspiration for a more just and egalitarian society. At this time, when the word “democracy” is being bandied about day and night, they are the ones who are effectively practicing democracy.

“As of today, we support about 120 organizations by means of direct grants,” Chazan says.

“We fund Haredi, Mizrahi and Arab groups. We support new immigrants and also veteran citizens and the elderly. We fund Noar Kahalacha, which combats ethnic discrimination in ultra-Orthodox educational institutions and went to court against discrimination of Mizrahi girls in schools in Emmanuel; and also Banish the Darkness, a religious-secular coalition against racism. Shatil provides services to some 500 organizations. The donations come mainly from good Jews abroad, many of whom are longtime donors.”

You didn’t mention Adalah, B’Tselem, the Committee against Torture, Breaking the Silence the organizations you support that incurred the wrath of the public. “The complainers tell me: ‘You are doing wonderful things if only you would dump those organizations...’ They don’t understand and I insist on this that they are all expressions of the same principle: the empowerment of groups and the promotion of the values of justice, freedom and equality.”

Chazan picks up a sheet of paper. “Allow me to be a professor for a moment,” she says with a smile, and starts to make a sketch. “Above is a line that symbolizes the state, below is the individual. Between the state and the individual there are people who group together to express positions and interests. They want to make their voice heard, realize dreams and advance goals with regard to the state that is the civil society. When the space begins to fill up with associations like this, tremendous changes occur. We are in a good situation: we have a richly diverse civil society. And now an attempt is underway to erase these associations by means of legislation.” Chazan draws an ‘x’ across dots representing the civil associations which she has placed between the lines. “Therefore, one of the best ways to deal with this is to strengthen the civil society by means of grants, by providing services and by advising and supporting new organizations.”

The NIF is out to create a beautiful society, yet it all blew up in your face. What happened?

Why did it not succeed?

“I think it over-succeeded. It’s all part of the process of the slippery slope that is generated by fear and the subsequent hunt for the guilty. What happened is that they crossed the line and started to look for human scapegoats, individual people to blame. Because that’s convenient; that’s marketable. The right wing is out to change the discourse in Israel and prevent a true discussion of what is going on in the country. That process was given tremendous momentum by Operation Cast Lead. The war raised a host of questions within the nation.”

Tell us about your personal experience. With your column in the Jerusalem Post terminated and the terrible cartoon of your likeness, did you ask yourself if and where you had gone wrong?

“I went through a hard time. It took me a few weeks to think and reflect on where it had come from. I asked myself exactly those questions: Where had I gone wrong? I was born in Jerusalem, I grew up in Jerusalem and I worked in Jerusalem. I was an MK who was active in a range of social areas. And suddenly I am anti-Israel? And those cartoons, which contain things best not remembered and in sovereign Israel. It wasn’t easy. I received support, the phone never stopped ringing. People told me: ‘Hang in there.’

“After the initial shock, I became aware that it wasn’t me they were after, that this was the prelude to an orchestrated campaign against Israeli democracy. The NIF was targeted because, in the past 30 years, it has become the central element in the development of the civil society in Israel.”

Apparently not everyone agrees. Funding groups that came out against the IDF, court petitions against soldiers, conveying material to the Goldstone committee those are actions that don’t sit well with the Israeli public.

“The organizations we support cover the whole spectrum: social justice, women’s rights, greens. It is very convenient for extremist political groups to underscore the human rights organizations. And, by the way, any examination will show that the human rights organizations contributed 1.3 percent of the material in the Goldstone report, and even that came mainly from sites that are accessible to everyone. There are many painful things in life, but what hurts me here is that these right-wing groups tried, and almost succeeded, in changing the discourse in Israel. There is an attempt here to erase differing outlooks. Their view is that it doesn’t matter what people say; what counts is whether they are patriots, whether they are ‘loyal.’

“According to these right-wing groups, the only relevant question is that of patriotism. So I let them know that I don’t need lessons in patriotism from anyone, and that the NIF is doing far more for Israel than all those laws, which are destroying us, our reputation and our future.”

Did donations dry up after the Im Tirtzu episode?

