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The Assault on Democracy

This Op-Ed appeared in the Jerusalem Report. Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund. Click here to download the PDF.

Recently the New Israel Fund became the latest target of what appears to be a coordinated effort to stifle dissent and shut down the human rights community in Israel.  Although the current crisis began with a smear campaign devised by a new right-wing group, the most significant threat to NIF and its work is a proposed 'commission of inquiry' in the Israeli Knesset, a proposal that may be voted on this coming week.  In this rush to judgment, in the scape-goating of NIF for the anger and mistrust Israelis feel about the Goldstone report, it is not the New Israel Fund's survival that is most at stake. 

It is the very nature of Israeli democracy.

For those unfamiliar with us, the New Israel Fund has a thirty-year record of solid accomplishment building civil society in Israel, primarily on issues of human and civil rights, social justice, and religious pluralism.  From the outlawing of torture in civilian interrogations to equity in land sales, from Israel's first rape crisis centers to its first comprehensive law protecting the disabled, from preserving Jerusalem's little remaining green space to empowering more liberal voices in the Orthodox community, the New Israel Fund family of organizations takes pride in our unique role as the driving force behind positive social change.  When Israel's many defenders, official and otherwise, declare that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, it is our accomplishments that are proudly and often cited as proof of that argument.

The New Israel Fund supports Israel's most reputable and internationally-respected human rights groups.  As they have for many years, they fulfilled their mission by carefully monitoring and reporting on the Gaza operation.  The reports they delivered were not pleasant.  With an official press blackout on Operation Cast Lead, they depended on eyewitnesses.  Like all such reports, they needed to be contextualized with reports from IDF soldiers and others, so that the fullest possible picture of the conduct of the IDF was available to everyone in Israel.

But this didn't happen.  The very human rights groups who are now being vilified because their reports were cited by Judge Goldstone were the first to call for an independent Israeli investigation of Operation Cast Lead.  This request has a precedent in every single war in which Israel has been involved, and was supported by the outgoing Attorney General. But, until recently, the government said no.

The IDF itself used the human rights groups' reports in assessing its own conduct.  Judge Goldstone based 14% of his report – not the much higher number bandied about by the group that has attacked us – on these reports.  Most of the Goldstone report was based on official Israeli sources, including and especially the public statements of Israeli political and military leaders.

The New Israel Fund took no position on the Gaza war other than to express concern for civilian casualties on both sides. We took no position on the Goldstone Report. Indeed, the groups we support are not monolithic and differed greatly in their evaluations of Goldstone's conclusions.

As always, there is no direct correlation between the positions of the New Israel Fund and those of its grantees.  We don't support everything these organizations say, but we strongly support their right to say it.  As the leading organization advancing democracy in Israel, we live our own values by constantly debating Israel's toughest issues within our own "big tent" that comprises a hundred organizations and thousands of experts, academics and activists.

As funders, we have very high standards and insist on accountability from our grantees. We constantly evaluate and review their work.  Legitimate criticism and discussion of the controversial issues raised by our groups is reasonable and indeed necessary.  But the recent attack on NIF is the latest and most alarming evidence of what appears to be a coordinated attack on the human rights community and on the rights of free speech and dissent.  The personal attacks on NIF's president are despicable, the means used to attack her not deserving of notice or response, and the overall tone that of incitement and hatred.

In the last year, there have obvious attempts to stifle the voices of dissent and criticism.  Leaders of Israel's largest and most respected civil rights organizations, like the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, have been detained or arrested.  The new group that launched the most recent attack on NIF, funded as it is by the same sources flowing to extremist settler organizations, is obviously attempting to establish itself in the right-wing firmament at the cost of freedom of speech and the critically important need of every democracy to examine itself.

We have asked the Jewish community around the world to join Israelis working for a better Israel in an uncompromising defense of the most serious democratic, Jewish and universal values.  We are proud so many leaders and ordinary people have leapt to our defense, contacting Prime Minister Netanyahu and others to protest the witch-hunt and ask that Israeli democracy be safeguarded. 

NIF and our family of organizations will not be scapegoats, we will not be intimidated, we will not shut up or be shut down.  And we will continue to work for the Israel in which we believe, the Israel of which we all can be proud.

Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.

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$250 million to Israeli social change groups since 1979.