New Beginnings for Israel and for All of Us

26 September 2019

This week, in three cities around the country – New York, San Francisco, and Boston – the New Israel Fund held gala events marking our 40th anniversary. Thousands of supporters of a progressive vision for Israel’s future gathered together to celebrate the New Israel Fund and our work.

These beautiful evenings coincided, as our New York/Tri-State Director Rabbi Ayelet Cohen reminded us, with a time in the Jewish calendar when “we reflect on the brokenness of the world, and of our own limitations and failures – and of the possibility, indeed the necessity, of starting anew.”

That moved me. Because the work we do at NIF to help Israel fulfill its founding promise of equality and justice requires an unflinching commitment to our values. Especially when it’s tough. It also requires a deep belief that, despite the difficulties, things really can get better.

For me, this is the essence of the High Holidays, and it inspires me, every day, to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

Defending our principles is never easy. I remember learning this lesson well in my first days as the CEO of the New Israel Fund when, while boarding a flight to my first board meeting in New York, my cell phone rang. It was former Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg, and he was calling to tell me that NIF was under attack. Extreme-right wing Knesset Members were threatening a Knesset inquiry into our support for Israel’s human rights organizations. That was an early warning sign of what has become a global wave of ultra-nationalist populism, battering the institutions of liberal democracy around the world.

Leading the New Israel Fund means being the custodian of a mission that’s bigger than any one of us – ensuring the promise of Israel’s founding values. Over my decade at the helm, I have had the task of leading NIF through some dark and difficult days. And yet, through these challenges, I have seen NIF transform from a benign, behind-the-scenes supporter of progressive civil society, to a fierce and fiery front-line defender of democracy.

Because what we stand for is nothing less than Israel’s democratic future. That was the mission of a group of visionary American Jews who founded the New Israel Fund in 1979. We are deeply indebted to that vision and foresight.

After all, how could NIF’s founders have known in 1979 that decades later, tens of thousands of sub-Saharan African refugees would seek political asylum in Israel, only to be threatened with forcible deportation to countries where their lives might be in danger? Thanks to their vision, NIF was there to say “not on our watch.”

How could they could have known in 1979, that in 2018, an ascendant right wing would push through a terrible law aimed at permanently altering the carefully calibrated balance between Israel’s democratic and Jewish character, enshrining a chauvinistic nationalism and redefining Israel’s Palestinian citizens — a full 22% of the population — as second-class citizens? Thanks to our founders’ vision, the New Israel Fund was here to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the hundreds of thousands of patriotic Israelis, from all backgrounds, who protested the so-called “Nation-State Law.”

We don’t know what will happen next in Israel. But there are real reasons for hope. We can take heart from the fact that, in the face of a campaign of intimidation and incitement, Arab citizens of Israel were not bullied into silence. They found their voice and cast their votes.

After the election, Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List – an alliance of Arab Israeli political parties and now the third largest party in the Knesset – reached out to Jewish Israelis to work together to build a better country for everyone. Ayman moved me and so many others deeply when, drawing from the well of the Jewish tradition tradition, he quoted from the Hebrew book of Psalms: “The stone that the builders rejected became a cornerstone.”

What a vision: that perhaps it is Israel’s minority citizens, Palestinian-Israelis, long discriminated against and marginalized, who will be the cornerstone of a new and brighter chapter for Israeli democracy.

We know that the twists and turns of Israel’s Byzantine politics will continue to unfold over the coming weeks. We still don’t know what the future holds for our beloved Israel. But we now see a glimmer of possibility, and some very real reasons for hope that the tide just might be turning.

When it finally does, it will be due, in no small part, to the tens of thousands of Israeli activists and civil rights defenders working to secure democracy – and to the global community that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

For the Jewish people, the High Holidays are a time to reflect together on our purpose and to face our own human frailness and imperfections. That’s a mighty task for any single person. But should make no mistake: our work to strengthen and repair, to build a better, more inclusive, and more democratic future for all Israelis is part of that holy work.

Shanah Tovah Umetuka. I wish you and your entire family a sweet new year.