“On the contrary: many more donations came in. There are a few organizations that, on a daily basis, call our donors and inform them that their money is going to B’Tselem, to Adalah. Occasionally a donor is deterred. But many more Jews want to support a just and fair Israel. When the Im Tirtzu affair erupted, I was supposed to visit Australia and deliver a speech to the Zionist Federation there and they canceled the invitation. Two months ago, they renewed it. I spent ten days there and everywhere I spoke, the crowd was double the size we had expected. There is a hunger among people who are closely attached to Israel to hear a message about the need to protect and develop Israeli democracy. That message resonates and it speaks to people. They don’t want a severance between their values as citizens of their countries and their identification with Israel.”

Why are there no Israeli donors?

“There are not a great many, but enough to account for a few million shekels. There is no culture of philanthropy in Israel. It is starting to develop, but in a peculiar way: Businessmen who have finished leeching the state are suddenly donors. We are trying to accustom people to give according to their ability. We in the NIF executive also donate; I write a check every year.”

Are businessmen here afraid to donate to you?

“No. I think most of the donors give specifically to a particular project. You can donate to the women’s lobby, to green groups. The flagship, of course, is the civil rights groups.”

Witch hunt underway

Chazan is already focusing on the immediate future. Things are happening at a dizzying pace. Not two days after the adoption of the Boycott Law, Avigdor Lieberman as part of his battle with Likud for right-wing votes renewed his call for the establishment of a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the activities of the human rights organizations in Israel. The roots of the proposal lie in the Im Tirtzu campaign against the NIF and Chazan.

At the moment, political commentators don’t give the initiative much chance, owing to a majority among coalition and opposition MKs who object to the idea, and to the decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow Likud MKs to vote as they please. “Speaking cynically,” Chazan says, “I don’t think Netanyahu will allow a move like that to pass, because it will cause him too many problems. At the moment we are lobbying against the proposal, talking to ministers. American Jewry is mobilizing and we are not without influence among them. Look at the fierce reactions against us in the democratic world.

People here don’t understand that what generates support for us in the democracies is values, not interests. If we back away from those values, we will no longer have a common denominator.”

There is a feeling that the right is conducting a parliamentary witch hunt against what remains of the Israeli left.

“There is a witch hunt underway here. It is a systematic effort by elements in the far right, for whom democracy is a tool and not a way of life. Democracy means disagreement. That is the working assumption that agreement does not exist and that is perfectly fine. It’s wonderful, it’s productive. There has to be agreement on one thing only: on how disagreement is expressed. So, if we return to the Boycott Law, we can see that it is a gross violation of the rules of the game. I was a Knesset member for 11 years, and I happen to be a regulations freak. Parliamentary committees of inquiry are supposed to investigate and examine issues concerning Israeli society. There has never been a political committee of inquiry. What is being proposed here is a political committee. Right-wing associations will not be investigated. If you go to the Registrar of Associations and try to find out where their funding comes from, you will discover that the sources are secret. I invite everyone to go to our website: all our donors are listed. That is transparency.”

Lieberman’s proposal is another in a series of bills aimed at reducing the ability of human rights organizations, and above all the NIF, to receive funding from abroad. Fania Kirshenbaum is also sponsoring a bill according to which an association that does not receive support from the Israeli state will have to pay income tax of 45 percent on all revenues from foreign sources.

Also on the agenda is a bill sponsored by Ofir Akunis (Likud), stipulating that political associations in Israel will not be able to receive donations of more than NIS 20,000 from foreign governments and international bodies. “They will not succeed in drying us up,” Chazan says. “We will have to work harder. I am afraid they are trying to bring about the closure of organizations which no democratic society can afford to be without.”

How do you see yourself the day after another law like this is passed?

“I hope these laws will not be passed. If the idea is to distance world Jewry from us, fine, go ahead and pass another of these laws, and that will be that. How can diaspora Jews be proud of an Israeli state that runs roughshod over human rights?”

The average Israeli doesn’t really care what American Jews think of him.

“It’s not a case of what American Jewry thinks. The question is: What is good for us? Is it good for us to be gagged?”

Chazan grew up in a home of civil servants. Her father, Avraham Harman, was an emissary of the Jewish Agency, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and the president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her mother, Zina, now 97, was a Labor Party MK. “My mother was and still is a magnificent woman,” Chazan says. “She established the social-welfare service in Jerusalem in the 1940s. It was a home of parents who immigrated from England in the 1930s for ideological reasons.”

