New Israel Fund Poised to Champion Political Change and Progressive Pride

Galvanized by right-wing onslaught, liberal group to adopt 'strategic changes' in Israel operations because 'social change no longer sufficient.'

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

There’s been Black Pride, Gay Pride and even Jewish Pride, and now, it seems, the New Israel Fund (NIF) is poised to start pushing for one more self-empowering political movement that might very well be called Progressive Pride.

“You have every right to speak out for the Israel you want to see!” a new NIF video exclaimed at the annual NIF gala dinner held in Manhattan this week.

“There is no need to apologize for what you are: you are Jews and progressives,” Hillel Ben Sasson of the NIF–funded Molad Center for Renewal of Democracy exhorted. “When you go to Israel, you do not need to check your progressive values at the door.”

But NIF leaders and executives have no intention of making do with slogans alone. Though they are wary of prematurely releasing too many details, both NIF President Brian Lurie and CEO Daniel Sokatch can hardly contain their excitement at what they describe as a “momentous” upcoming meeting of the NIF board of directors, scheduled to be held in Israel in February, in which, Sokatch says, “new strategic directions will be set.”

“We have been doing great work and working for ‘social change’ in Israel for 35 years, but that is no longer sufficient,” Sokatch told Haaretz. “We must enlist ourselves and enlist Israelis to counter the dangerous anti-democratic surge of the past few years.”

Or, as Israeli historian/commentator and NIF board member Yael Sternhell told the audience, “We need to turn the tide and to reinvigorate the progressive camp. The NIF and its ideals are Israel’s last and best hope.”

The Manhattan dinner, dubbed “Voices of Conscience,” was devoted to honoring prominent NIF donors and bidding farewell to the outgoing director of its New York office, Bruce Temkin. But the buzz of the evening was undoubtedly created by the clear-as-day hints of the soon-to-be launched new “strategic change” in the NIF’s prominence and visibility.

Although Lurie claims that the vicious attacks on the organization by the right-wing Im Tirzu group have had only a “minimal effect” on the NIF, others ascribe the organization’s new ambitions – which one, less-resolute NIF donor described as “militancy” – as a reaction to the efforts to delegitimize the NIF.

Lurie does admit that the Im Tirzu campaign has damaged the NIF’s image in the Israeli public, but he promises that “we will get our point across to the Israeli public” after the board meeting in February. He makes clear that when the NIF talks about “political change,” it is referring to changing the attitudes of the Israeli public – not about getting involved in Israel’s party politics.

Sokatch says that the NIF has indeed been galvanized – but by the “militancy” of its opponents, including the Israeli government and security services. He cites the widely publicized arrests of leaders of the Sheikh Jarrakh movement and of Women of the Wall (WOW) activists as having stirred public support for the NIF and its goals both in Israel and in the U.S.

Interestingly, however, a short panel exchange between Lesley Sachs, WOW’s Executive Director, and Samar Qudha Tannous of the Itach-Maaki Woman Lawyers for Social Justice NGO, exposed the competition and sometimes tension between two core NIF values: religious pluralism for Israeli Jews and equal rights for Arabs and Palestinians.

When Sachs claimed that, on the specific issue of access to the Western Wall, the current government had been “good for WOW,” Tannous tersely retorted that this was the same “good government that was trying to take rights away from the Palestinians.”

“Women of the Wall may feel marginalized,” Tannous added, “but they are still very privileged compared to Arab and Palestinian women. To work together, our goals have to be common, based on equal human rights.”

“Social change might not be enough,” Tannous added. “Political power is needed as well.” And Sternhell highlighted the direct link between the state of democracy inside Israel proper and the occupation in the territories, but noted that the current Israeli mindset on these matters is not set in stone. “Public opinion can be swayed in a different direction,” she said.

That ambitious goal, sure to elicit controversy and a fierce counter-reaction on the right, appears to be very much in the cards. Sokatch says that NIF and other progressive groups that have come under attack are like “canaries in the coal mine,” signaling just how far Israeli has strayed from what he describes as the “progressive principles of its founders as set forth in the Declaration of Independence.”

But the canaries, it seems, would now like to soar like eagles. “We fully accept who we are. We are more confident. We are more self-assured. And we are going to fight for a liberal, Jewish and democratic Israel.”

Young New Israel fund activists protested against violations to the freedom of expression in 2010. Credit: Flash 90
A 2010 rally against the New Israel Fund, in which protesters blame the organization for sullying the image of the Israel Defense Forces. Credit: Alon Ron

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