Good-bye, "Madiba"19 December 2013
When I look back, I have no doubt that I joined the New Israel Fund because I was fortunate enough to know Nelson Mandela. So here is how it goes.
Government by Executing the Messenger15 January 2013
Government by Executing the Messenger
By Rachel Liel
Ostensibly, a stormy debate is proceeding in Israel. It’s “There’s no one to talk to” versus “Abu Mazen is a partner.” It’s “Let’s not turn into Greece or Spain” opposing “The middle class has turned into the government’s ATM.” It’s “Throw Hanin Zoabi out of parliament” against “Freedom of speech for all.” But in reality there is no real discussion, as facts are created in the field. The recent firing of Dr. Gilad Natan from the Knesset Research and Information Center is the last link in a chain of targeted terminations among those in the public sector who dare to stray from the government’s line.
Natan was fired not because anyone doubted his professionalism or his integrity. On the contrary, his research concerning migrants garnered praise and appreciation. And according to Natan, his supervisors knew and granted approval when he wrote opinion pieces unrelated to his research work. The sin Natan stands accused of is a “political slant” — laundered language veiling dissatisfaction with the criticisms implied by his research findings and with the way his personal opinions displeased those who are determined to please.
Before Natan, it was Prof. Shlomo Yitzhaki, the government’s Chief Statistician. He was fired by e-mail after he challenged the figures published by the Ministry of Finance and the privatization of the public’s savings, calling that privatization the “Great Pension Robbery.” And so with a quick e-mail, a news item and a half, and regrets from the Prime Minister over the method but not over the dismissal decision, the matter is behind us. One less subverter in our midst.
And before Yitzhaki… Adar Cohen, the supervisor of civics studies at the Ministry of Education, who had no idea he was one of those subverters till he was fired — just like Gilad Natan — for a “political slant.” Cohen had let through, heaven preserve us, material tinged with a critical hue: content that dealt with pluralistic democracy, human rights, and equality. Not on our watch. Despite the petitions and the newspaper articles, another messenger found himself sacrificed on the altar of loyalty to the regime. The next supervisor of civics studies presumably internalized the message.
The same message was recently delivered to the ambassadors who represent Israel around the world, at their meeting with National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror. Legitimate questions raised by some of the ambassadors regarding the wisdom of Israel’s political moves — including astonishment on the part of UN Ambassador Ron Prosor at the announcement of building in E1 — ran up against Amidror’s statement that “whoever disagrees with the government’s policy can resign or go into politics.” In undiplomatic language, that’s called stifling dissent.
Thus the commander’s spirit, hovering in the corridors of government, makes itself felt. The current regime does not tolerate criticism and brooks no departure from the official line whether in the context of research (Natan), of statistics (Yitzhaki), of content (Cohen), or of outreach (the ambassadors). The clear message is that everyone must speak in a single loyal and “patriotic” voice, and anyone daring to pursue their own professional truth to the limit is condemned to removal.
As if that weren’t enough, the custom of vengeance against the messenger is part of a broader and far more worrisome norm. The demand for an utterly obedient professional staff is merely part of how public discourse now suffers anti-democratic, nationalistic, and sometimes even racist erosion in the hands of extremist politicians and muffled journalists. The firing of Gilad Natan reminded us how fragile Israeli democracy is and how near the threats to it are approaching for everyone who believed they were safe.
The writer serves as the New Israel Fund's Executive Director in Israel. This article was originally published by the Israeli news site Walla.
Highlights from "Mobilizing for Progressive Change"12 June 2014
Check out videos from Mobilizing for Progressive Change, an event NIF held in Boston last month. We honored our long-time board member, Franklin M. Fisher. We were inspired by our New Generations Activists and were then treated to a hope-filled conversation featuring Peter Beinart, Rachel Liel, and Rabbi David Rosenn.
Hillary Clinton is not the problem12 December 2011
Instead of bridling at Western criticism over the anti-democratic wave that’s rising in Israel, we should take it as an indirect compliment – and as sound advice. It is precisely because Israel has a reputation as a vibrant democracy that our friends abroad are dismayed; the Israel they know doesn’t do this sort of thing.
