The recent Pew Research Center study of American Jewry has received a lot of attention here in the US, not least because of what it said about the respondents’ attitudes towards Israel. Anti-settlement and dubious about the Israeli government’s desire for peace, many Jews in that survey have come a long way from knee-jerk support for the policies of the current governing coalition.
My friends at the New Israel Fund, an organization I proudly support, have done some research of their own, which tells us that NIF donors and liberal American Jews in general are much more concerned about Israel than they were when NIF last surveyed them in 2006. We are concerned about the influence of the ultranationalist, settler Right and the ultra- Orthodox. We are concerned about anti-democratic initiatives in the Knesset. And we are insistent that if we voted in Israel, we would support the same liberal values we continue to support in American elections.
This is why those of us who are long-time donors to the New Israel Fund are bemused by its critics, who often argue that NIF donors wouldn’t support it if they knew how edgy some of its grantees are.
Well, guess what? NIF is pro-active and specific in communicating the range of activists and organizations it supports, including those that are on the cutting-edge of social change and those that deal with Israel’s most difficult and controversial issues.
NIF explains why it supports Arab-Israeli civil society groups despite the fact that they do not embrace the Zionist narrative – and most people understand why that is, and why it is critical that 20 percent of the population of Israel feels it has a stake in the country’s future. And we certainly understand that NIF couldn’t possibly agree with all the policies and opinions of the hundreds of organizations it supports, organizations that work on dozens of critical issues; sometimes they contradict each other and sometimes they disagree with NIF’s own point of view. A prodemocracy organization working with a diverse and opinionated society has no choice but to provide room for legitimate voices in the debate and allow the discussions and even the arguments room to breathe.
The truth is, we who are active in the American Jewish community know that the conversation has moved on from “Israel-right-orwrong” to asking a deeper question: How can we help our Israeli cousins build an Israel that is right? No longer do most American Jews fear for Israel’s physical survival; we respect the IDF as the Middle East’s most powerful army.
No longer do most American Jews reject the term “occupation” for what has occurred on the West Bank since 1967, nor do we shy from expressing concern for the terrible impact of that occupation, and the ensuing settlement enterprise, on Israeli society and on the Palestinians. And no longer do we assume that Israeli democracy will somehow always exist, mirroring the Jewish and universal values of equality and justice, because unfortunately we have learned that there are Israeli leaders who claim that those values are wrong for Israel.
The “delegitimization” narrative, upon which the Israeli government and its unofficial allies have spent millions in hasbara shekels, plays much differently in the US. We who live with a Bill of Rights know it is not delegitimizing to honestly question government policy, military behavior, or abuses of human rights. We know that Israel has real enemies that do not recognize its right to exist as a Jewish homeland – and we point out that the best argument against them is an Israel that lives up to the vision of its founders, not one led by demagogues who stoop to the lowest common denominator of racism and exclusion.
NIF donors like me and many thousands of others worldwide follow these arguments closely.
We were not surprised when an Israeli judge found the radical ultranationalist group Im Tirzu to have “fascist attributes.” Nor were we surprised (although maybe a little amused) when the so-called NGO Monitor, the self-appointed watchdog that only watches progressive NGOs, had its social media director banned from Wikipedia for dishonesty. We are baffled that Israeli groups (or their funders) would spend money in the US to attack NIF or J Street or Americans for Peace Now, organizations that provide good reasons for our children to support, rather than give up on, the notion that Israel can represent the best of Jewish values. And at a time when other Jewish organizations are losing support, NIF’s is increasing, significantly, every year.
We do worry about whether American Jews are indeed giving up on Israel.
From NIF to ZOA and at every shade of opinion in between, we all lose if the American community loses interest, loses faith, loses its visceral connection to the Jewish homeland. NIF’s way of supporting Israel – empowering social change activists in every sector for civil rights, social justice and religious tolerance – is not everyone’s way, but we don’t want other routes to Israel blocked off, either.
Unlike some, we think Jews worldwide can and should choose what to say and how to support their visions of Israel, unfettered by those who would cut off conversation and repress dissent.
So, as much as I have mixed feelings about ultranationalist tycoons wasting their money, let me give them a tip. If you want to reach out to NIF donors, and to the millions of Americans who share their values, don’t bother telling us that our money supports organizations representing progressive opinions and minority causes. We know, we know. Use your money for something useful – support disadvantaged children or universities or medical centers.
Israel will be a better place, and you’ll be getting some bang for your bucks – or your shekels.
Carole Zabar is the founder of the Other Israel Film Festival and a long-time donor to the New Israel Fund. This article was originally published on the Jerusalem Post website .