News & Media Articles

Heading the Fund

05 July 2012 By Ruby Ong

The New Israel Fund said goodbye this week to its president, Dr. Naomi Chazan, and looked back on four stormy years during which it suffered some harsh criticism and racked up impressive achievements in influencing the public’s consciousness in the US and Israel.

by Tsippi Shmilovitz
Yediot Achronot
Translated from the Hebrew by the New Israel Fund

Published June 29, 2012 7:44 pm

Monday evening, the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. More than 500 people have gathered for an event that is in part celebratory and in part sad. They have come to say goodbye, farewell, and especially thank you to former Knesset Member Dr. Naomi Chazan, who has completed four years of service as board chair. Those were the four most tempestuous years in the 33-year history of that organization that is vital to the advancement of democracy in Israel. During Chazan’s term the organization changed, almost despite itself, from an enterprise operating mostly behind the scenes into a significant force on the political map of Israel and in the internal political debate within American Jewry. It gathered more and more active adherents—today it has tens of thousands around the world—and became an address that attracts both major support and hardcore animosity. In the midst of all this, 66-year-old Naomi Chazan became the organization’s face, especially here in the United States. “Naomi is one of the most amazing people I have ever met,” says Daniel Sokatch, New Israel Fund CEO, in a conversation in his office in San Francisco. “She is a humanitarian and a patriot. Her family has devoted its life to the State of Israel, and it has been a great pleasure to work alongside her. Because of her we are today stronger than ever.”

The New Israel Fund is indeed stronger today than ever before, in the United States even more than in Israel. “We once thought that it was impossible to ask American Jews to get involvedin internal Israeli affairs,” said Rachel Liel, the NIF’s executive director in Israel. “There was also a feeling that they didn’t want to, that there was a kind of taboo against leveling any public criticism against Israel. But that is changing now with tremendous speed. It’s not just political issues of borders and two states; most American Jews are very liberal and they are certainly worried about what’s happening with democracy in Israel. The story of women forced to sit in the back of the bus drove Jews crazy here in the United States. Or the attempt to keep women soldiers from singing. It’s just unbelievable. So now on the American side there is more and more will to speak out, and it only comes from a deep love and genuine concern for Israel.”

Where is Naomi Chazan’s part in this change?

“There is no one better than her at explaining Israel to an American audience. Americans and Israelis don’t always understand each other, even if we are all Jews. But Naomi comes with a true understanding of what Americans need to hear.” Chazan’s familiarity with America and its Jews is long and deep. During all the years of her childhood and adolescence, her father, Avraham Harman, served in diplomatic positions in the United States, including Consul General in New York and after that as Israel’s ambassador in Washington (1959–1968). Dr. Chazan spent the early years of her academic life at Columbia University in New York, where she did her B.A. and M.A. in political science.

Rabbi Brian Lurie, who will succeed Chazan as NIF board chair, nods over the telephone: “It doesn’t take her more than ten minutes to explain the whole Torah to Americans. She stood up to very harsh attacks and didn’t respond angrily, but found ways to channel the criticism into positive activity.”

Chazan, who came in from Israel for the event in San Francisco, sounded very excited during a conversation that took place scant hours after she landed, while she was still under the influence of jet lag and just wanted to get some sleep. But there’s nothing like a conversation about the state of Israeli democracy to wake her up: “I feel the change everywhere I speak and in front of every audience that I meet in the United States. There’s a great deal of worry. But, strangely, that actually brings about a big rise in the interest and concern of American Jews. A few years ago it was hard to get them to sit and listen at all about Israel, and today they’re coming of their own accord. This is the new definition of a Jew in the 21st century: the connection of history, religion, and culture together with life in a free society.”

Would you like to continue in your role as head of the Fund?

“In any case, that is impossible. The Fund has term limits, and that is as it should be. As it is, I was in that role for four years, one more than the length of a normal term. But I am not leaving. I’ll continue to help the Fund in any way I can, because we are at a very critical crossroads.”

Even if You Don’t Will It

The headquarters of the New Israeli Fund is in Washington (sic), even if most of its work takes place on the ground in Israel. It was set up in 1979 by a couple, Jonathan Cohen and Eleanor Friedman, and since its inception has invested over $200,000,000 in no fewer than 800 different organizations dealing with equality of rights, social justice, human rights, and democracy. But its big breakthrough into the public eye in Israel happened quite unintentionally. In 2010, during the events of the UN commission investigating this is also wrong, it was Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, headed by Professor Richard Goldstone, the right wing movement “Im Tirtzu” [“If you will it”] launched a noisy campaign accusing the NIF of assisting the Goldstone report and its harsh criticism of Israel and of supporting anti-Israel organizations outside the country. Chazan stood at the center and came in for some very harsh personal mudslinging. That was the moment when they understood at the NIF that there is a big change in the air.

