The New Israel Fund has long been demonized by Israel’s political right for supporting groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, which oppose the occupation. Now the NIF's embattled image is being weaponized in another conflict – the ongoing battle by the right wing of the national-religious camp against groups that promote tolerance and pluralism in Orthodox Judaism.
A new campaign entitled “Religious Zionism in the Crosshairs,” launched by the NGO Chotam this week, portrays pluralism activists and those who advocate for women in the Orthodox community as “infiltrators” – and part of a greater NIF conspiracy aimed at “erasing the State of Israel of any Jewish character and turning it into a state of all its citizens.” The campaign aims to declare any individual or organization from the national-religious camp that receives NIF support as being unwelcome in the community, and says the Orthodox world should “break ties” with them.
At the centerpiece of the campaign is a provocative, two-minute animated video with the message: "Don’t Let Talia’s Workers Get Near Your Head: Orthodox Judaism Must Break Ties with the New Israel Fund.”
The video is set in “Talia’s Beauty Shop,” which features a sign, “We Will Make Over Your Head!” The proprietor: Talia Sasson, NIF president. It opens with a bride walking in. Sasson directs her to two of the shop’s stylists – identified as Dr. Hannah Kehat, founder of the Orthodox feminist group Kolech, and Batya Kahane-Dror, who heads the Mavoi Satum nonprofit, which assists agunot (women who have been refused a Jewish divorce).
Tending to the bride, they lecture her against an Orthodox wedding based on halakha (traditional Jewish law), and shove a civil partnership agreement in her hand. When they finish, she is transformed: no longer wearing a wedding gown, and with a veil that's been replaced by sunglasses.
The next customer: a bat-mitzvah girl, who is sent to "stylist" Tehila Friedman, former head of Ne’emani Torah V’Avoda – a group that “promotes the values of tolerance, equality, and justice in religious society” Friedman forces a kippa on the girl's head and a tallit on her shoulders, and encourages her to read from the Torah and wear tefillin at her ceremony.
A bar-mitzvah boy then walks into the salon and is sent to Rabbi Shai Piron, who served as Israel's education minister and whose former NGO received support from the NIF. Piron assures the boy that he can “have it all” ideologically: “You can learn about both the Nakba and the Israeli narrative, you can support same-sex marriage and say it’s not a family.” The boy leaves with a confused hairdo that is part punk-rock, part curls, part shaved head.
The Talia Sasson figure looks over approvingly, and says: “Those religious people know how to do good work.”
The video closes with a fusion of the political and the religious: An Israel Defense Forces soldier walks into the shop. Sasson sneers and the staff argue over what to do with him. Avner Gvaryahu, executive director of Breaking the Silence, intervenes. “I’ll take care of him and do exactly what you are doing,” he says, boasting, “I have a lot of experience with soldiers.”
Chotam, the advocacy organization behind the campaign, is headed by a group of rabbis and leaders from the right-wing Orthodox community – and appears to have strong ties to Habayit Hayehudi, the political party headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett – and the sources of its funding are not published on its website. The group’s last high-profile public campaign was aimed at discouraging Orthodox girls from enlisting in the IDF, and also included an animated video.
The new campaign features imagery implying that religious Zionism is under violent attack from hostile forces. Its logo is a rifle’s target trained on a soldier praying with tefillin, religious politicians, bearded rabbis and youth marching with Israeli flags.
The NIF’s plan, according to Chotam, is to undermine the Jewish character of Israel by “weakening” Jewish institutions, in order to transform it into a “state of all of its citizens." Chotam claims that its campaign is “exposing" the liberal Orthodox groups' “whitewashing” of the fact that they receive grants from the NIF.
Despite the fact that none of the targeted organizations seems to have concealed the fact that they receive NIF support, Chotam charges that the “religious public is unaware that these groups are promoting a foreign agenda, and innocently identify them as coming out of their own religious community.”
The NIF, which channels funds donated by its supporters to over 800 progressive causes in Israel, has repeatedly been characterized by politicians and advocacy groups on the right as actively seeking to undermine Israel’s security, and attacks against it have intensified in recent years.
In May, Jerusalem city officials refused to allow the launch of a billboard campaign by the NIF’s harshest critic: far-right organization Im Tirtzu. They ruled that the billboard, targeting NIF president Sasson, marked her as a target and could encourage violence against her personally.
Responding to the new Chotam campaign, the NIF said in a statement that it was proud to “work in cooperation with all parts of Israeli society, including the liberal wing of the national-religious camp, which represents an important force for strengthening Israel as a Jewish and democratic country. The NIF stands with the groups that are under attack by extremist voices.”
The Orthodox organizations and individuals targeted in the video fired back on social media, condemning the campaign as untruthful and libelous. Ne’emani Torah V’Avoda declared in a Facebook post that “Chotam can continue to spread hate and lies – we will continue to promote good for the religious community and for the Israeli community at large."
Kahana-Dror charged on her group’s page that “instead of confronting the real problems of the national-religious community” that have led many Orthodox to leave the fold, Chotam chooses to attribute the community’s problems “to a target that is easy prey, like the NIF, and to the liberal religious groups – essentially, shooting the messenger.”
Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, an Orthodox feminist and legal scholar who heads the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, observed that the Chatom campaign broke new ground in the Orthodox vs. Orthodox battle. While feminist groups in that community have always been a target of right-wing rabbis, Halperin-Kaddari noted in an interview that this Chotam effort also singles out more mainstream – and male – figures in religious-Zionist circles.
“This is the first time they put together the feminists – who have long been demonized – with someone like Rabbi Shai Piron. Until now, they took care to spare him, not to directly confront him and others like him," she said.
"Their strategy was to isolate the women, as had always been a tactic of patriarchal and other misogynist groups. (But) it seems now that they took a tactical decision to expand the grouping of their enemies. They have simply put everybody who does not agree with their fundamentalist hard line and to delegitimize all of them together under the roof of the ultimate enemy, the New Israel Fund.”
Halperin-Kaddari added that it was also rare in the past, in intra-Orthodox ideological squabbles, to smear individuals so publicly as being traitorous: “The tactic of targeting the individuals was previously used only against non-Orthodox groups and now it is being used against people from within the camp.”
The focus on individuals, the scholar noted, was reminiscent of the infamous 2015 campaign by Im Tirtzu, charging that leftist Israeli activists in groups like Breaking the Silence are acting as local "moles" in the service of foreign masters.
With its angry message and military imagery, she said, the campaign is clearly meant to have a chilling effect and to scare away those who would reform Orthodox institutions, for fear of being ostracized.
Hotam's effort, however, "doesn’t intimidate me and I hope it does not intimidate other people and activists and organizations that do believe in liberal and pluralistic Jewish life in the Orthodox world," said Halperin-Kaddari.
Still, she added: “As somebody who deeply cares – both about Israeli society and the future of Judaism and Orthodoxy – I find it extremely depressing and distressing.”
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