Israeli soldiers aren’t supposed to walk out of ceremonies – with the encouragement of their spiritual leaders – when women dare to sing; that sort of thing happens in Iran. Israeli women aren’t supposed to be ordered to sit in the back of the bus; that sort of thing went out in the 1950s with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.
These were points made last weekend by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a closed session of the Saban Forum in Washington. She added that Israel shouldn’t be passing laws aimed at drying up the funds of peace and human rights organizations, because that is another thing democracies don’t do.
“Who is Hillary Clinton to preach to us?” shot back some of the Knesset members behind these Knesset bills. “She’s exaggerating.”
The fact is, however, that Clinton isn’t saying anything that Israelis from every sector of society haven’t been saying with increasing heat and volume in recent weeks. The U.S. secretary of state is taking her cue from Israeli politicians in the opposition and government, from the Israeli media, from an array of Israeli public figures, and from the growing “buzz” among the Israeli public over the shocking, reactionary phenomena we’re witnessing, a buzz that has carried beyond Israel’s borders.
We must always keep in mind that these words of reproach from abroad are not coming from our enemies, but from our friends. Dan Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, reportedly told the Prime Minister’s Office that the new bill to heavily tax foreign donations to local NGOs would affect U.S.-funded groups that teach English, promote Jewish-Arab coexistence, and seek to empower Bedouin women. German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis told Jerusalem officials that the bill would play into the hands of European elements hostile to Israel.
Can’t the promoters of this law – as well as other legislation aimed at silencing unpopular voices – understand that such candid counsel is offered in a spirit of friendship? Will they also dismiss the warnings from American Jews like Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, who wrote that laws stifling free expression, judicial independence and minority rights hurt Israel “internally” and “externally,” and mean that “the very democratic character of the state is being eroded”?
Will they also wave off the advice of Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who, in an article dedicated to the widening exclusion of women from the Israeli public sphere, wrote: “American taxpayers, and American Jews in particular, will not tolerate Jerusalem as Riyadh-lite”?
Again, though, these voices from afar are taking their lead from voices right here – and these local voices haven’t come only from the “left,” they’ve come from the very heart of the Israeli establishment. As early as the beginning of May, the professional staff of the Foreign Ministry issued a position paper against a previous version of the anti-NGO law, declaring that “adoption of this bill is expected to do severe damage to Israel’s international interests.” Such a law would damage Israel’s image and essence as a democracy, and would bring Israel in for sharp criticism from Europe and the U.S., the ministry staff warned.
The politicians behind the sort of chilling legislation we’ve seen of late didn’t listen to the Foreign Ministry professionals then, and they haven’t listened to the opposition to these laws that has erupted during the current Knesset session. Now the exact same arguments are being raised by Jews and friends of Israel overseas – and still the reactionaries blame the messenger.
Well, the messengers are everywhere now, and they’re all saying the same thing. So Hillary Clinton is not the problem, and neither is Dan Shapiro, Abraham Foxman, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin or Dorit Beinish. The problem, rather, is the assault on democracy that has been launched against this country by local enforcers who think of themselves as patriots and pious Jews.
Rachel Liel is the New Israel Fund’s Executive Director in Israel. Prior to her recent appointment, Rachel served as Director of SHATIL, the New Israel Fund Initiative for Social Change, which provides training and consultancy services for the NGO sector in Israel. She joined SHATIL in 1998 as part of a long and distinguished career in public service, having served as Deputy Director of the Division of Rehabilitation Services in the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, and as a Policy Analyst in the Department of Social Policy Planning of the Prime Minister's Office. She holds a Master’s degrees in Sociology/Anthropology and in Social Work.
How Jewish Gender Equality Changed My Life11 October 2013
By Sara B. Leviten, October 2013
When Beth David Congregation, a Conservative shul in Miami, FL, voted to have equal rights for men and women, my connection to my Jewish heritage was strengthened. I was one of 18 women in an Adult Bat Mitzvah class in 1977. The six months of study for the ceremony and the ceremony itself were absolutely amazing! It was so exciting to be part of a group of women who read the Torah portion and our Haftorah. When I read The Prayer for Our Country, I changed the words so that it wasn't sexist!
