Not Erdogan and not Jeremy Corbyn. Not even the leaders of Hamas or Iran. Just browse through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s social media posts, and you’ll soon discover the identity of the true enemy of the State of Israel.
His name is Mickey Gitzin, and he’s the national director of the New Israel Fund, an international organization dedicated to promoting liberal democracy in the Jewish state. The way Netanyahu has gone after him, you’d think he was the devil incarnate.
The funny thing is that Gitzin always saw himself as the poster boy for Zionism. The child of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, he was a Jewish Agency shaliach (envoy) in the United States who before that served as an officer in Israeli military intelligence. Today, he sits on the city council of Tel Aviv in addition to his position at the NIF.
'My parents were right wing and had thick Russian accents, and I wanted to be different from them'
“If I’m considered a radical today, that means something very fundamental has changed in this country,” says the 37-year-old in an interview with Haaretz. “And why was I attacked by Netanyahu? Because I believe Jews and Arabs should work in partnership. That’s something radical? I mean, where are we living?”
The prime minister’s obsession with the NIF has become almost a joke among his critics. When something doesn’t go his way, it is this organization that routinely becomes the scapegoat for his failings. When Netanyahu’s plan to deport African asylum-seekers to Rwanda fell through, it was the NIF he blamed. When the leaders of the minority Druze community refused to fall in line with the controversial nation-state law, it was the NIF he blamed. And the list goes on.
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But never before has it been this personal. A little over a week ago, Netanyahu shared a post on his official Facebook page that named Gitzin and attacked him for having urged Israeli Jews to attend the recent Arab-led protest against the nation-state law. The original post had been published by Im Tirtzu, a far-right organization known for its ugly campaigns against left-wing activists.
The post Netanyahu shared featured a photo of Palestinian flags raised at the Tel Aviv protest juxtaposed with a tweet by Gitzin that had been posted several days before the event. “’Only this way will we win,’ tweets Mickey Gitzin, director of the NIF,” it said mockingly. The post ended with the following dig: “The [New Israel] Fund laid bare.”
'Netanyahu, like Orban, needs an enemy at home so that he can rally the base'
In picking a fight with a private citizen, Netanyahu’s opponents charged, he had crossed a line and was engaging in an act of incitement. Among those to call out the prime minister was his longtime political rival, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who rushed to Gitzin’s defense.
“He goes after an IDF reserve officer, a man named Mickey Gitzin,” Barak wrote on social media. “The prime minister targets him and explicitly incites against him when this person’s only sin is that he leads a fund that contributes millions each year to Israeli society, including to the work of the ministries of his government. This is absurd.”
Although his name is being bandied about on social media by two prime ministers – one serving and one retired – Gitzin comes from humble beginnings. He grew up in Azor, a working-class town outside Tel Aviv, the son of immigrants from Ukraine and Moldova who had moved to Israel in the 1970s. His mother works as a liaison to the Russian-speaking community for the National Insurance Institute, and his father, until his recent retirement, was employed as a medical equipment engineer at a hospital in Tel Aviv. Both his parents, Gitzin says, are on the political right, though they don’t necessarily vote for Netanyahu’s Likud.
Growing up, he recounts, he embraced their political views. “During the 1992 election, when it was Yitzhak Rabin against Yitzhak Shamir, I was handing out stickers for Shamir, and I took it really hard when Rabin won,” he recalls.
His political change of heart began as part of a normal teen rebellion. “My parents were right wing and had thick Russian accents, and I wanted to be different from them,” he says. While serving in the research division of military intelligence, he says, he gained a new perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that pushed him further to the left. “I started to understand then that the situation was far more complicated than I had grown up to believe,” he recalls.
The years he spent working as an envoy for the Jewish Agency in South Bend, Indiana, were also critical in shaping his worldview. It was there, in the heart of the American Midwest, that Gitzin was first exposed to other types of Jews and other streams of Judaism. “Where I grew up, you were Orthodox or nothing,” he says. “Suddenly I understood that you could go to synagogue and be a liberal at the same time, that women were allowed to pray from the bimah, and that there was this whole wonderful thing called tikkun olam (repairing the world) I had never heard of before.”
'Is the Western Wall the most important symbol in the world for me? No, it’s not. In fact, I don’t really connect to it.'
The experience left such an impression on him that when he returned to Israel, Gitzin became the founding director of Be Free Israel (also known as Yisrael Chofshit), a non-profit dedicated to promoting religious freedom and religious pluralism in Israel. The organization’s main focus during his stint in office was breaking the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinical authorities on marriage. As a representative of the left-wing Meretz party on the Tel Aviv municipal council, Gitzin has also helped promote events in the city that celebrate Jewish pluralism.
That doesn’t mean he always sees eye-to-eye with progressive Jewish leaders. In his opinion, Diaspora Jews are wasting a bit too much time and energy fighting about prayer rights at the Western Wall, at the expense of more burning issues.
“Look, I respect anyone willing to fight for their beliefs,” he says, “but is the Western Wall the most important symbol in the world for me? No, it’s not. In fact, I don’t really connect to it. For me, there are far more critical issues that need to be addressed, like the freedom to marry in Israel, like the rabbis who spew racism day in and day out, not to mention the constant rabbinical attacks on the LGBT community. These issues, to me, are more important.”
