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NIF Israel Study Tour Appreciation – November 2018 – Building a Just and Democratic Israel

28 May 2019
By: Robert Snyder

The most special part of the tour was the access to leaders, neighborhoods, and organizations that a “regular” tourist would never get to experience . . . My takeaway from this remarkable study tour was that, while the challenges to having a just and democratic Israel are daunting, NIF is serving an indispensable role in fighting for precisely those objectives . . . It is a fight that we fully support and we will engage more actively with NIF because of this great trip and the impact that it made on us.

After many years of increasing concern about Israel’s drift to the right, but little action, my wife and I jumped at the opportunity to join the New Israel Fund’s “Building a Just and Democratic Israel” five-day Israel study tour in November 2018. It was a profoundly moving experience.

The tour offered more than we could have hoped for and provided us with a truly unique experience of Israel. We were introduced to a broad view of Israel’s social and political landscape and to a delineation of NIF’s role in advancing progressive causes – all through the eyes of inspiring organizations and activists whose work impacts all Israelis and those living under Israel’s authority.

Our trip was incredibly well organized by NIF staff who “packed in” a morning-to-evening schedule of presentations and site visits with organizations, activists and public figures in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Wadi Ara (a village in the Galilee). Our fellow travelers came from different parts of the US and had varied Israel experience — ranging from first-timers to those who had visited Israel dozens of times. The size of our tour group (16), enabled us to interact closely with one another, learn from each other, and form close bonds.

The most special part of the tour was the access to leaders, neighborhoods, and organizations that a “regular” tourist would never get to experience. Our daily experiences were highly interactive — encouraging us to have meaningful discussions with both national figures and leaders of NIF-funded organizations. Our first-hand engagement with leaders and communities left a powerful impression. We walked through different neighborhoods, visited a checkpoint at a separation barrier and dined at homes of both Muslims and Jews.

The tour was at once infuriating and inspiring. The assaults on civil rights, minority rights, religious freedom, and cultural freedom are coming at an alarming pace and are led by the government’s ruling coalition. The challenges are enormous. And yet, there is real hope coming from many sources – from the older generation of leaders to a new generation of leaders and grass-roots organizations – all of which are organizing to protect Israel’s founding principles.

NIF’s leadership has great experience in advocating for progressive values and policies. We met Professor Naomi Chazen, past NIF president and former Member of Knesset, as well as Menachem Lorberbaum, professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University. Both put in context the rightward movement of Israeli politics with the merging of ultranationalist and ultraorthodox Jewish movements. We also heard from the staff of Shatil, NIF’s action arm which provides crucial support and capacity building services to NIF grantee organizations so they can be durable and impactful.

NIF has funded many organizations with long histories of support for civil rights and progressive public policy. We met with Barbara Swirski, Executive Director of the Adva Center, a “think and do” tank, which does research studies and advocacy for policies that affect education, health, housing and labor regulation; and also heard from, Sharon Abraham-Weiss, Executive Director of ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which advocates on behalf of freedom of speech and movement, LGBT rights and opposing gender discrimination.

We were energized by the young generation of Israelis and Palestinians who are fighting for social justice and equality. Avner Gvaryahu, Executive Director of Breaking the Silence, comprised of former IDF soldiers, is publicizing the dehumanizing effects of the occupation on Palestinians and exposing the price which Israeli soldiers are paying. Alon-Lee Green, who founded a waiter’s union, is now leading Standing Together, a joint Arab-Jewish movement promoting social justice and equality. Reut Naggar founded Be Free Israel to promote cultural and religious pluralism, particularly its effects on LGBT rights. We also met with several Palestinian students, who are members of Tag Meir, a network of students at six Arab and Jewish colleges, who document and publicize the attacks of Jewish settlers on Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The tour also exposed us to how art and media being used to grow community identity and recognition for oppressed minority groups – we visited Achoti Gallery, which displays the work of Mizrahi, Palestinian and Ethiopian artists, as well as an exhibit at the Eretz Yisrael Museum of photographs by Bedouin children of their abysmal living conditions in the Negev.

My takeaway from this remarkable study tour was that, while the challenges facing Israel’s future as a just and democratic state are daunting, NIF is serving an indispensable role in fighting for precisely those objectives. NIF is holding a mirror up to Israeli society to ask them who they want to be; holding the government accountable for its denigration of rights and dehumanization of minorities; and funding effective grassroots organizations that fight for democratic values. It is a fight that we fully support. We will engage more actively with NIF because of this great trip and the impact that it is having.

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