NIF Launches $2m Campaign to Promote Democracy in Israel

Shift in funding strategy is meant to push back against right wing extremism in Israel.

NEW YORK – At a time when right-wing extremism appears to be getting increasingly entrenched in Israeli discourse and law, the New Israel Fund is kicking off a $2 million initiative to amplify democratic voices and values in the Jewish state.

NIF is reallocating 20 percent of its budget to the program, called New Initiativesfor Democracy, or NIF-D, to provide operating support to Israeli organizations, including think tanks Molad and the Council for Peace and Security. Its board has also just elected Israeli attorney Talia Sasson to be NIF’s next president. Sasson is best known for the 2005 Sasson Report, commissioned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which detailed the diversion of government funds into illegal settlements and outposts in the occupied territories.

The NIF’s goal is to assemble “a progressive infrastructure to put forward a new vision and push back” against anti-democratic efforts in Israel, said the group’s CEO, Daniel Sokatch, in an interview. It is also to broaden the camp involved in such efforts. “These are new constituency-building efforts in communities that we know share significant values and have common interests, but don’t see themselves as part of that movement. An Israel that is open, that is egalitarian, that is pluralistic – we think there’s a big base for that in Israel,” he told Haaretz.

Naomi Paiss, NIF’s spokeswoman, said the constituents they hope to bring together to work toward these goals might come from the traditional Mizrahi community and, in some cases, Orthodox feminist groups, people who may share the same concerns but don’t self-identify as progressive.

“We see an Israel that is a Jewish homeland and equal democratic society which is now threatened by significant forces that would like to make democratic secondary to Jewish,” Sokatch said. He cited current bills in the Knesset that would drop Arabic as an official language of Israel, and some, already passed, which would cut off government funding to any Arab municipality commemorating Israel’s Independence Day as the Palestinian nakba, or catastrophe, and which state that settlers can sue any Israeli who calls for a boycott of goods from the West Bank. “I have faith that the Israeli High Court is going to overturn these things, but right now that’s the law of the land,” Sokatch said.

Ken Stern, a New York-based expert on extremism and anti-Semitism who has taught at Bard College, said in an interview that in Israel “there seems to be a growing trend that views alternative viewpoints not seen as fully supportive of the state as beyond the pale, and that’s a great challenge to democracy. One of the things always remarkable about Israel is that it has had the room for people to dissent without fear of punishment. That capacity seems to be decreasing in recent years, and that’s troubling.”

NIF has allocated $300,000 to Molad and $200,000 to the Council for Peace and Security. Molad and Mitvim, which is getting $25,000 in funding, will work on “articulating progressive vision and policy,” according to the U.S. group. Other recipients include Kiach, which is getting $100,000 to expand the discussion of democratic values in Mizrahi communities; Shaharit, getting $150,000 to grow Israel’s pro-democracy movement, and NIF’s operating arm in Israel, Shatil, which is reallocating some of its $3 million budget to promote local progressive leadership development, NIF said. The organization is still looking for local partners with which it can work on media monitoring and online engagement, much the way MoveOn.org does in the U.S.

In a statement announcing the new project Sokatch said, “The institutions of the right, from think-tanks to the various ‘watch’ and ‘monitoring’ organizations, act together to put forward a vision of Israel that is ethnocentric, intolerant, and prepared for perpetual conflict. We know how building a progressive infrastructure in the US and elsewhere has changed the power dynamic. The only way to advance a competing vision in Israel is to build the progressive institutions needed to sustain it.”

While NIF’s focus on civil society and human rights has not changed, its funding strategy is, as it moves away from project support to making larger donations for organizational support. “It is a different strategy, because we are looking for partners that can have a national impact and both empower existing progressives and build bridges to organizations that are not progressive, but share some of our values,” Paiss said in an interview.

While NIF says it will continue support it provides to groups where it is the primary funder, in its announcement Sokatch essentially admits that the work NIF has been doing in Israel since the American group was established in 1979, around everything from women’s rights to Arab-Jewish co-existence, just isn’t enough. It “is no longer sufficient to meet the challenges presented by the changing landscape in Israel,” Sokatch said in the announcement. “We must do more to support those Israelis working to ensure that their country lives up to its founders’ vision.”

Though NIF has been developing its new plan for the past year and a half, the conflict in Gaza this summer made the need acute, NIF officials told Haaretz.

“The trends we’ve been warning about for five years have accelerated. This war exacerbated them and made them more visible,” Paiss told Haaretz. “The shaping of the discourse in Israel has become incredibly one-sided. You can say ‘everybody’s moved to the right,’ but that’s the only narrative they’re hearing.”

Behind the scenes are “lots of interlocking directorates involved in this stuff,” Sokatch said, pointing to American Jewish mega-funders who are among the Israeli right wing’s biggest benefactors.

Sheldon Adelson may be the best known. Along with serving as one of the biggest backers of the U.S. Republican party and of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Adelson underwrites the daily newspaper Israel Hayom with $20 million annually, according to a 2012 article in The Economist.

Other significant funders include the Central Fund of Israel, which is run by the Marcus family and spent more than $16 million in 2012, according to its 2013 U.S. tax filing. While the fund’s money went to projects blandly described in the tax paperwork as “general educational support,” “legal aid” and “community projects” in the Middle East, it was described by The New York Times as “a prominent clearinghouse” for funding West Bank projects. “Dozens of West Bank groups seem to view the fund as little more than a vehicle for channeling donations back to themselves, instructing their supporters that if they want a tax break, they must direct their contributions there first,” according to that New York Times article.

The NIF, which raised $29.5 million in 2012, according to its own U.S. tax filing, isn’t all that much bigger, in dollar terms, than the Central Fund.

NIF’s Paiss said that even relatively small amounts can have a large impact on Israeli organizations, whose budgets are sometimes miniscule compared to American groups. “In some cases even $5,000 makes a huge difference in what they’re able to do,” Paiss told Haaretz.

Each time Sokatch speaks to a group he is asked where the left’s Sheldon Adelson is, he told Haaretz. “’You are the Sheldon Adelson on our side,’ I say” to the group. “Liberals almost constitutionally have concerns that transcend single issues. George Soros and Steven Spielberg don’t focus all their energy on Israel. It’s much easier on the other side of the aisle, where there is a different sense of passion and commitment among donors. You’ve got to admire them for that. This is Adelson’s first priority and he puts his money where his mouth is. All of us on the liberal side tend to be much more universalist. It’s much harder to find that one person who says ‘this is the one thing I care about.’ So we rely on the aggregate.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who in his 16 years as president of the Union for Reform Judaism learned a few things about fundraising, questioned NIF’s timing, saying that it is “very difficult” to raise money for the cause of democracy right now.

“So close to the war in Gaza, it’s going to be difficult. The democracy issues were much more at the center of people’s attention before than they are now. Those issues were at the heart of the last election but now are pretty much gone,” said Yoffie, who since 2012 has been the URJ’s president emeritus and contributes opinion articles to Haaretz. “It’s a very hard time to start a new fundraising campaign that’s going to revolve around those kinds of concerns.”

It is particularly difficult to raise money for Israel from liberal American Jews, Sokatch acknowledged. “In the Jewish world, the conservative side, especially the hard-line conservative side, is much more willing to influence events on the ground in Israel than are liberal Jews, who need convincing about even why they should connect and commit.”