6 July 2012
A Hero By Any Other NameLast week, the NIF Board met in San Francisco, the city in which our organization was founded 33 years ago. It was a powerful and joyful homecoming, and on Monday night we gathered with 500 of our closest friends to celebrate the New Israel Fund and honor our outgoing Board President, Naomi Chazan. I wish you all could have been there. Regular readers of this column know that Naomi's four years as Board President were among the most challenging that NIF - and indeed Israel - have ever faced. They were also transformative years for NIF and our sector; thanks in no small part to Naomi's leadership, we are now stronger and more effective than ever before. You also know that, during these difficult days, Naomi became for many people the face of Israeli progressive civil society, the representative of the Israel we believe in.
When we honored her for her extraordinary service last week, I had the privilege of speaking about her. I want to share those remarks with you now.
"Let me begin by saying, Nomi is not going to like this. And I warned her about this weeks ago. Nomi is a lot of things: tough, brilliant, funny, kind, tough. but she DOES NOT like a fuss made about her. She is mortified at being feted, celebrated, honored. So, Nomi, this is going to be a bit painful for you, but you have to let me do it.
So, how do you describe Nomi Chazan?
She is Yerushalmi. Born in Jerusalem, and lives there still.
She is deeply devoted to family, always politely stepping away from a conversation or a meeting to take a call from her mother or one of her children. And what a family she comes from: Her father was the Israeli ambassador to the United States. Her mother a member of Knesset. Her daughter, a consular official in the US.
She is a scholar and a teacher. She did her BA and MA at Columbia, her PhD at the Hebrew University. She is Dean of the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo, and Professor Emerita of Political Science and African Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She was a visiting professor at Harvard, and has lectured at dozens of universities throughout the world. She has authored books on comparative politics and written numerous articles on Arab-Israeli relations, Israeli politics, African politics, and women and politics.
She is a patriot. She served her country, with three terms as a Member of Knesset from Meretz. She served as Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, and as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Economics Committee, the House Committee, the Education Committee, and the Committee on the Status of Women. She was widely viewed as one of Israel's top legislators at the time, specializing in human rights, gender equality, and consumer affairs.
She is a humanitarian. Today, she continues to serve as a leader of Israel's human rights, women's and peace movements. And she is, of course, the President of the New Israel Fund. In this capacity, she is also a boss. Mine, in fact. But more than this, she is a partner, a friend and a mighty support. Part of my job is keeping our team's spirits up during difficult times. But it is Nomi who keeps my spirits up, who tells me not to worry too much, to take it easy, to REST. It has been a tremendous honor to lead NIF with her and with our friend Rachel Liel over these past two and a half challenging years. During Nomi's presidency, NIF was called upon to change, evolve and grow as an organization, to play an ever-greater role in working to secure Israel's founding values. We could not have done this without her leadership.
But even all of this doesn't really describe who Nomi Chazan is, let alone what she means to me, to NIF and to the movement for human rights, social justice and democracy in Israel.
In a funny way, that was done most effectively by the very people who began the latest round of what Nomi calls the process of "democratic recession" in Israel today. Because as you all remember, when the vanguard of the de-democratization camp launched the attack on NIF that would ultimately metastasize into the anti-democratic legislative agenda we face today, they did so by attacking the most prominent face and symbol of NIF and the civil society sector we represent. And that face was Nomi Chazan's.
And when de-democratizers chose Nomi Chazan as the symbol of everything that in their opinion was wrong with Israel - that it was too open, too equal, too outward looking, too liberal, too intellectual, too forward-thinking, too democratic - they reminded the rest of us that they were right; that Nomi in fact does embody all of those qualities that reflect Israel at its best. And because of them, she became not just the Chair of our Board of Directors, but the living symbol of our movement and values.
That attack happened, literally, on the eve of my first Board meeting. It was a hell of a way to start a new job. But through those difficult first months of what I sometimes call (even though Nomi dislikes it) NIF's "new normal," the rock upon which I depended for support was the very person at the center of the attacks. Despite the horrible posters depicting her with the now infamous horn, despite the lies and libels leveled against her, Nomi remained (for the most part) calm, cool, collected and ready to fight back.
And she never, ever lost her sense of humor, even when it came to the personal attacks. Indeed, in classic Nomi fashion, just the other day, while telling us not to "overdo the personal sacrifice" bit when talking about what she went through, Nomi observed that "those horns helped NIF more than we can imagine."
A few days ago, I showed Nomi an email we wanted to send out to the tens of thousands of NIF supporters who can't be with us here tonight, asking them to be with us in spirit as we celebrate Nomi Chazan. In it, I wrote that Nomi was one of my heroes. Now, those of you who know Nomi know that she is always the professor, and as such, she is a stickler for language, be it Hebrew or English. And so you won't be surprised that one of her comments on the draft of the email I sent her was, "Can a woman be a hero?" And while we can disagree about whether or not the designation "heroine" is too old-fashioned for 2012, I stand by my original statement.
Today, when the Israel we love so dearly is truly at a crossroads, when it's democracy is challenged as never before, when the founding values enshrined in its Declaration of Independence need to be protected, defended and shouted from the hilltops, you, Nomi, are a hero.
And as I think of what you mean to all of us, Nomi, as we gather together as an NIF family here in San Francisco, the city of our organization's birth, the day after Pride Day, I am reminded of the words of one of our greatest local heroes, Harvey Milk, who said, during the dark and difficult days of the early gay rights movement,
"I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you gotta give em hope."
In that spirit, and in recognition of the hope that you continue to give all of us, it is my great honor, on behalf of the NIF family that you have led so bravely and so ably over these last 4 extraordinary years, to name you this year's Guardian of Democracy."