The growing prominence of IfNotNow, a group of anti-occupation activists based in North America, is proof to him that a new generation of young Diaspora Jews is starting to think bigger. “Their relationship with Israel goes far beyond the issue of prayer,” he notes.
Like most children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Gitzin, who is openly gay, did not grow up in an Orthodox home. But his partner did, and so they keep kosher. “It’s so that his parents can eat at our place when they come visit,” he explains. “And when they’re here, Shabbat is Shabbat.”
The stated mission of the New Israel Fund, headquartered in New York, is “to advance liberal democracy, including freedom of speech and minority rights, and to fight inequality, injustice and extremism that diminish Israel.” Since its founding in 1979, it has provided more than $300 million in grants to more than 900 organizations. Aside from grant-making, the NIF also engages in advocacy and empowerment work. Its Israel office, which Gitzin runs, employs a staff of 85.
The main reason the NIF draws so much antagonism in right-wing circles is that it funds organizations committed to ending the occupation and promoting Palestinians rights. But those are not the only causes it supports. “There is no group in Israeli society that doesn’t walk through our door – and that includes the ultra-Orthodox and even settlers,” reveals Gitzin. “There is this notion that we know how to solve problems, so everyone comes to us. But honestly, what other options do ultra-Orthodox women have if they want to figure out a way to solve the problem of sexual abuse in their community?”
As hard as it may be to fathom these days, the NIF also collaborates with Israeli government offices on various issues. “When they’re doing something we believe in, like investing in the Arab community or promoting affordable public housing, we are happy to work with them,” says Gitzin. “The fact that the government can’t deal with criticism from us on other issues – well, that’s just not normal, and it shows a complete lack of understanding of the role of civil society organizations. Sometimes we work with the government, and sometimes we work against it. It all depends on the issue.”
Through his constant attacks on the NIF, Netanyahu has scored at least one key victory, according to Gitzin: He has succeeded in creating the impression that the organization is much bigger and far more powerful than it actually is. “Our whole operation is $30 million a year,” he says. “As a city councilman, I can tell you that’s not even the size of a division in the municipality of Tel Aviv. But Netanyahu would rather exploit the fact that most Israelis don’t know otherwise to create a demon that doesn’t exist.”
As part of their ongoing campaign against the NIF, Netanyahu supporters often enlist George Soros, the Hungarian Jewish philanthropist whose name is anathema in right-wing circles. “The Soros-funded New Israel Fund” – they like to call it. Except, as Gitzin notes, Soros has only ever funded one NIF project, and that was quite a few years back.
“We’d be thrilled if he gave us money,” he says.
Where are we living?
Netanyahu was never a big fan of the NIF, but Gitzin senses something fundamental has changed in his attack strategy. “In the past, he would let organizations like Im Tirtzu do his dirty work of marking enemies,” he observes. “Now he does it himself.”
Does Gitzin himself feel unsafe these days? He admits that he does, noting that his partner and colleagues have been urging him to hire a bodyguard. “To me, that’s crazy,” he says. “I mean, where are we living?”
He tends to see what’s happening in Israel in the context of worldwide trends, often comparing Netanyahu to Viktor Orban, the right-wing leader of Hungary. “Netanyahu, like Orban, needs an enemy at home so that he can rally the base,” says Gitzin. “And we have come to serve that purpose.”
But there’s also an upside to all this attention from the prime minister. “Donations from Israelis have reached record levels in the past few months,” boasts Gitzin. “Granted, these are small amounts, but they’re coming in from lots and lots of people – senior citizens and students, for example, many who apologize that they can’t afford to give us more than 36 shekels.”
Asked where he stands politically, he describes himself as “classic Zionist left.”
“I believe Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people but is obliged to treat all its citizens equally,” he elaborates. “I also believe in a two-state solution and in religious pluralism.”
Netanyahu was quick to seize on the Palestinian flags photographed during the recent Arab-Jewish protest for political gain, claiming they were “the best proof” of the need for the new nation-state law. In retrospect, does Gitzin have any regrets about encouraging Jewish-Israelis to attend?
“As I see it, what happened that night was a miracle of sorts,” he responds. “You had Arabs, who had been told they were second-class citizens, choosing a democratic way to struggle for their rights and asking Jews to join them. That is unprecedented. To say that I felt comfortable with those flags? No, I didn’t. I have one flag – and that’s the Israeli flag. But you also have to realize that every Palestinian flag raised there was the outcome of 10 years of incitement against this population. So I’m aware that we paid a price in the short term, but in the long term, the partnership that was forged there is 10 times more important.”
Unlike many Israelis on the left, Gitzin is not feeling disillusioned at all these days. “Of course I’m hopeful,” he says. “We know that the world works in swings. We saw years of liberalism, and now there’s a backlash. It’ll swing back, though. Trust me.”
Ironically, it is to the Israeli right that he looks for inspiration. “When they went through hard times,” he recounts, “whether it was during the Oslo accords or the Gaza disengagement, they had a choice of giving up or doubling down. They chose to double down. We face the same choice right now, and I feel very strongly about doubling down and fighting.”