Since then, I have been called to the Torah for aliyah many times. Twenty years later, I celebrated my 50th birthday at Temple Israel of Greater Miami by reading the Maftir and the Haftorah. That was exciting, also!
Sara B. Leviten is a lifelong resident of Miami-Dade County. Following a 31 ½ year career at Miami-Dade County Dept. of Planning and Zoning, Leviten retired in 2010. She is an activist at Temple Israel, the feminist movement, the Democratic Party, former literacy tutor at the public library, and former volunteer usher at Gusman Center. Leviten wrote a published an article about early Miami Jewish History.
How NIF Decides12 June 2014
How and when NIF decides to take a stand on an issue is rarely a simple process. But no matter what, NIF always stands for democratic debate and dissent. Let us know your thoughts on the issues that matter to you and to NIF, and be assured – we’re listening.
I dream…24 October 2013
By Barbara Ford, October 2013
Born in Sydney Australia I have always been a member of a Liberal/Progressive congregation. There have been many changes since I did my Bat Mitzvah with a group of 10-12 girls all dressed in white. Rabbis were male only wearing ceremonial gowns.
I have been privileged to be on a Synagogue Board and be Vice President for a short time at my congregation. Now as President of ARZA I am able to tell the story of the WOW. I have been at the Kotel with the WOW when a lady was detained for wearing a ‘mans’ tallis. Many find it hard to believe the struggles that have taken place over the past 25 years. We salute WOW on the amazing milestones that they have achieved.
I dream that Israel will fulfil its promise as stated in the Declaration of Independence and that this will ensure that Israel becomes a truly democratic and inclusive society.
I dream that Israel will respect the way I want to be Jewish and will allow me to be legally married by a Pluralistic Rabbi; that either all or no Rabbis will be paid by the state; and that land will be given to the Reform movement to build its synagogues as it does to other groups.
I dream that I can go to the Kotel with my family and be able to wear a tallit, if I choose, and to pray as a family at the Wall together.
I dream that Israel will acknowledge and embrace the fact that there is more than one way to be Jewish.
I Want To Sit Downstairs24 October 2013
By Ilona Shechter, October 2013
"Granny, why can't I sit downstairs?" I always asked my Grandmother as we sat upstairs in the women's section in the shul in Muizenberg, the seaside suburb of Cape Town. Her answer was always unsatisfactory, as was the answer that my Grandpa gave me when I asked him why I couldn't have a Bar Mitzvah like my cousin Stanley, who got to chant from the Torah, sing Haftarah and lead the service. I was so jealous. All that awaited me, was a group of girls sharing a Haftarah on a Sunday night and a party afterwards! After driving my Grandparents crazy with questions, it was suggested that my parents join the burgeoning Progressive movement where I would be treated with much greater equality. And it certainly happened, with the exception of Bnei Mitzvah. Girls still didn't have that opportunity and it upset me and took me until I was 49 to attain that moment in my life, my rite of passage.
It was in California, where we now live, that I finally put on a tallit for the first time. It was one of my Grandpa's and as the garment fell about my shoulders, I felt the embrace of not just my grandfather but my Jewish heritage, culture and faith, and it was such a warm embrace and I felt as though I had earned this right to put on this garment along with every other Jew. I could never understand the restrictive stranglehold that the ultra-Orthodox held in Israel, during my year that I spent there - I still don't. I do know that as a Reform Jew, I need to fight it. With all of the strength I have as a woman, as a teacher, as a proud, passionate Jew. Judaism is my heritage and right as much as it is any man's and I deserve every privilege that this incredible faith offers, as does every Jewish woman, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform or any other stream of Judaism.
I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and am married to an Israeli and we have 1 son. I am a teacher in a Jewish Day School where I teach Jewish Studies, Israel and Holocaust to 6th and 8th graders. I am a Museum Fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a winner of the Grinspoon Steinhardt award for Excellence in Jewish Education and I am really proud of this and very humble, as I love what I do. I am also an Alum of the Yad Vashem International School of Holocaust Studies.