NIF Was Born for Times Like These

9 March 2023

I’ve just returned from a region on the brink. In Israel, hundreds of thousands are protesting in the streets of Tel Aviv and cities around the country. In the occupied West Bank violence spirals with terror attacks, IDF raids, and settler rampages in Palestinian villages. Just this evening, multiple young Israelis were shot in a horrific attack on the bustling Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.  And amid the rising chaos, NIF’s staff, board, and grantees work to push back against the attack on Israel’s democracy and to support human rights activists in these most challenging of times. 

I know you’ve been reading all about this in the news, but the thing that is less clear when we follow these events from abroad is what is happening among our friends and allies on the ground working to defeat the government’s plans to dismantle Israel’s democracy. What I saw and felt was a sense of determination and — if not optimism — then certainly grit and commitment. Regular Israelis, elite military reservists, tech and finance professionals, lawyers and judges are all taking to the streets to demonstrate. They will not surrender their democracy quietly. 

NIF is taking a multi-pronged approach to respond to what many are calling a “judicial coup.” First and foremost, we are funding our grantees chiefly Mehazkim and Omdim Beyachad-Naqef Ma’an (Standing Together)who initiated the mass protests, and continue to support grantees growing the protest movement. These organizations are among those insisting that the assault on judicial independence is inextricably linked to the ongoing occupation of the West Bank. Each week, more and more protesters are joining them.  The first and second episodes of our new podcast, Groundwork focus on this connection — one takes place at a protest in Tel Aviv, and one in a small Palestinian village in Area C of the West Bank called Umm el Kheir. 

We’ve launched an emergency fundraising campaign to support an even larger bloc of protestors who are making this connection — when we talk about democracy in Israel, we cannot forget that there is no democracy in the West Bank. If you haven’t yet, please consider contributing to this important effort.

NIF is also proud to support initiatives to incorporate diverse and marginalized groups into the protest movement — mass demonstrations by women, the LGBTQ community, religious progressives, in addition, to these anti-occupation activists. We are also supporting protests in Israel’s geographic periphery — including joint Arab-Jewish protests in Be’er Sheva. We are working around the clock to defend Israeli democracy, protect human rights, and strengthen civil society — so that they can survive the current crisis and flourish in the future. 

Meanwhile, as I wrote in my last column, NIF and our allies are working to ensure that Palestinian citizens of Israel, too, feel welcome in the protests, that their voices and concerns are heard as well as those of their Jewish fellow citizens. We are making the point, again and again, that there can be no true democracy while the occupation continues.  

It is clear that Israel is at a critical juncture in its history. It faces the real danger of becoming a so-called “illiberal democracy” — one whose values go against everything for which its founders stood. This is perhaps the greatest challenge in our collective history: we are staring down the barrel of an attempt to remake Israel along autocratic, authoritarian, and racist lines. This is why, right now, I am feeling lucky to have our new president, Rachel Liel, standing by our side. Rachel lived in South Africa, where her husband served as Israel’s ambassador, during the fall of Apartheid; she is the former Executive Director of NIF in Israel.

And NIF has not arrived at this moment of crisis unprepared. When we were first targeted by the ultranationalist right-wing back in 2010 at the beginning of what our then-president Nomi Chazan correctly described as Israel’s “democracy recession,” we were caught by surprise. Up to that point, we thought of ourselves — and were viewed by most who knew about us — as a benign liberal foundation operating (relatively) quietly in the background of Israel’s civil society sector. We were unprepared for those early attacks, and often felt very much alone. 

We learned hard lessons over these difficult years. Thrust into the spotlight and accused of “undermining Israel” by the new authoritarians, we learned to proudly embrace our status as champions of an Israel that is a truly shared society, one that offers real and complete equality for all of its citizens. Few things made me prouder than when, after Mickey Gitzin, our Executive Director in Israel, urged Jewish Israelis to stand in solidarity with their Druze and Arab fellow citizens against the Nation State Law, Prime Minister Netanyahu posted on social media that Mickey “showed NIF’s true colors: they want a state for all its citizens.” That’s one thing that Netanyahu got right. 

These are intense times, and it has never been more necessary to do the work that we do. As I so often say these days: NIF was born for times like these.

Last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman joined our friends at Americans for Peace Now on their podcast to talk about the crossroads at which Israel finds itself, and what it means for the Jewish community. He said that the best thing American Jews can do in this moment to push back against Netanyahu’s anti-democratic campaign is to donate to the New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now, and other organizations working for equality, justice, and democracy. I happen to agree with him.