“It took me a few weeks to understand that this wasn’t personal,” says Chazan. “They attacked me because I was there. If it had been someone else, they would have attacked him. It wasn’t an attack on me, it was an attack against democracy, and if we don’t stand up to it, it will be something we’ll regret forever.”

All the ugly personal attacks on her just turned her into the face of the democratic movement,” says Sokatch. “It really upset usto hear her described as an enemy of the state, and it was inspiring to see her stand up to that.”

“At a certain point we understood that the war against us by an organization like ‘Im Tirzu’ isn’t really against us and not really because of the Goldstone Report,” says Liel. “It’s a big lie. We understood that the attempt to neutralize the New Israel Fund is just part of the war against democracy in Israel. These are people who don’t believe in democracy and we are in the midst of a huge battle to preserve it. Democracy isn’t something that’s given for free. You have to defend it all the time. And we feel that people are beginning to understand that something is not right.”

More than anything, they sense this on the ground in the United States. “The Jewish establishment in America supports Israel in any case. What is changing is the rise of the voices in the middle,” says Sokatch, “people who are very proud of their support of Israel, but who are giving up their hesitancy to criticize when necessary. Blind love isn’t beneficial for anyone. A few years ago there wasn’t an organization like J Street, our Fund wasn’t a central voice, there were no publications like Peter Beinart’s famous article, which put the whole truth out for all to see: Israel is losing the American Jews and it ought to wake up. Rabbi Brian Lurie, who is taking Naomi Chazan’s place, was once a central figure in the Jewish community establishment here, a person who represented the American Jewish mainstream. If people of that type are joining us, then maybe those who automatically call us ‘traitors’ should stop and think for a second.”

“American Jews’ criticism of Israel is no different from a mother’s criticism of her children,” says Liel. “It comes from love. The right claims Zionism and patriotism for itself, and we are in the middle of a war on the battleground of ideas. This is the only way in a democracy, simple to speak with people. In the end, history comes in waves and the fight today is not between right and left but between those who believe in democracy and social justice and those who do not. It’s no accident that thousands of people are joining us.”

Daniel, you mentioned Beinart’s article. He aroused a lot of anger and opened up a deep wound in the Jewish community here.

Sokatch: “It was a new high point in the dialogue of young Jews with themselves and with the State of Israel, but that dialogue existed long before. The numbers show that the young people are distancing themselves not only from Israel but also from Jewish institutions. They aren’t leaving Judaism; they are leaving the organized Jewish establishment. Israel is part of the reason why that is happening. It’s no longer the central issue that links young American Jews. We are feeling a big wave of young people joining as activists in the Fund for all sorts of goals, not just political ones, but just as part of the battle for democracy. The strong pull to the right caused these young people to approach us. They look at Israel and no longer see the country they were educated about at home. The demand to support Israel at any price, no matter what it does, pushes away more and more young Americans. We give them a way to support Israel but also to criticize without feeling that they are betraying the country.”

What are you at the NIF doing to put that message across to people in Israel?

“I remember that during my last visit in Israel I met [Knesset Speaker] Ruby Rivlin, who had suddenly become an ally, even if we don’t agree on almost anything political. Ruby belongs to the Jabotinsky wing of the Likud, with people like Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, who are big believers in democracy and ready to fight for it. I told him that Israel has a very difficult problem among young Jews in the United States. He said that he knows, and that the hasbara [public advocacy] has to be improved. I tried to get across that hasbara isn’t the problem— that actions are the problem, not words. I told him that Yitzhak Rabin solved the hasbara problem the minute he gave the world a clear message that Israel wants to get out of this situation of ruling over another people and violating human rights. Whoever hates Israel will always hate Israel, but the fact is that in Rabin’s time, world hatred of Israel almost entirely died out.”

Did you succeed in getting that message across to him?

“I suspect not. The Jewish discourse in America and the Jewish discourse in Israel are on parallel tracks today.”