Chazan, who lives in the Katamon neighborhood, has two children and is delighted to have a grandson. She, too, has had a rich public career, including 11 years as an MK for Meretz (1992-2003). Among her academic posts, she was head of the Hebrew University’s Truman Center for the Advancement of Peace. She was also one of the founders of the Israel Women’s Lobby, has written eight, and edited eight, books on comparative politics.

She is also the author of many articles on politics and political science, Israeli-Arab relations and the status of women. She currently heads the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Her days are packed with meetings and lectures. “I am a night creature,” she says. “I go to sleep at 2 A.M.”

Looking for a scapegoat

In the past year and a half, she notes, “we have assumed another task, namely to lead a democratic, liberal camp in a progressive Israel. We will triumph in the struggle for democracy. Because we are doomed if we don’t.” In practice, she adds, the NIF is directly supporting actions to safeguard democracy in Israel. “In the past year, we issued a call for initiatives that implant the values of democracy. We received dozens of applications from all manner of groups, local initiatives, human rights groups. We provided direct support for a number of demonstrations, like the one in favor of democracy a year ago, the march for human rights, the demonstration against the rabbis’ letter” referring to a statement by rabbis not to rent apartments to non-Jews.

One of the social battles spearheaded by the NIF in the past year was to raise the revenues accruing to the state from offshore natural gas fields. In April 2010, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz appointed the economist Eytan Sheshinski as head of a committee to reexamine the taxation and revenue policy in the realm of natural gas. In short order, the committee became a battlefield for lobbyists and consultants after a number of socially active organizations funded by the NIF and led by Rabbi Michael Melchior, the leader of Meimad, a left-leaning religious organization expressed support for raising the state’s revenues from the natural gas profits. Incitement soon followed, in the form of a countercampaign led by the Land of Israel Forum under the slogan, “NIF is fighting for Arab gas.” Demonstrators appeared outside Sheshinski’s home carrying placards showing the Egyptian flag Israel has been buying natural gas from Egypt for many years and reading “Thank you, Sheshinski,” in Arabic.

One of the allegations that was raised, and even reached the High Court of Justice, was that Sheshinski’s wife, Ruth, is a member of one of the NIF committees. The High Court politely threw out the petition, noting that Ms. Sheshinski’s job in the NIF is to escort visitors in Israel, and that she is not involved in the org’s policy regarding natural gas revenues. “I got up one morning and read in the newspapers that the NIF is backing Arab natural gas,” recalls Chazan. “I started to laugh. What will they invent next? I am proud that we stood firm on that front, and with great success.”

Don’t you despair that, even when you conduct a just struggle, your organization is considered pro-Arab and anti-Israel?

“Again, why are they picking on the NIF? Because they are looking for a scapegoat, they don’t want to discuss real content. On the radio, I sometimes hear people who want to denigrate an organization say that it’s affiliated with the NIF. In the case of the struggle for the gas revenues, we had coalitions that banded together and changed the government’s policy significantly, I hope. Many of our people testified before the various committees. We brought about a change that is good for society. But some people will always bad-mouth, which is easy to do.”

Why did the Israeli left crash?

“First of all, we became indifferent. In reaction to their discomfort at what was happening in the country, people enclosed themselves in their bubble. By the way, I feel that this is changing in the past year: people are emerging from the bubble. This is harsh self-criticism, but in the rough periods, especially in the past decade, the true left blurred its principles too much. That’s the problem. People want to know what they are voting for. If everything looks the same, you might as well go to the beach instead of voting. Why bother? The collapse of the left and the ensuing vacuum that was created gave the right-wing tremendous strength, and it doesn’t always understand the difference between state responsibility and promoting their agenda. The right plays cynically on people’s emotions in order to promote an agenda, and the consequences for us make no difference to them.”

Was it the failure of the Oslo process that doomed the left?

“The Oslo process failed, and it is very difficult to go back and try the same thing again. When you put it all together, you need great mental fortitude to rise. We are here after a failure. On the other hand, more and more people understand the message. If I had said 15 years ago that Netanyahu would endorse the two-state solution in a public speech, no one would have believed me. At the same time, I see the fear, the uncertainty. There is no leadership, there is no one to act in order to achieve the goal. Franklin D. Roosevelt said something that I constantly hark back to, because it’s so right: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ If there is a slogan that needs to be put forward now, that is the one. What are we afraid of? We are a free, strong people with values and principles, and we aren’t capable of standing behind them? Why? What happened to us?”



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