The Zionism I Know

The fact that Rabbi Brian Lurie is the new president of the NIF is perhaps the most obvious proof of how far the discourse on Israel in the United States has come. Rabbi Lurie is what used to be defined as a member of the old Jewish establishment. He served for 17 years as head of the San Francisco Jewish Federation and for 5 years as head of the city’s Jewish museum. And now he’s come to lead an institution that is very far from the consensus, a fund that suffers from real animosity in Israel and from its mainstream, the Jewish establishment in the United States.

What brings you to the NIF?

“In 1995, I was at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. There were 80 heads of state there. Eighty. That’s an amazing number. They came because they respected and celebrated the Israel of those days, a country that truly and sincerely tried to make peace. Israeli Arabs saw in Rabin the single prime minister who cared about them too. I want Israel to go back to what it was in those days, and I believe that the New Israel Fund is the most important organization that will help us do that.”

You come from what is generally defined as “the Jewish establishment” in America, and that establishment does not like to express criticism or even to hear someone else expressing criticism of Israel.

“I don’t think that the value system of the Jewish establishment is different from the values I hold. And even within the establishment there are more and more voices emerging, out of really sincere concern about what’s happening. When I sat with Benny Begin, I remember how amazed I was by his democratic values, even though we don’t agree on a lot of things. So yes, there’s a lot of darkness, but there are also points of light. The biggest problem is that many Israelis just weren’t raised with democratic values. The school system doesn’t teach the elements of democracy, and as the years go by fewer and fewer people know what real democracy is. Here is the opportunity for American Jews to help strengthen democracy in Israel.”

Do you agree with the claim that young Jews in America are more distanced from Israel?

“Yes. There’s less talk and interest, and the country is no longer in the center of things, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care. There’s an understanding that it’s impossible to continue in the present situation, but pessimism will not get us anywhere. There have always been extremists.”

What do you think of “Im Tirtzu”?

“That’s not the Zionism I know. This attempt to silence any opinion that differs with the government or opposes it is just not the State of Israel I know.”

“We have had right wing governments in the past,” says Chazan, “but they were still controlled by the democratic basis of the Jabotinsky tradition. Now we have a right that has no tolerance. They think that democracy is majority rule that completely ignores the minorities. This is anti-democracy. True democracy is one that defends minorities. Take the deterioration in attitudes toward women. There’s a straight line between the status of women and the status of democracy.”

Indyk Said

Despite the pessimistic tone, all the heads of the NIF are very optimistic people who believe that we are on the verge of a sharp turnaround of trend. “It’s true that the tone of the dialogue has become very worrying,” says Sokatch. “Four or five years ago, people with opinions like ours were part of the community. We could speak freely. Now the dialogue has been pushed all the way over to the right, but I haven’t lost hope for a moment. There are tens of thousands of Israelis who oppose all the anti-democratic laws and actions like the ‘Price Tag’ attacks. Look at what happened a year ago: half a million people took to the streets for a social protest the likes of which had never been seen in Israel. It’s not important that it was disorganized. It meant something, even if now it appears that not much has come of it. “When the blacks boycotted the buses in Alabama in the 50’s, they also didn’t think that would change anything. There are a lot of good people, in Israel and in the United States, who are not ready to see what’s happening to our country.”

And you really believe that the New Israel Fund can change the course of the erosion?

I’ve been a supporter of the New Israel Fund since I finished college in Boston. I remember that I spoke with the US ambassador in Israel, Martin Indyk, a Zionist Jew who loves Israel, and he said that if I was worried about the future of the democratic state in Israel, I have to join the NIF. I am a Zionist liberal who loves Israel very much and is devoted to it, but I am very concerned about issues of social justice and human rights, and like most Jews in the US today, what we see in Israel in recent years justifies that concern. But I was always naïve and I still am. Not long ago, I was in Australia, where we opened a new branch, and I met someone who was in Sarajevo during the Balkan war. A person who saw his city destroyed because of ethnic hatred. He told me, ‘Don’t give up, and you’ll see that in another 20 years people will look back and say that the New Israel Fund helped preserve Israeli democracy.’”

As It Ought to Be

“This organization was founded 33 years ago in order to nurture democracy,” says Naomi Chazan, getting the last word, “with an emphasis on building a civil society that was almost nonexistent. In recent years, dangers have appeared from within and some of them are directed at the NIF and civil society, but democracy without civil society is not democracy. What keeps the great democracy of the United States going is not just the Constitution, but the civil society that exists here. The mission of the New Israel Fund is to defend that society and thus to defend Israel as it ought to be. Our vision is written in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. People really have to go back and have a look at that declaration.”

The preceding was the English translation of an article that ran in Yediot Achronot.